Launching a Collective Leadership Expedition

A Journey to Improve Leadership Processes

ARTICLE | Apr 27, 2018

By Ronald Wilde, ICMA-CM, and Phillip Messina

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman." — Captain Robert Falcon Scott, British Royal Navy officer and explorer, from the book Race to the End by Ross D.E. MacPhee

In 1911, during the heroic age of exploration, two expeditions set out to be first to reach the South Pole in Antarctica. This formidable destination required a long sea voyage, followed by a nearly 1,800-mile journey through ice and snowfields during the brief window of Antarctic summer. Here is a summary in italics of each attempt.

The explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott led the well-equipped British expedition. His intention was "to reach the South Pole and to secure for The British Empire the honour of this achievement."1

On November 1, 1911, a caravan of mixed transport groups (motorized sleds, dogs, and horses) with loaded sledges began the journey. All of this was designed to support a final group of four men who would make a dash for the pole. Scott's expedition averaged 11.5 to 13 miles per day measured by hours on the trail.

Thirty-four days later, on January 17, the Scott expedition reached the pole, dangerously late in the season. On the return trip in late March, the remaining members of the Scott expedition, exhausted and short of supplies, made their final camp during a blizzard. Tragically, they perished in their tents just 12 miles from a supply depot and 140 miles from base camp.

The other South Pole Expedition was led by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, a lesser-known explorer from the fledgling nation of Norway. Amundsen, a man of modest means and considerably less reputation, was—to his crew—the "Last of the Vikings."

Amundsen won the hearts of his team by defining the objective in a manner uncharacteristic for a time of great egos and hubris. He described it as not "his" but "ours" and spoke of their common goals and achievements.

In addition to his own experience, Amundsen studied the published accounts of other explorers, including failed expeditions. This led him to take a different approach. Amundsen chose members for his team who were practical and resourceful.

Equipment was carefully selected and prepared to adapt to the terrain. His team remained focused on its one goal: arrive at the pole and return; safely and intact.

On October 18, 1911, Amundsen's party left base camp with 19 men and 52 dogs. His team averaged over 15 miles per day as measured by navigational instruments.

On the afternoon of December 14, 1911, with Amundsen in the lead, there was a sudden cry. "Halt!" The sledges came to a stop. The race had been won. The Norwegian team had arrived more than a month earlier than Scott's team, giving the Amundsen team ample time for a safe return in the Antarctic summer.

Each of these expeditions believed they were amply prepared and equipped for the journey. Both were led by individuals often referred to as great leaders. How could the smaller Norwegian expedition prevail so spectacularly over the better known, better supplied British team?

Why did one succeed and the other fail? One answer lies in the leadership of each expedition.

Leadership Processes

Organizational leadership involves a series of actions or steps in order to achieve particular ends. According to professor and author John Kotter, "Leadership is a set of processes that creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances."2

There are many processes at work in an organization, including both leadership and management. What distinguishes a leadership process? Leadership processes focus on people. "You lead people, and you manage and control things."3

While management processes are about such topics as budgets, assets, and technology, leadership processes focus on changing human behavior. Management processes are often viewed as more essential for today's bottom-line oriented organizations in the for-profit sector.

Many, however, now hold the view that today's organizations are "over-managed and under-led."4 We maintain that leadership processes are more important for long-term, successful organizational change.

Leadership Process Example

Performance evaluations can be a valuable component of employee development and are intended to be a fair and balanced assessment of an employee's performance. They can be used as a basis for employment decisions (i.e., promotions, terminations), aid with communication, and clarify organizational expectations.

Many consider performance evaluations as a key tool for changing behavior. Because of these factors, the development and improvement of a performance evaluation system is a prime candidate for a leadership process.

Here is an example of a leadership process designed to improve employee performance evaluations in Irving, Texas:

  • The city of Irving (Chris Hillman, city manager), conducted an organization-wide survey that found nearly everyone had a problem with the city's performance evaluation system. There were numerous red flags, including evaluations that were late or inaccurate, varying interpretations of questions, overratings, poor documentation, and other factors. All of this pointed to the need for a new system to evaluate performance.
  • Rather than hire an outside adviser to develop a new system, the city decided to create a process using existing staff. Staff organized the project into three steps: develop goals, assess and update, and implement. Under developing goals, the first step was to admit there was a problem. The second was agreeing on how to approach the solution. This included focusing on current needs, removing potential "challenge points," and building mechanisms to support system goals.
  • Under assessment and update, one objective was to build a working task force within the organization. With the task force in place, the first step was to gather information. The second was to brief organizational leadership, and the third was to develop and evaluate alternatives. The last was to develop outcome measures.

Finally, the city needed to plan the implementation. This included:

  • Developing an alignment with existing technology and other current processes.
  • Starting the change with small departments.
  • Rehearsing to let employees who were unfamiliar test it through role playing.
  • Holding a kickoff event.
  • Beginning training and ensuring followup.

The process was much more complicated than described here, but this summary is intended to give an idea of how a leadership process could be planned and executed in an organization.

The benefits of doing this in-house became apparent early in the process. With extensive employee participation, the city was able to develop a unique system that worked for its organization. The revised process became a positive tool for employee development rather than a system to expose and evaluate employee weaknesses.5

Other subjects that lend themselves to leadership processes are:

  • Organizational leadership philosophy.
  • Employee development.
  • Succession planning.
  • Employee engagement.
  • Certain employee benefits.

A Collective Approach

Leadership processes are more successful the more people they involve. According to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "The best way to get access to, and use, internal talent and ideas for specific steps to implement reform is to get people from different parts of the organization working together outside their normal bureaucratic environment."6

Organizations that are serious about undertaking leadership processes should consider establishing an overarching committee like a leadership council (LC). The LCs task is to plan and oversee leadership change efforts through what we call a collective leadership expedition (CLE).

A leadership council in a local setting could include representatives from every department. The leader of the council should be someone who has direct access to the chief administrative officer (CAO), including an assistant CAO or a department director.

If the organization has a human resources department, a representative should be part of the council. The rest of the membership should periodically rotate so that other employees have an opportunity to participate.

An LC should start by conducting an extensive employee survey to gauge areas of strength or weakness that may need additional focus or change. The LC could then formulate goals and objectives along with alternative processes that might address needs.

Proposals could be "pitched" to the executive leadership team on an annual basis. Selected processes can then be executed by the LC through carefully planned CLEs. Depending upon the complexity of the issue and staff capabilities, the community may want to retain the services of an adviser to work with the LC.

Characteristics of Successful CLEs

The Amundsen Expedition is an example that can serve as a metaphor for a CLE. With one clear goal, he and his team organized the journey into small, short-term objectives that led to the larger goal. Amundsen's team had a better method of measuring progress that yielded precise locations.

On the other hand, Scott's expedition had other related scientific goals that took away from the overarching goal of reaching the South Pole. Scott's method for measuring progress used time on the trail that proved to be considerably less precise than Amundsen's navigation instruments.

Amundsen was able to put together a more capable team than Scott, which enabled the Norwegians to reach their goal. Every member of Amundsen's team was aware of the objective and knew his individual role.

Amundsen shared his knowledge and expertise with his team. Each member spent more time in preparation. Conversely, Scott was less inclined to share information with his team. The roles expected of each member were not clear and there was less preparation time.

Amundsen thoroughly observed and catalogued his own experiences on various expeditions. He also carefully studied previous expeditions to learn from their successes and mistakes. Amundsen was not afraid to challenge conventional thought and use new ideas.

He respected the culture and methods used by native peoples who lived in arctic climates. Amundsen's preparation included allotting time to make adjustments based on the conditions encountered.

Scott's team persisted in using methods and machines that were untested in the Antarctic environment and less reliable. He was less inclined to respect the knowledge of natives and was not as flexible in making needed adjustments based upon changing conditions.

To execute successful collective leadership expeditions, we can take a page from the Amundsen expedition:

  • The goal and objective should be clear.
  • Success should be defined and precise measurements identified.
  • The process should be refined into smaller, achievable goals.
  • Selection and involvement of teams is fundamental to success.
  • The previous experience of other similar projects should be carefully reviewed.
  • Conventional wisdom should be challenged.
  • The ability to make adjustments based upon conditions encountered should be built into the process.

Prepare, Plan, Execute

CLEs require objective, capable teams and ample preparation. Because of the need to be inclusive, they often take considerable time to plan and execute. They can, however, in many cases, be more successful in fostering long-term change than quicker management initiatives.

They also offer additional benefits to an organization besides fostering change. Some of these include:

  • Growing, capturing, and harnessing the organization's collective knowledge, wisdom, and creativity.
  • Preparing future leaders and building a leadership "bench."
  • Creating a culture of collaboration and inclusion.

When facing challenges that require change, organizations should carefully consider whether a collective leadership expedition might be the more effective approach. Perhaps the best clue lies within the human dynamics of a challenge. If it centers on the need to change behavior, a CLE may prove to be the better choice.

Endnotes and Resources

1 Ross D.E. MacPhee, Race to the End, Sterling Publishing, New York, 2010, p. 3.

2 John P. Kotter, Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 1996, p. 25.

3 Stephen Covey, The 8th Habit, Free Press, 2004, p. 101.

4 John P. Kotter, Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 1996, p. 30.

5 Evaluating Performance Evaluations, Presentation by City of Irving, Texas, and City of Frisco, Texas, for the 2016 Texas City Management Conference, June 2016.

6 Robert M. Gates, A Passion for Leadership, Knopf, New York, 2016, p. 65.

Ronald Wilde, ICMA-CM, is city administrator, Jonestown, Texas (, and Phillip Messina, Duval, Washington (, has served as a manager in Oregon and Washington.


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