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I spent a year leading a team in complete isolation in Antarctica. Here are 4 strategies you need right now

Rachael Robertson led a team of 17 people on a year-long tour of duty at Davis Station in Antarctica. Her hard-won lessons are increasingly relevant as we move through the pandemic.

I spent a year leading a team in complete isolation in Antarctica. Here are 4 strategies you need right now
[Source image: PytyCzech/iStock; Bia Andrade/Unsplash]

I’ve been in extended isolation before, with nine months of temperatures hovering around -35 degrees Celsius, blizzards, months of darkness, and the inability to get in or out. The lack of privacy, the mundane nature of the days, and the interpersonal pressure of living with 17 other people were extraordinary.

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As the station leader at Davis Station, Antarctica, I was in charge of a mixed bag of projects. In summer, with over 120 people working on the station, it was a crazy buzz of activity. The days were long, 24 hours of daylight. I even had to lead the search and rescue following a plane crash. But many of these people return home in February, and a small group of us remain behind to manage and maintain the station.

The first five months was a breeze. Everything slowed right down–no back-to-back meetings to get to, no traffic to navigate, no constant list of birthdays, weddings, and parties coming up that I needed to buy a present for. I didn’t even have to worry about showering every day (as we’re only allowed a 3-minute shower every second day).

The expedition team was the most diverse group I’ve ever worked with. I didn’t recruit them—I was handed them. These professionals were from vastly different backgrounds and skillsets. Among them were scientists, engineers, IT, trades, pilots, and weather specialists. We had a mix of generations, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, and personality type. The only generalist role was mine as station leader.

With such a mix of people, it was impractical to think we’d all get along with each other all the time. The interpersonal pressure was intense, and privacy was scarce. So we aimed for simple, professional courtesy and respect. The mantra for our team was “respect trumps harmony,” which simply meant that we won’t always agree with each other, we won’t always like each other, and that’s okay. But we will always treat each other with respect.

I have grave concerns for any team that, explicitly or implicitly, strives just for harmony at the expense of productivity and respect. It’s dangerous for three main reasons. First, dysfunctional behavior still continues; it just goes underground so the illusion of harmony remains. Second, it stifles innovation. People are often too afraid to put up their hand and offer a different view or opinion because they don’t want to rock the harmony boat. Third, it’s unsafe both physically and mentally. People will turn a blind eye to anyone acting unsafely or not wearing the correct PPE. When the overriding focus is on happiness and harmony, people won’t put their hand up and say, “Actually I’m not okay right now.”

My year on the ice was a leadership laboratory in the world’s toughest workplace, and it taught me many lessons. As we enter a leadership legacy moment, how we manage the reset and reintegration of our people post-pandemic will be remembered for a long time. The tools I used are more important now than ever, as we slowly open up cities and lead our teams into a new horizon.

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[Source photo: Bia Andrade/Unsplash]

No triangles

The practice 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 directly to the source. It’s a powerful tool that reduces conflict and clarifies accountability.

The practice of no triangles also ensures your time is spent dealing with issues that matter. Those have the most impact on the organization, not handling personal disputes that simply burn energy.

[Source photo: Bia Andrade/Unsplash]

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. They are seemingly small, irrelevant issues that grate on people and build up until they become distractions and affect productivity. It may be dirty coffee cups or people who are consistently late for meetings, or people playing on phones while someone is presenting. They appear to be small offenses, but in reality they are usually a symptom of a deeper issue.

Leaders must identify and probe their bacon wars to 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.

Lead without a title

Every person can demonstrate leadership at work and at home. It’s a behavior, not a title. If you see something that needs to be done, do something about it. That’s leadership. Take some pressure off yourself by encouraging the people around you to step up. It shares responsibility and promotes inclusion.

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Find a reason to celebrate

Recognize milestones and important moments. If you don’t have one readily apparent then create one. 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 goals.


Rachael Robertson is a keynote speaker and the author of the best-selling book Leading on the Edge, an account of leading a year-long expedition to Antarctica. Her latest book, Respect Trumps Harmony, is out now.

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