Rachael Robertson: Leadership Lessons From Antarctica

Rachael Robertson: Leadership Lessons From Antarctica

Rachael Robertson: Leadership Lessons From Antarctica

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Rachael Robertson, author of “Leading on the Edge” published by Wiley and available in bookstores across the country and through Rachael’s website www.rachaelrobertson.com.au. RRP $29.95.

One sunny Saturday morning, as I lazily read the weekend papers, an ad in the careers section caught my eye “Men and Women of Australia…ever wanted to work in Antarctica?”

Well no, I hadn’t. But it piqued my interest. They were recruiting specifically for experienced leaders for the role of Station Leader. In-depth knowledge of Antarctica wasn’t necessary (luckily for me as I’d been to the snow once in my life!). I’d been in leadership roles for 15 years so I decided to throw my hat in the ring. After an extensive recruitment process I won the job and accepted it deciding I’d rather regret what I did, than regret what I didn’t do.

My year leading the 58th Australian Research Expedition to Antarctica was full of drama: a plane crash, unexpected blizzards, months and months of darkness stuck inside with howling winds and no way in or out. These big things are in plain sight and you somehow manage your way through them. But my biggest challenges were over the smallest things, often hidden things. It was these that really taught me about being an effective leader.

I was very clear from the start of the expedition that I expected people to sort out interpersonal spats with each other, and only if they couldn’t resolve the issue should they come and involve me. We were to live cheek by jowl for a year in the most extreme workplace in the world. We would need the ability to have mature and direct conversations because inevitably we would start to get on each other’s nerves.

No Triangles

I had to protect myself from the emotional burden that goes with trying to sort out personal disagreements and issues in a workplace. Of course, the big exception to this rule is behaviour that involves bullying or harassment — that’s clearly an issue where a leader must step in and act decisively and immediately. However, for those everyday niggles that are common to every workplace the leader’s role is to coach people in how to address the issue themselves. So we adopted a practise called No Triangles.

The rule of No Triangles – the practise of only having direct conversations – built respect within my team and resulted in very high performance. We had a simple rule that went ‘I don’t speak to you about him, or you don’t speak to me about her.’

No Triangles, go direct to the source.

It’s a powerful tool that reduces conflict and clarifies accountability. It also shuts down “answer shopping” i.e. people who keep asking the same question and go over people’s heads, or around people, until they get the answer they want.

During the Antarctic winter, when interpersonal pressure increases and the focus turns from the work to the people, it’s even more crucial to have No Triangles. Personal conflicts are magnified in quieter periods, unlike the heady times where we often overlook or put aside another person’s annoying behaviour, during these times open and direct conversations are even more critical. Go direct to the source.

Find a reason to celebrate

Recognise milestones and important moments. If you don’t have one readily apparent then create one. Find a reason. 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.

Usually it was just a notice on the whiteboard in the dining hall but it was important to find the time to stop and celebrate. Because these moments create momentum. They give a sense of progress, moving forward and getting closer to our outcomes.

During long projects, or even times when it’s business as usual, an inspiring leader will find a reason to stop and salute even small accomplishments. Whether it’s with an event, a reward or a simple thank you, the acknowledgement and recognition will reaffirm their purpose and demonstrate progress, two of the most important motivational domains.

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?”

Not the project, not the tasks, but them – the person. People respond with commitment and loyalty when they know both they and their contribution is valued. To show people they are valued, check how they are travelling. Make it spontaneous and often. These moments will create momentum. 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.”

I’m often asked if I’d ever go back to Antarctica. I miss the place, I really do, and I have to stop myself getting on the webcam and looking at the station. That place has a tight hold on my heart, but my life is here now.

So would I go back?

No. I would not.

If I knew then what I know now, would I still have gone?


But, do I regret going?

Not for a heartbeat.

I’d rather regret what I did, than regret what I didn’t do.


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