8 Leadership lessons from a Polar Explorer


A number of years ago, I attended the IABC conference in Hong Kong. Before I went, I had never heard of Sir Robert Swan, OBE but he was the first person to reach both the South and North Poles on foot.

I think the best keynotes give you a good story and good ideas. They should inspire and motivate. They aren’t usually full of ground-breaking material but they remind you of things you know and should do — but usually aren’t doing.

They should stick with you, and I’ve been thinking about this talk for over seven years already.

I know I’ll never walk to the South Pole, I hope I’ll never experience ice crystals in my underpants, I’ll probably never plan an expedition, but I am a leader. And Robert Swan’s keynote on leadership was riveting and not just on the subject of “shrinkage” in ultra cold temperatures.

Here the eight leadership lessons Robert Swans’s speech highlighted for me:

1  Show commitment.

When Robert Swan wanted to go to the South Pole so when he finished university he set out to raise $5 million US (this was in the early 1980s) to set up an expedition. Raising money wasn’t as easy as he expected as he had never been on an expedition before (heck he hadn’t even gone camping), but every day he got up and went out and worked at it.After five years and four letters to the great Jacques Cousteau, he finally got Cousteau’s support and an expedition was borne! But Swan didn’t just commit to raising money he had a promise to keep.

Jacques Cousteau’s support was based on the agreement that Swan and his team would take back everything they had brought and would leave no garbage. It sounds easy, except when Swan’s ship sank. His message, “If you say you are going to do something — do it.”

2  Pick people on your team who aren’t easy.

Swan talked about how fun it would have been to go with his four best friends but knew that the whole crew would have been dead in a week. His friends, while easy to get along with didn’t bring the skills the team needed. The crew he assembled included a man who didn’t speak and wore a tie every day (even in the Antarctic), a doctor who liked to experiment on his fellow team mates, and a man who seemed to be an eternal pessimist.

If you think your co-workers are strange, this team would drive just about anyone mad. His point was, and we all know this, it takes different ideas and sometimes difficult people to make things work.

3  Tell the truth and hear the truth.

So these five men went to the Antarctic. They were left by a ship that wouldn’t return for a year. In that year, three of them would walk to the South Pole. Robert talks about how the team needed to be honest with each other because there just wasn’t the space to deceive either yourself or others.

If you don’t admit the truth about yourself it is hard to move forward in any relationship.

4  Listen to each other.

Truly. Swan talked about being in this tiny room with five people who were from very different backgrounds and were going to be together for a year. If a hotel room in Tokyo is small, imagine putting five men and a year’s worth of gear in it!

“Too often,” he said, “We stop talking and listen for a few seconds, but then go back to thinking about what we are going to say next. To be a leader, you need to LISTEN.”

5  Laughter holds a team together.

Swan showed a picture of two men on two mountain bikes all decked out in survival suits. He said that, in the dead of winter, in the deepest darkness, his team, on a lark, rode their bicycles 300 km over to the US scientist station. The scientists at the other station were completely unaware that anyone else was even on the continent, when they got a knock on the door. After the confusion was sorted out the two teams shared some laughs.

Teams that work together of course have room for discussion and debate, but I’ve noticed the teams that get the most done, also find ways to make it fun.

6  Follow the leader.

The point of the mission was to walk to the South Pole. The way wasn’t marked with street signs and it wasn’t only covered in snow and ice. The inconvenience wasn’t that temperatures were minus 70 degrees Celsius — the real challenge was the 6,000 crevices in the snow any member could fall into. “And if you fall in one,” Swan said, “you die.” How do you make it through with a team of three? “You follow the route set by the leader.

You don’t have time for feedback sessions or the opportunity to call in a consultant; we had to cover 20 kilometres a day. So you trust the leader.”

7  Don’t rush.

Swan’s team made it to the South Pole and in addition to taking pictures, they tried to make the time to sit back to enjoy having been there. Swan said, “We tend to rush through all of life. But at the end what do you get? The end! Think of the people you listen to, they don’t rush. They are calm. They take time to listen.”

It’s not just a great leadership rule; it’s a great rule for being human.

8  When things go wrong — control what you can.

So the kicker of the story is that Swan’s ship sank five minutes before the expedition team arrived at the South Pole. “Of course you want to do everything in a crisis,” says Swan, “There’s this giant cloud of things to worry about. But I chose to just focus on the things I could control.”

It reminds me of the movie Rescue Dawn or this great article by Laurence Gonzales.

What next? After all this hardship and after body sores and ice in his underpants, what did Robert Swan do? He went to the North Pole. After he fulfilled his promise Jacques Cousteau gave him another mission — a 50-year mission. Cousteau asked Swan to help save the Antarctic when the treaties protecting it expire in 2041. Swan accepted, and that takes commitment. If you’d like to find out more about Swan’s mission visit http://www.2041.com/.

What are your lessons of leadership?