The Four Things I Learned About Leadership In The Harshest Work Environment On Earth - Antarctica

The Antarctic winter is harsh. Temperatures hover around -35 degrees Celsius, there are constant blizzards, months of darkness, you can’t get in or out of the place and you don’t get to pick the people you live and work with.

Work becomes incredibly boring and your sense of purpose is sapped by the knowledge that nothing will change until the re-supply ship arrives, a distant nine months away.

It sounds extreme, but the reality is, every workplace has an Antarctic winter.

Every business has a period of time where the work slows down. Sometimes, whole nations face an Antarctic winter, whether it doubt over a debt ceiling or political upheaval, these times slow down confidence and mean that for some, work is just work.

In these times, more than ever, leaders must find ways to inspire their people and retain the best staff, ready for the inevitable upswing.

In Antarctica I used 4 tools to keep my team inspired, motivated and resilient through the long Antarctic winter.

1. No Triangles

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.

This practice of only having direct conversations built respect within my team and resulted in very high performance. It’s a powerful tool that reduces conflict and clarifies accountability.

Having “No Triangles” also ensures your time is spent dealing with issues that matter: those have the most impact on the organisation, not personal disputes that simply burn energy.

It also shuts down “answer shopping”, where people keep asking the same question and go over others’ heads, or around people, until they get the answer they want.

During the Antarctic winter, the equivalent of a long slog between project milestones, interpersonal pressures increase, and the focus can quickly turn from the work to the people.

In these situations 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.

Go direct to the source to build a culture of respect. 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.

2. Manage your Bacon Wars

A major dispute once threatened to shut down the station: Should the bacon be soft or crispy?

Every workplace has its own Bacon Wars: seemingly small, irrelevant issues that grate on people but build up until they become distractions and affect productivity.

It may be dirty coffee cups; people who are consistently late for meetings; or people playing on phones while someone is presenting. These appear to be small offences but are usually a symptom of a deeper issue.

Leaders must identify and probe their Bacon Wars. Find out what’s underneath and resolve it.

For us, it turned out the Bacon War was a manifestation of something deep and important: respect between two teams.

3. 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.

4. 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 you – 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.

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.”

More than ever, business leaders need to inspire teams through the dark times. The sun will eventually rise again but in the meantime keep your people motivated and resilient by taking care of the little things and turning moments into momentum.

Rachael Robertson led the 58th Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition to Davis Station. She was the second female ever to lead a team at the station, and one of the youngest ever leaders.

She spent 16 years in senior operational management roles prior to the Antarctic expedition and is now working in the field of leadership development.

Tomorrow, Business Insider Australia publishes an extract from her book, “Leading on the Edge”.

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