I am a sustainability and climate change...
Although leadership is taught at more institutions and is the subject of more books and articles than ever before, we live in a world where our leaders are chastised for demonstrating a distinct lack of it. The issue is that it is far easier to preach the theory than it is to put that theory in to practice because the key ingredient that cannot be taught is passion, passion for a cause or goal.
It’s passion that results in a person wanting to rise to the challenge of trying to achieve a goal and taking others on that journey. So there is much that can be learnt from practical expeditions that can be applied to leadership in the corporate or policy environment: from clarity of purpose, to adaptability, to a perspective on risk.
Conceiving and undertaking extreme expeditions to some of the world’s most remote places requires great teamwork and a great amount of vision. Organisationally, the emphasis is on achieving outcomes rather than simply participating in a process. You pare down the planning to the point where there are no excess process-based steps. Every meeting, every piece of equipment, everything you do has to have a purpose or it gets discarded. You need a lot of detail to keep you going for 50 days in -25 to -30°C.
It is something many process-based organisations could learn from, not least the international roadshows on climate change and international trade where lack of a clear vision and a focus on what the intended outcomes are has meant painfully slow progress.
Taking risks is supremely important – because, to progress, mankind relies upon adventurous souls taking risks. This spirit of adventure lies at the heart of artistic self-expression, advances in science, medicine and politics, the growth of a business or the need to climb mountains or walk to the poles to discover what lies within. In expedition terms this is akin to a leader going first to determine the strength of a snow bridge over a deep crevasse before asking others to cross it.
My next expedition will attempt to recreate the epic 1915 journey of one of the leadership greats: Sir Ernest Shackleton. His leadership is perhaps best defined by his ability to work towards big goals unrelentingly, but also to be flexible enough to know when they were no longer achievable, accept this, adjust and pursue his new goal with the same dedication and conviction as the unachievable original.
When Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea, hundreds of kilometres from the start of what was to have been his finest achievement in making the first land crossing of Antarctica, he accepted his changed circumstances and turned his attention northward. Eventually, he and five others travelled 1,300km across the Southern Ocean in one of the ship’s lifeboats, a journey Sir Edmund Hilary described as the greatest survival story of all time, before they were able to mount a rescue of the remaining men.
Little imagination is required to see parallels between this and the piecemeal response to our global financial crisis. Acceptance of its magnitude and decisive action taken earlier may have averted some of the consequences we now face. What we see is that many of Shackleton’s qualities and skills are as relevant now as they were then, perhaps more so.
I believe many of us have the raw materials to be good leaders: integrity, determination, level-headedness, decisiveness, compassion and good communication skills. Much can be taught or refined over time, all except that key ingredient – passion.