Information is power. Diversity is strength. Complacency is death. Some aphorisms about leadership and teamwork get repeated endlessly, and yet they still seem abstract — especially within the safe, temperature-controlled confines of cubicles, conference rooms, and airport departure lounges. But for Robert Swan, a modern-day explorer and environmentalist, such aphorisms have a vivid immediacy — perhaps because he learned them under some of the most extreme conditions in the world. The first person to walk to both the North Pole and the South Pole, Swan understands — deeply, personally, and urgently — what it means to set goals, to take risks, and to succeed when success doesn't just seem like a matter of life or death. Having navigated the largely uncharted territory of the Arctic and the Antarctic, Swan now helps businesspeople at such companies as Merrill Lynch, Frito-Lay, and IBM to navigate the uncharted territory of the new economy. Swan has become one of the world's top motivational speakers, yet his work with the business community doesn't stop when the auditorium lights come on. His most recent project involves taking executives and other businesspeople on sailing expeditions to the South Pole, where they learn firsthand about principles of leadership, teamwork, and communication — and about the environmental problems facing not only Antarctica, but the entire world.
Lots of leaders say that they understand the power of sharing information as widely as possible. Swan has built expeditions around that principle. "In my business," he says, "if only one person in a group knows how to navigate, and he or she gets sick, we're going to get lost. So somebody else on the team has to understand navigation and to work with the navigator. And at the South Pole, there aren't any signposts. If you miss the pole by five miles, you won't ever know it's there."
Lots of leaders claim to understand that success in a demanding, fast-changing world requires persistence as well as brilliance. Swan, now 43, embodies that principle. "It's all very well to have a dream," he says. "But eventually you've got to make that dream a reality. I started by saying, 'I'm going to walk to the South Pole' — and at the time, I'd never even been camping! But, like any other 20-year-old, I thought I could raise $5 million in a few months and then head off to the Antarctic. The reality was that it took seven years to raise that money — seven years of working as a taxi driver, a tree cutter, a gardener, and a hotel dishwasher. But I hung on to my dream. Personal leadership — the belief that I could make something happen — is the key to my story."
To the Bottom of the Earth
It was on his first expedition to Antarctica, in 1986, that Swan learned about some of the factors that ensure a project's success. He and his fellow explorers, Gareth Wood and Roger Mear, set off on foot on an 883-mile trek from Ross Island to the South Pole. Their "unassisted" journey — they were without dogs, radios, or any other means of communication with the rest of the world — took them through a place that can be described only with superlatives. Swan has called Antarctica "the last wilderness." It has also been called "the most forbidding place on Earth" and "the highest, darkest, driest, coldest, and windiest continent on the planet." A desert as dry as Death Valley, inland Antarctica is a place where it never rains and where it almost never snows. The continent measures 14.25 million square kilometers (5.5 million square miles) — that's almost twice the size of Australia — but it has a year-round population of only about 1,200.
Swan's goal — an obsession since he was 11 years old — was to follow the route taken by Robert Falcon Scott. In 1912, while attempting to be the first explorer to reach the South Pole, Scott had arrived three weeks after a Norwegian team and had then either frozen or starved to death on his return journey. To honor Scott's memory, Swan wanted to replicate that trip — without having it end in failure and tragedy.
For Swan, Wood, and Mear, survival hinged on, among other things, trusting one another absolutely. One test of trust arose roughly 6,000 times — whenever it was necessary to cross a crevasse. "You'd have two or three feet of snow above an opening that's several hundred feet deep," remembers Swan. "If you've got 6,000 of these suckers to cross in 900 miles, you can't have a review session and start giving feedback every time you encounter one. This is the time to trust. We took turns being in front, and whoever was leading chose the route we took. The other two followed unconditionally. If we had stopped every time to have a five-minute debate, we'd still be there now."
Crevasse by crevasse, Swan and his teammates forged ahead, basing their decisions about where to cross in part on the color of the snow — and in part, says Swan, on "instinct, practice, and luck." Crevasses did not pose the only obstacle. Other dangers included the threat of faulty or damaged equipment and the possibility of injury, dehydration, or starvation. Swan and his teammates dragged their supplies on sleds that weighed 353 pounds at the beginning of their trek. (The men would lose 50 pounds each before it was over.) Even so, they carried only enough food for 70 days — which meant that arriving at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on time was critical.
"You don't have to be Einstein to figure out that going almost 900 miles in 70 days means maintaining an average of almost 13 miles a day," Swan says. "If you do half a mile less every day, then you've done 35 miles less by the end of the journey, and making up those 35 miles could take you three days. What happens if you run out of food with three days left? You're dead. The bottom line in my business is that if you make a mistake in anything, you die."
Swan and his teammates didn't die. In fact, they arrived at the South Pole five days ahead of schedule. Instead of retreating to his native England to rest on his laurels, Swan realized at the completion of this trip that he had a new purpose — and that he faced a new set of challenges. "What happened to us on that journey changed our lives completely," Swan says. "My eyes changed color. They used to be dark blue, and now they're light blue, and looking at bright lights is quite difficult for me. Our faces just blistered out, and our skin continued to peel right off our faces for months.
"We had not read about that sort of thing happening in the history books," he continues. "Then, when we got home, we were told that we had spent 70 days walking under this thing called a hole in the ozone layer. I'd never heard of it. But when you've experienced it firsthand — when you've had your face torched off — you take the information more seriously than you otherwise might."
Swan became deeply interested in, and deeply committed to, environmental issues — an interest and a commitment that were motivated not just by the destruction of the ozone layer but also by the waste and pollution that he had encountered on his journey. "It's so cold and dry in the Antarctic that nothing rots or disappears," Swan says. "It's frozen history."
That meant that 74 years after Robert Falcon Scott and his men had died, the hut that had served as their base camp at McMurdo stood exactly as they had left it — complete with baking powder and bottles of vinegar set on tables, and socks left out to dry. Outside the hut, a dead husky lay in the snow. "The more we became involved in the Antarctic, the more we saw that there was a bigger picture," Swan says. "The dead dog was a sign of how anything that we left there today would still be there 75 years from now. We began to feel that maybe we could use our story to help preserve this extraordinary place that we were visiting." Dead animals and the supplies of past explorers were not all that Swan and his teammates found on their trek: "Rich, powerful nations have left thousands of tons of rubbish from their scientific stations," he says.
Instead of feeling disillusioned by what he saw, Swan found that his passion for polar exploration was undiminished. But his earlier, more ego-driven interest in setting records was now supplanted by a new goal that was, in its own way, just as lofty and far more urgent: He wanted to save the world. And he was going to start by saving Antarctica. "We need to leave just one place on Earth alone," he says.
Swan decided to distinguish his environmental activism by offering something that he wasn't seeing much of: optimism. "No one is inspired by the negative," he says. The problem is not lack of awareness, he argues — it's lack of inspiration. "Most people are not stupid," Swan says. "They know that there are huge changes going on in our world. On TV, they can see temperature problems, floods, climate records broken every five minutes. But it's such a big issue, and so terrifying, that most people can't register what's going on. It's too much. There's a process, a journey to be made along a certain path, but at the moment, they're confused or discouraged or switched off. My job is to inspire them — to get them to believe that the journey is possible, by showing them small, achievable steps."
Swan's second major expedition, in 1989, was to the North Pole — making him the first person to walk to both poles. But receiving personal acclaim wasn't his primary focus. Underlying the trip were two other goals: working to preserve the polar regions, and doing so through a global effort. Driven by the latter goal, Swan gathered a team consisting of eight people from seven nations. The team included a German, a Japanese, a Russian, an Australian, a fellow Brit, an African-American, and an Inuit.
"I wanted to write a little piece of history," he admits. "But I also wanted to do something with it. There was no point in me standing there with the Union Jack saying, 'Well, I've done it now.' Time had moved on." Along with creating a diverse team of explorers, Swan arranged for 22 adolescents and young adults from 15 countries to come to the Arctic and to stay at the base camp, where they could conduct scientific research and create educational programs about the expedition.
But, proving that even the best-laid plans do indeed go awry, the expedition became a horror story. The temperature rose — from minus-30 degrees Celsius to minus-5 degrees (from minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit to plus-23 degrees) — and the ice cap began to melt beneath the explorers' feet. Swan and his team were 700 miles away from land. "It's supposed to melt in August, and this was in April," he says. "Never in recorded Arctic history had the ice cap melted in April. Obviously, that was another sign of environmental change. But at the time, our problem was how to stay alive, because we were beyond rescue of any type."
For 40 hours at a time, the team traveled through constant daylight, often making little headway. Because the ice was so broken up, they could walk for 10 or 15 miles and still have gone north only 100 yards. Even worse, they might go north 10 miles, sleep for a few hours, and then drift back to the point where they had started 40 hours earlier. Some people found themselves up to their waists in near-freezing water, some hallucinated, some sustained serious injuries. Darryll Roberts, the American on the trip, lost the heel of one foot when it simply fell off in his sock.
"What I learned as a leader is that you don't bullshit people under hostile circumstances. You tell them the truth," Swan says. "It was unreal — the efforts that we made to help each other. People were carrying one another's weight when they could hardly carry themselves. It was a final test of teamwork and leadership, based on all that we'd talked about and practiced. We came through it — barely — and the reason was that we'd learned to work as a team."
Once again, despite the enormous difficulties that he had encountered, Swan refused to give up his habits of exploration — or his efforts to draw attention to environmental problems. Instead, he further expanded those efforts to include young people.
Back in 1987, while receiving an award from the Explorers Club in New York, Swan used his acceptance speech to make a rather controversial point. "I said, 'I've taken your Explorers Club flag to the South Pole, I'm taking it to the North Pole, it's been to the top of Mount Everest — it's been everywhere,' " Swan recounts. " 'But when did it last visit Harlem? And I notice that there aren't too many black faces in the audience.' There was dead silence. I thought, 'Oh my God, I've really blown it this time.'
"The next morning, the president of the Explorers Club rang me up and said, 'You've embarrassed us, Robert.'
"I said, 'I'm sorry. I'll send your flag back.'
"He said, 'No, no, no. You've embarrassed us into actually taking some action here. We at the Explorers Club will sponsor you to do a series of lectures to young people in Harlem. You're right. It's crazy that our flag has been everywhere on Earth, but it hasn't been to Harlem, just a few miles down the road.' " It was during the lecture series that followed that Swan found Darryll Roberts, whom Swan sees as a role model for both black and white young people. (Swan points out that when Admiral Robert Peary conducted his famous expedition to the North Pole in 1909, his next-in-command was a black man, Matthew Henson.)
The reason for Swan's interest in teens and twentysomethings was, and continues to be, simple: They are tomorrow's decision makers. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, promulgated in 1991, establishes Antarctica "as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science." In 2041, the protocol will come up for review. "My job in life is very clear," Swan says. "It's to make sure that in 2041, there are enough people in the nations that have signed the protocol who will stand up and say, 'No bloody way are we going to allow this place to be destroyed.' " Toward that end, Swan — who was appointed a special envoy to the director general of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994 — leads young people on expeditions that focus on research and on raising environmental awareness. "We want to give them skills to go home and to cross the borders created by hate, violence, and bigotry," Swan says. "So we train them in how to speak in public, how to raise money, how to make a TV or radio program, how to use the Internet and email — and some of them have never even seen a computer!"
In 1996, Swan helped UNESCO celebrate its 50th anniversary by spearheading an expedition by 35 young people to the South Pole. He matched up people from historically divided backgrounds — an Israeli and a Palestinian, for example, or a Yugoslavian Muslim and a Bosnian Croat. Now in their teens and twenties, these young men and women will be in their fifties and sixties when the Protocol on Environmental Protection comes up for review — and, if Swan's hopes are realized, they will be the ones who renew that agreement.
To the Top of the Business Agenda
By 1992, Swan had spread his message to a wide range of nationalities and age groups, but he had overlooked one crucial segment of the population: businesspeople. In June of that year, while he was speaking at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. "I saw all the world leaders there, and I thought, 'Great,' " he says. "I saw all the environmentalists there, and I thought, 'Marvelous.' But still, I said, "This is a waste of time because industry isn't here.' Business has the power to change things — and maybe looking after our world is the biggest business opportunity on Earth."
After the Earth Summit, Swan began reaching out to business executives, and before long he was speaking to corporate audiences worldwide. His presentations are intentionally low-tech: It's just Swan, a Kodak Carousel slide projector, and dozens of dazzling images of icebergs, ocean, mountains, and snow. ("People say that the lecture makes them cold," he laughs.) He can afford to score low on style because the substance is so compelling. He offers a riveting tale of enormous ambition and success, peppered with episodes of disappointment and difficulty — including the sinking of a ship and the never-ending challenge of raising money to fund expeditions. "I'm not some sort of asshole standing there saying, 'This is how to sort your life out,' " Swan says. "I simply try to get people to see that changes are possible, that they are not negative, and that they might even affect the bottom line positively."
John L. Steffens, a vice chairman of Merrill Lynch, one of the companies that Swan has given presentations to, believes that the explorer's message is indeed inspirational. "What he's accomplished is unbelievable," Steffens says. "It's not just the feat of reaching the poles — it's all of the dedication that it took to raise money and to do what everybody told him couldn't be done."
What should businesspeople take away from Swan's story? "First," says Steffens, "businesspeople need genuine vision and commitment — the same kind of dedication and drive as Swan has displayed on his expeditions. Second, Swan created a real team model. He worried less about whether people would fit together than about picking people who were experts in particular areas, and then he built the camaraderie. Third, he showed unbelievable integrity. On the Antarctic trip, when the ship sank, cleaning up all the garbage was a real inconvenience — some team members had to stay on for another year — but he was committed to it. Fourth, he's taking all kinds of kids on his trips, and that's a wonderful addition to the program."
Finally, says Steffens, Swan's ability to maintain his poise and direction amid constantly changing circumstances is a required skill for navigating the new world of business. "Swan is somebody who, on an almost daily basis, has had to change his strategy," Steffens says. "The concept of maintaining a positive view — of being in control rather than being fearful of things around you — is really excellent."
For hardy business adventurers who would like to go one step further than listen to Swan recount his stories, the explorer offers employees of his corporate sponsors the opportunity to sail to Antarctica and to experience firsthand both the surreal beauty and the horrifying environmental problems of the South Pole. "To talk about the problems is a waste," Swan says. "I've got to show people the problems." Swan's efforts now center on what he calls Mission Antarctica. In essence, it is a five-year project to assist the Russian clean-up of the Bellingshausen Base, in Antarctica.
This December, the fourth corporate expedition will set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina. The composition of the crew is not yet set, but past crews have included executives such as an account consultant from Standard Life Assurance Co., one of Europe's largest mutual-assurance companies, and a marketing consultant from Cable and Wireless PLC, a London-based telecommunications giant.
Jeremy Topple, a training consultant for BUPA, a London-based health-care provider with 42,000 employees, left from Ushuaia in January 1999, crossed the nausea-inducing Drake Passage, stopped at King George Island, and then proceeded to the Antarctic Peninsula. Along with two crew members, Topple and his corporate teammates were responsible for photographing and logging the e wastthat they saw, recording information about 15 sites where global warming appears to be taking place (so that future teams can compare climate differences), visiting other ice stations on King George Island (to keep people there apprised of the clean-up efforts), testing plastic "penguin" rings (a possible alternative to metal rings), and posting reports of their work on the Internet. During the journey, Topple recorded events on video, and the footage was later made into a documentary. Along the way, he also dealt with the unfamiliarity both of the environment and of his shipmates. He summarizes the experience in a phrase: "small boat, large ocean, strange team."
Topple, who had presented his trip application to BUPA by freezing it inside a three-foot-high ice sculpture of a penguin, plans to use what he observed on board the ship — in particular, the productive ways in which the team interacted — in a leadership program that he runs for Pupa's 750 senior managers. But he hesitates when asked to name one tangible way in which the journey was valuable — "I've been trying not to force conclusions," he says — because that would undercut the magnitude of the experience. "A trip like this doesn't quite fit into BUPA's normal activity," he notes. "But when you put pictures of penguins and whales and icebergs in the in-house newspaper, that shows a leap of faith on the part of the company. It's about fostering inspiration, feeding people's imagination."
When Swan interviews applicants for a trip, he does not require them to make any promises about the ways in which they or their companies will change upon return. "People find their own stories; they get their own visions for the future," Topple says. "You can assert your values or your wishes, but change will happen only if people want it, if they're motivated. And that basically comes down to whether they feel inspired."
Topple does indeed feel inspired — and, as Swan would be glad to know, the trip has motivated him to take environmentally positive steps within BUPA. Just as Topple hopes to distribute his documentary as widely as possible, so many of the people who go on Swan's trips begin speaking both inside and outside of their companies about what they have seen in Antarctica. It might seem unrealistic to imagine that sending one employee out of thousands to steer a yacht and to gape at icebergs for five weeks will somehow affect an entire company, but Topple begs to differ. "The experience doesn't just stay with the individual," he says.
Do Swan and the companies that he works with have the same goals? Not exactly. Swan's true passion these days is working with kids. As for business, it's no secret that smart companies always have an eye both on their short-term performance and on their long-term reputation. But the relationship that Swan has with the business community reflects a recognition of the ways that both parties can help each other. Companies have the money and power needed to further the causes that Swan cares about. And Swan has some remarkable stories of adventure, exploration, fear, and triumph that provide an apt metaphor for the feelings of adventure, exploration, fear, and triumph that many companies are experiencing today.
When it comes to teamwork, for example, Swan can tell some pretty compelling stories — starting with his experiences in 1986, when he spent nine months in Antarctica in a 16-by-24-foot hut with four other men. "And we were five people who did not get on well even in London," Swan notes. Finally, weather conditions were right for Swan to set off with Wood and Mear for the pole. (The other two men — Michael Stroud, a doctor, and John Tolson, a cameraman — remained behind as planned.) The hut proved to have been palatial compared with the new quarters: Swan, Wood, and Mear slept head to foot in a single tent.
The key to how they tolerated one another — apart from the significant fact that they shared the same goal — was the diversity of personalities and skills that they brought to the expedition. "If I did one thing right as leader, it was choosing very different people to be on that team," he says. "If everybody is the same, you won't have the diversity that you need to survive. You need to have different attitudes, different ways of thinking and doing things.
"Roger Mear is one of the finest mountaineers that Britain has produced," Swan continues. "He's also the most pessimistic person: He won't go shopping unless he has read a weather forecast. You ask me anything, and I just say yes. Ask Roger anything, and he just says no. But you need somebody like Roger to be always thinking about the worst-case scenario.
"Gareth Wood is a perfectionist. He has ten thousand checklists, one for every five minutes of his life. That's very, very difficult to live with — the rest of us were perfectly happy to sit in chaos — but absolutely essential. If equipment breaks on a polar journey, you're dead. If your stove doesn't work and you can't melt ice for water, you die from dehydration in four days. If your tent rips during a hurricane, you die in a week. But thanks to constant checking, constant list making, and constant attention to detail, nothing broke. And Gareth made sure that things were right in the first place. He'd taken our tent into wind tunnels at testing stations and blasted the hell out of the thing for months."
Swan was the front man. "I don't give a shit about detail," he says. "My job was to raise money and to inspire people to support us. We would not have gotten to Antarctica unless I had done that."
The overarching lesson that Swan learned from his first polar expedition — a lesson that has been reinforced on subsequent trips — was less a pragmatic tip than a philosophy that has expanded to fill his entire life. In a phrase, that philosophy is "Why not try?"
"People who lead companies will say, 'Our objective is to become the number-one digital corporation,' but they feel helpless about violence and pollution," Swan argues. "These people can turn their skills and their technology into solutions for the planet's survival. Maybe it's going to take a major catastrophe to shock them into action. But the solutions do lie with business. So why not try?"
Curtis Sittenfeld (email@example.com) is a former Fast Company staff writer. She recently began a new stage in the exploration of her own career — by enrolling in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. For more information on Robert Swan, visit the Web (www.robertswan.org) or contact him by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: Postcard from the Edge
Who: Jeremy Topple
Job: Consultant, BUPA
Expedition: Mission Antarctica, February 1999
"Coming into Ushuaia, Argentina, we flew in over the mountains. I'd never seen anything like them before: They looked wild, prehistoric. I felt like I was at the bottom of the Earth. In Ushuaia, they call it 'world's end.' We stepped out into a small airport, and Hamish Laird, our skipper, was there to greet us. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and for the first time in a long while, I felt, 'This is the start of something I've never done before.' "
"We took a taxi to a small, wooden jetty, and we saw the two-mile-wide Beagle Canal. There were mountains on both sides, and there was quite a strong wind blowing. We got our bags out of the taxi and looked at the ice-sailing yacht, a 54-foot-long metal boat, and I just felt so insignificant. I thought, 'This isn't right. This isn't safe.' But gradually, you come to terms with a scale of nature that you're usually insulated from. You go from fear to elation: It's clear that you're alive, that this is really happening, that you're doing something very different, and that it's beautiful."
Who: David Laing
Job: Works full-time on Mission Antarctica project for Standard Life (previous job: investment-presentations designer, Standard Life)
Expedition: Mission Antarctica, December 1997 - January 1998
"Just before we left South America, I said to Robert Swan, 'Something has been puzzling me: Why did you pick me for this trip?' He said, 'It's unusual for me to meet someone as mad as I am.' I took that as a compliment because one of Robert's favorite things to say is 'If you do enough mad things, you'll have a magic moment.' "
"One of my magic moments began with a question: How many pieces of clothing should you — and can you — wear in the Antarctic? When we were on King George Island and it was about minus-10 degrees Celsius [14 degrees Fahrenheit], I completely stripped off everything I was wearing — and then put on each item one by one. After putting on each layer, I got someone to take a photograph of me. When Robert heard that I'd done this, he just stared at me as if I were completely nuts. The answer to that question, by the way, is 23 articles of clothing — including sunglasses."
Who: Adrian Cross
Job: Account consultant, Standard Life
Expedition: Mission Antarctica, February 1999
"The Drake Passage is one of the world's most horrific bodies of water. People say that at 40 degrees south, you're in the 'Roaring 40s'; that at 50 degrees south, you're in the 'Screaming 50s'; and that at 60 degrees south, there are no rules and there is no God. On the way down, we were treated extremely well, but on the way back, we got hit very badly."
"One team member, Heather Prodger, became very, very ill. The rest of us would go down to offer words of sympathy, move the puke pail, or make sure that she was hydrated. She suffered terribly, yet her big concern was with letting down her fellow team members (and bear in mind that before the trip, we were all complete strangers, although Heather and I both came from Standard Life). Even as she lay there, praying that the lurching and rolling would stop, she was feeling guilty about not contributing to the team. That, to me, is absolutely immense."
Sidebar: From Africa to Antarctica
For adults, it's easy to ignore environmental problems. for young people, it's easy to have the opposite reaction: Environmental problems can seem overwhelming. "At the age of 11," remembers Robert Swan, "I was told that if the Russians or the Americans just pressed a couple of buttons, the planet could blow up 3,000 times. I became switched off. I'd sit there thinking, 'What would all of this look like if the world blew up 3,000 times?' "
Around the same time, Swan saw a film about Antarctica that prevented him from becoming completely disengaged: "I became more and more interested in going to this great white wilderness." Swan did indeed go to Antarctica — numerous times. Now he leads groups of teenagers and young adults on expeditions to the region. There, they conduct experiments, raise awareness about major environmental issues — and view the polar splendor firsthand.
Nsaa-Iya Kihunrwa, now 25, traveled to Antarctica in 1996 as part of a UNESCO expedition consisting of 35 young adults from 25 countries and from various backgrounds. A native of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Kihunrwa received a degree in computer science last June. He worked as a member of the UNESCO expedition's media team. While his teammates recorded information using digital video cameras, Kihunrwa used a painting kit. The results of his artistry, and of his teammates' more high-tech efforts, were then posted on the Internet and published in a magazine called YEs (YE stands for "young explorers").
Back in Dar es Salaam, Kihunwra visits schools and presents a slide show about his polar adventure. "I have been called an expert on Antarctica," Kihunwra reports. "That might not be true, but my experience counts for a lot. I think it is a great achievement that I am no doubt the youngest, and possibly the first, Tanzanian to set foot on that majestic continent."
You can reach Nsaa-Iya Kihunrwa by email (email@example.com).
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.