Books and articles that matter
By Dean Andy Boynton
Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth (Athenaeum, 1986) is as much a case study in a knowledge professional’s commitment to lifelong learning as it is a chronicle of the competition between Norwegian Roald Amundsen and British Naval officer Robert Falcon Scott to reach the South Pole.
The book captured my attention when I was running the Executive MBA Program at the International Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland. In addition to being a great read, it struck me as remarkably relevant to educating students and knowledge professionals today. Amundsen’s zeal for learning by experience spanned his lifetime and was crucial to both his 1911 Antarctic victory and his success as a leader. A master learner and eternal student, he embodied key traits all business schools should instill in their students—qualities leaders should cultivate in their colleagues.
Amundsen apprenticed himself to different knowledge experts—explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Adrian de Gerlach and “Arctic skippers” from Norway—to prepare for a career in polar exploration. He was also one of the first Europeans to acknowledge the experiential wisdom held by indigenous peoples, and sought out Greenland’s local Eskimos to learn how to survive the harsh Arctic weather. From studying diets to prevent scurvy to analyzing a failed leader’s management style, Amundsen paid close attention, even when he didn’t have an immediate application for what he was observing.
While the British team was better funded and hailed from an empire well versed in discovery, Amundsen’s breadth of knowledge and keen interpersonal skills gave him the competitive advantage: He adapted old and invented new technologies, and led a crew of fellow Norwegians, all Arctic experts, to the South Pole. (He originally hoped to “conquer” the North Pole, but reports that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary beat him to it resulted in a last-minute change of travel plans from the Arctic to the Antarctic.)
Great business schools must strive to mold students to become lifelong learners like Amundsen. The combination of curriculum, faculty contact, advising, and school environment must create students with an appetite and skills to learn for life. I used to think that interesting people were the most successful in life. Now I am convinced that it is the most interested people who become great leaders and successful professionals. Whether student or administrator, each of us has the capacity to learn from life’s experiences. As Amundsen’s tale attests, a life of planned, deliberate, and active learning produces powerful results.