The Motivating Power Of Purpose: What Businesses Can Learn From The Early Antarctic Explorers

Brad Borkan

Executives around the world are increasingly embracing a new idea: Having a definable purpose for their enterprise is critical to success now and in the coming years. That purpose needs to go beyond increasing shareholder value.

A recent EY-sponsored survey found that executives who treated purpose as a core driver reported a greater ability to drive successful innovation. The challenge, of course, is identifying the organization’s purpose and instilling it in a way that resonates with all employees.

The business world can learn about purpose-driven enterprises from early Antarctic explorers like Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and Douglas Mawson. Leading expeditions in the early 1900’s, they were purpose-driven, with a specific focus on science, discovery, mapping coastlines and new lands, and planting a flag at the South Pole for national pride.

In our book, When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic, David Hirzel and I describe the hardships these early expeditions endured to achieve their purpose: hauling heavily laden sledges hundreds of miles across the ice, struggling with limited rations, and enduring temperatures as low as -77oF (-60oC), all while trying to survive bouts of snow blindness, scurvy, and frostbite and making life-and-death decisions. Yet despite these challenges, they achieved significant success.

There were four key reasons for this:

  1. Each expedition’s purpose was well-defined and well-articulated.
  2. Leaders led from the front.
  3. Collaboration and teamwork among the expedition members was essential and highly encouraged.
  4. Small and large teams alike had both a leader and a second-in-command (whether stated or simply understood by the team members).

Using the same concepts, executives and managers of today’s businesses can improve productivity and commitment by studying the early Antarctic explorers and learning how they infused purpose into every team member. The book deals with key themes like goal-setting, leadership, teamwork, decision-making, and succeeding against the odds. The last chapter, “What is your Higher Purpose?” speaks to the foundation of purpose and the critical role it plays in ensuring team success.

With a clear purpose, the explorers on these expeditions 100 years ago quite literally followed Shackleton and Amundsen to the ends of the earth. In a similar way, a clear definable purpose that resonates with all employees will help modern organizations achieve greater success today.

For more insight on effective leadership, see What All Good Leaders Know: Advice On Seeking Advice.

Brad Borkan

About Brad Borkan

Brad Borkan works in SAP Strategic Partner Marketing. He has a graduate degree in Decision Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania. Brad co-authored the book, When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and lectures internationally on early Antarctic exploration and its relevance to modern day decision making. His website is His book is available at