Why You Should Amplify Your Amundsens and Dampen Your Shackletons

These studies show our predisposition to see leadership potential in babblers, braggarts, and busybodies, regardless of their actual contribution, competence, or capability. If we do nothing, we risk creating organizations where blustery, arrogant, and impulsive leaders fill the ranks. But there are ways to find and amplify the adept Amundsens and reduce the influence of swashbuckling Shackletons.

In this episode, we introduce you to two polar explorers that vividly illustrate our tendency to see leadership potential in babblers, braggarts, and braggarts regardless of their actual competence. We share several ways you can bring things back into balance, separating actual effectiveness from the noise, whether you’re the quiet high-performer or the leader trying to build an effective team.

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Episode transcription

Peter Green

If you are extroverted, talkative, highly self-confident, and appear perpetually busy, we have good news for you: you are more likely to be perceived as having leadership potential!

Richard Lawrence

Research suggests you’re more likely to get noticed, mentored, promoted, and rewarded, regardless of whether your talkativeness adds value, whether your confidence is justified by expertise, or whether your busyness achieves important outcomes.


Why are louder, more confident people often rewarded at work despite their potential lack of effectiveness? And what can we do about it? That’s the topic of this week’s episode of the Humanizing Work Show, a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work Company.


Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and consulting in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work

If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on humanizingwork.com to schedule a conversation.


We first encountered this research in a TEDx talk called “Why do we celebrate incompetent leaders?” by historian Martin Gutmann. He described how the most celebrated polar explorer of his time, Ernest Shackleton tried and spectacularly failed twice to reach the South Pole, and never attempted any of the other major polar exploration goals at the time, like reaching the North Pole or navigating the Northwest Passage.


In contrast, Shackleton’s contemporary, Roald Amundsen, is rarely mentioned. Amundsen was quiet, even stealthy, in his expeditions. He successfully navigated the Northwest Passage from 1903 to 1906 and was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911.

Amundsen’s meticulous planning and years of practice in polar exploration made his expeditions almost boring. For example, he reached the South Pole on day 100 of his 1911 expedition, just one day later than his 99-day plan.


Shackleton, on his second failed attempt to reach the South Pole, became legendary for his heroic efforts to rescue his crew after their ship, The Endurance, was trapped in ice. This dramatic story has been retold in numerous books, documentaries, films, and even a BBC audio reenactment. We love drama, right?


Amundsen’s quiet expertise, on the other hand, has received little fanfare despite his record of achievements. Is this an outlier? Not according to the research.

A study led by Neil MacLaren that was published in the September 2020 issue of the journal “Leadership Quarterly” found that people who speak more in group settings are viewed as better leaders, regardless of what they say. Mindless babblers may be seen as better contributors than they actually are.


Another study by Cameron Anderson from Berkeley and Gavin Kilduff from NYU showed that people who seem confident are viewed as better leaders, regardless of their competence. Arrogant braggarts may be perceived as more competent than they actually are.


Finally, Harvard Business School professor Thomas Delong published an HBR article in 2011 called “The Busyness Trap,” showing that people who always appear busy are viewed as better leaders, regardless of what they are busy doing. Scurrying busybodies may be seen as more capable of getting work done than they actually are.


Together, these studies show our predisposition to see leadership potential in babblers, braggarts, and busybodies, regardless of their actual contribution, competence, or capability. If we do nothing about this, we risk creating organizations where blustery, arrogant, and impulsive leaders fill the ranks. But there are ways to find and amplify the adept Amundsens and reduce the influence of swashbuckling Shackletons.

For individuals who embody quiet, effective leadership, we have one key piece of advice. And, for leaders and managers, there are three crucial strategies for hiring, promoting, and amplifying the right kind of leadership.


First, if you are an Amundsen-style leader, you need to tell your story. Being quiet, humble, and calm does not automatically indicate effective leadership. Effective leaders share a strong purpose and vision, enrolling people in making progress towards that vision. They create outcomes that matter.

If you are creating meaningful outcomes but feel unnoticed, you might be hiding your light under the proverbial bushel. While your humility likely contributes to your effectiveness, it’s important to share your accomplishments. You might write an experience report and share it on an internal communication tool. You might submit it to an industry conference. You might contact us, at mailbag@humanizingwork.com, and let us feature your achievements on an episode of the Humanizing Work Show.


If you are a leader or manager looking to promote the right kind of leadership, here is our advice for hiring, promoting, and otherwise amplifying that right style of leadership.

First, when you are hiring, ask questions that filter out babblers, braggarts, and busybodies. Focus on behavioral interview questions that reveal attributes indicating actual contribution to effective teamwork and productivity. Check out Episode 39 on Hiring for how to do that. Ensure you conduct thorough reference checks, and use real-world simulations to observe candidates in action.


When considering promotions, actively seek out and promote the quietly effective Amundsens. Look for leaders who consistently improve things, who reduce surprises, who create outcomes without drama. They build systems that don’t require heroics to succeed. So, identify the reliable systems and the people who always deliver.

Promoting that kind of leader sends a clear message about the type of leadership valued in your organization.


And finally, Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools a leader has at their disposal. The stories you choose to tell in all-hands meetings, team meetings, and one-on-ones send a strong culture signal about what matters. Consider how you communicate internally and externally and the message it sends about what behaviors and attributes are rewarded. Highlight the accomplishments of those quietly effective leaders, celebrate their examples in internal communications, reward them for building sustainable systems, and amplify their successes through storytelling to create a culture that values substance over showmanship.


It may be human nature to admire the Shackletons, but we don’t have to build cultures that amplify them. If you’re an Amundsen, be a little louder and more confident. If you’re a leader, pay particular attention to how you hire, promote, and send culture signals. The more you celebrate quiet excellence, the less likely you’ll need brave heroics to get you out of the chaos.

Thanks for tuning in.

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