What can an Antarctic expedition teach you about leadership?

Learn how to better communicate in times of crisis, establish a culture of respect, and inspire and value others from Rachael Robertson, one of the youngest expedition leaders and the second female to ever lead a group to Davis Station.

Rachael Robertson was a chief ranger of the Great Ocean Road and was responsible for managing a team of 54 when she saw an ad in the paper that pique her interest. It read, “Men and Women of Australia, ever wanted to work in Antarctica?” She threw her hat in the ring and successfully led 17 strangers in the wilderness of Antarctica for more than a year, with no escape from the cold, arctic winds, and each other. Drawing from her experience leading in the world’s most extreme environment, Rachel’s since penned “Leading on the Edge,” and works as an international speaker and has consulted for NAB, IBM and Myer.

Here she shares her tips and strategies so you can get the best out of your team and lead them to success:

  1. Communicate clearly when crisis strikes

Every leader will encounter a difficult period when things get tough. It may be a financial crisis, a merger, a natural disaster, or a product recall. For me, it was a plane crash. A bolt sheared off the landing gear of one of our planes, crashing it and leaving four of my team stranded about 500 kilometres away. The team was safe and had plenty of food on-board, but there was a blizzard closing in. We couldn’t mount the search-and-rescue with our other plane until we had ruled out a mechanical malfunction. Two stranded planes would have been catastrophic!

I had to continue normal operations on station and it taught me an enormous amount about crisis leadership. I’ve learned the role of the leader remains the same, no matter what the crisis is, here's what you have to make sure you do:

  • Keep visible: Be seen about the place. It’s natural to want to hunker down with your leadership team and manage and plan details but you need to be front and centre. It’s not enough to be leading, you need to be seen to be leading.
  • Verbal Palette: Choose your words with care - during the plane crash I spoke about a retrieval, not a rescue. I had “concerns” but I wasn’t “worried”. Different words convey different emotional messages.
  • Composure: Make sure your body language mirrors your optimism. Carry yourself confidently and it will instil confidence in those around you.
  • Communicate: Share all available information whenever possible. If you don’t send regular updates people will fill in the gaps themselves, and often these gap fillers are worse than the reality.

    2.    Establish a culture of respect

When I first started I was told by a former station leader that Antarctic wasn’t the place for consensus or democratic decision-making. But I didn’t buy that. I knew if we worked hard and implemented some basic rules we could build a great team based on mutual respect and professional courtesy. I did it by using the practice of No Triangles, which means people go direct to the source to build a culture of respect instead of going 'answer shopping' and gossiping to others.

It resulted in a great amount of team respect and very high performance. Once your culture is set the way you want it, you can chose the most appropriate leadership response, be it a democratic approach, delegation or command and control. It’s the people and the way they behave that will let this happen.

    3.   A good leader values their team

A good leader inspires people. Yet inspiration isn’t about having a big personality or charisma, it’s about creating moments. It's these memorable moments can help you connect with your team and show them that you value them:

  •  Find a reason to celebrate: Recognise milestones and important moments. If you don’t have one readily apparent, find one. In Antarctica we celebrated big events, but also the smaller successes such as a month without a power blackout, significant scientific data collection or uninterrupted internet access with a fully functioning server. During long projects or even when it’s business as usual an inspiring leader will find a reason to stop and salute even small accomplishments. This will reaffirm a person’s purpose and show progress.
  • Check-in on people: As you receive reports and updates on projects take a moment to check-in on people and ask, “Are you OK?” People respond with commitment and loyalty when they know both they and their contribution is valued. As Maya Angelou put it so succinctly, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

    4. Identify your Bacon Wars before they turn into disputes

One of the most challenging factors for small business owners is that small issues can become huge very quickly. Business owners need to put their energy and time where it counts - generating cash flow - yet they often find themselves caught up in every little interpersonal dispute because they lack the corporate structure to handle personnel issues.

In Antarctica we had the Bacon War, a major dispute threatened to shut down the station arose from the question: Should the bacon be soft or crispy?

Every workplace has their Bacon Wars. They are seemingly small, irrelevant issues that grate on people, but build up until they become distractions and lower productivity. It may be dirty coffee cups; people who are consistently late for meetings; people playing on phones while someone is presenting. They appear to be small offences, but in reality they are usually a symptom of a deeper issue, often around respect.

Small business owners must identify and probe their Bacon Wars and then try resolve them once and for all.

     5. Take risk, if it turns out to be a mistake, learn from it 

Very few decisions in life are irreversible – so make some! Always look out for opportunities. If you make the jump and you realise it was a mistake then make another decision. Very few decisions are irreversible.

Adventure is not without risk and not every opportunity is worth taking and some are so good that we would be mad not to pursue them. But the hardest decisions are those where the risk and reward are both high and finely balanced. Before taking a risk, ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could happen to you, your relationships, your finances? and then ask, "Could I live with that?”

    6. Switch off

As a small business owner I know it’s hard to switch off, yet it’s critical. One of the tools I used in Antarctica was to write in a journal each night. This reflection improved my leadership because I critically assessed how well I handled things, and if I could I have done that better. This helped improve my sleep, which in turn improved my resilience.

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