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Reaching that goal, one mile at a time

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in Leaders & Managers,Team Building

In 1911, two teams of adventurers were preparing to be the first people in modern history to reach the South Pole. The ­leaders of each team, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, were of a similar age and had comparable experience.

But one team, Amundsen’s, reached the destination. The other team failed.

What made the difference? Their approaches are visible through their diary entries.

One example: On Dec. 12, 1911, Amundsen and his team were 45 miles from the South Pole. He had no way of knowing the whereabouts of Scott’s team.

The weather had turned clear and calm, and conditions were perfect for making a final push by ski or sled to the bottom of the Earth. He wrote in his diary, “Going and surface as good as ever. Weather splendid—calm with sunshine.”

The team had already journeyed 650 miles over mountain terrain. Imagine how tempting it would have been to make that final 24-hour push.

Instead, Amundsen did what he’d done throughout the journey: He aimed to travel between 15 and 20 miles that day, then stop to allow the team to rest and prepare for the next day. He never ventured beyond 20 miles per day, even when conditions were good, yet pressed the team to make some progress when faced with poor conditions.

In contrast, Scott drove his team to exhaustion on good-weather days, then sat in his tent on foul-weather days.

On one such foul day, Scott wrote in his diary, “I doubt if any party could travel in such weather.” But on an even worse weather day, Amundsen wrote, “It has been an unpleasant day—storm, drift and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal.”

Extraordinary leaders sustain a steady pace to reach their goals. By focusing on the “20-mile march,” a leader stays focused—despite out-of-control forces, uncertainty or temptation. And everyone on the team knows where the markers are, so they can stay on track.

— Adapted from Great By Choice, Jim Collins.

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