Rachael Robertson (above) was 35 when she was chosen from the final short list of 14 candidates to lead the 58th Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition to Davis Station. She is the second female ever to lead a team at the station, and one of the youngest ever leaders. Prior to her appointment, Rachael had spent 16 years in senior operational management roles.
Now 44, and working in the field of leadership development - specifically in the establishment and practise of “authentic leadership” - Rachael is also an author and has forged a place for herself on the speaker circuit, delivering keynote speeches and inspirational talks on topics as diverse and enigmatic as the importance of eradicating ‘triangles’ (dysfunctional relationships in which people enlist and involve others in a dispute/gossip, etc.) and managing ‘Bacon Wars’ – the small things covering a deeper issue that grate and build over time to be major disruptions and distractions affecting productivity.
“The recruitment process you go through for the Antarctic role,” Rachael explained when we spoke recently, “focusses purely on leadership and personal qualities, like empathy.”
The technical information about policy and procedure, the Antarctic Treaty, etc. she figured the recruiters thought they could teach you that in the three months of training before you head off, as for leadership, that couldn’t be taught in the time, hence the specific focus on candidates with leadership experience.
Whittling down those candidates to one final choice must require a very special set of circumstances. So it’s not surprising to find that the week-long Tasmanian wilderness boot camp remains firmly etched in Rachael’s mind.
“I remember asking why they chose me in the end and being told: ‘because you were able to bring people along with you and when you were comfortable with the scenario you would lead and when you weren’t you were happy to call on the expertise of others, people you were actually competing against’.
“In the recruiters’ eyes, leadership was not about charging out the front and demanding people follow but about bringing people along and that sat very well with my own views. It’s about creating leaders not more followers - anyone can lead. You don’t need a title to be a leader,” notes Rachael.
Having triumphed and been offered the role, she quickly decided she would rather regret something done than not done.
Asked if that had led her to ever consider joining the ranks of the ‘repeat offenders’ (the term she’d used with a smile to describe those who go back), Rachael is equally as clear: “Subjecting myself more than once to the intense 24/7 scrutiny under which you live as a leader on this sort of mission just isn’t necessary.”
The upshot of her experience, leading the station through its busy summer months when around 120 people live and work there - and daylight lasts “25” hours a day - as well as leading through the nine-month long winter when the team consists of just 18 people who are keeping the lights on and the place warm and functional in preparation for the next summer, taught Rachael a number of lessons about what “authentic leadership” looks like and how best to practice it.
“For me,” says Rachael, “respect trumps harmony every time. It’s what I strove for in the team. It’s dangerous to have harmony as the main game. Firstly, any bullying just gets driven underground, because people won’t talk about it in case it rocks the harmony boat. Secondly, harmony stifles innovation. People won’t put a hand up and offer a different opinion or idea in case that rocks the boat,” intones Rachael.
Surviving in the harshest environment on Earth, with no safety net, no back up, and nowhere to hide, also left Rachael with a profound understanding of the importance of ‘leadership behaviour’.
Books and books exist on leadership practice, theory and the skills but ‘leadership behaviour’ she feels has fallen by the wayside.
“The scrutiny you undergo on station as leader really brought home how important it is to behave,” Rachael says, explaining how the team watched her every move, right down to the time she ate her meals, got up on her day off, who she said hello to or didn’t say hello to and much, much more.
It was a hothouse laboratory not an average work environment.
“Once that last ship goes in February and you look at the faces left, realising they’re the only ones you’ll see for the next nine months and knowing there’s no respite, no HR or mentor to turn to, no outside contact at all, no weekends or holidays or days off and away from the office - that there’s no way to hide - you quickly come to understand what being under scrutiny means and that whatever transpires you have to lead and deal with it,” says Rachael.
Big-Brother-is-watching, even the more modern Hunger Games analogies, go some way toward encapsulating her situation.
The lesson, she learnt: be stable and remain visible. Moderate and watch your language including your body language and demeanour, because people pick up queues from the non-verbal as fast as the verbal and with as potentially devastating consequences.
Thinking back to what kept her awake at nights, Rachael says, “the issues were very different for summer and winter”.
All jokes aside about the need for heavy black out drapes in the summer months when daylight prevails, the plane crash while she was on station was the most stressful thing she had to deal with during the summer she was there.
“Everyone on board was okay but the plane was damaged so the passengers couldn’t get back and there was some weather coming in. We had to manage a search and rescue while maintaining business as usual for the other 116 people on station.”
It was here she learnt the value of “walking with poise”, being visible and remaining available and open to talk and answer questions.
During the winter, issues around team dynamics and team motivation and inspiration were her preoccupations.
“I kept a journal. It kept me calm. I would write in the journal each night and that ability to reflect would help me resolve issues and sleep. It got my thoughts out and aired. It helped me plan what I needed to do. Sometimes the plan was right and sometimes I got it wrong, but without reflection you stand the chance of just charging headlong from one issue to another,” Rachael admits with a laugh.
There were four tools she developed in Antarctica to keep her team inspired, motivated and resilient through the long Antarctic winter and which she believes can be applied in any team/leadership situation.
1. No Triangles
The simple rule is: ‘I don’t speak to you about him, or you don’t speak to me about her. Instead, go direct to the source.’
Direct conversations build respect, reducing conflict and clarifying accountability. It also shuts down “answer shopping”, where people go over others’ heads, or around people, until they get the answer they want.
This is a simple technique to set a culture of respect. Once that’s in place, you can choose the most appropriate leadership response, be it a democratic approach, delegation or command and control.
2. Manage your Bacon Wars
A major dispute erupted while on 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.
Identifying and probing Bacon Wars to find out what’s underneath and resolve it is important.
Rachael believes it often comes down whether people feel respected or not.
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 and the time to stop and celebrate. Moments create momentum and demonstrate progress.
4. Check-in on people
People respond with commitment and loyalty when they know both they and their contribution is valued. Ask often and spontaneously how people are. These moments also create momentum.
Antarctica Fast Facts
Coldest, windiest, driest continent on earth.
99% unexplored, no permanent residents
Lowest recorded temp: -89.2 degrees C
Temperature during Rachael's mid-winter swim (below): -13 degrees C
Davis station: Australia's biggest and southernmost research station, 4000km South West of Perth
Expeditioners over summer: 120
Expeditioners over winter: 18
Longest night: 8 weeks, as the year turns toward summer daylight increases 6 minutes each day.
Longest day: 10 weeks
There are three stations on the continent and each has a leader. The most dangerous event you can experience on station is not a blizzard but fire. This is why the stations are built in discrete sections and people must brave the weather to walk between them. If the station was one unit and a fire began then all the shelter could burn down. Separate buildings spaced apart, with food, etc. dotted around the station ensures better survival odds.
Most common ailment over summer: sprains from falling over
Most common ailment over winter: mental health/depression