leadership

A plane crash, four people stranded: Rachael Robertson’s lessons from leading an expedition to Antarctica

Myriam Robin /

It was during the Antarctic summer when Rachael Robertson’s worst moment came.

While the leader of Davis Station, the southernmost of Australia’s Antarctic stations, four of her team had their plane go down, with them in it. They survived, but their plane was totalled. They were stranded 500 kilometres away from help, with 10 days’ worth of food.

For three days after they crashed, bad weather kept everyone at ground.

“I wanted nothing more than to hole up in my office and plan the search and rescue,” Robertson tells SmartCompany.

“But I couldn’t. There were 116 other people watching me. It wasn’t enough to lead the search and rescue. I had to be seen to be leading it. I had to be out there so people could ask me questions. Because people watch the leader, and pick up queues about how serious a problem is from that.”

Robertson chose her words very, very carefully. She said she had “concerns” about the stranded members of her team, but she never said she was worried. She patiently answered people’s questions. She tried not to let her fear show.

The team was eventually rescued safe and sound.

When Robertson answered an ad to lead an expedition to Antarctica, she’d been chosen for her leadership skills.

But this tested them like never before.

During the summer months, she led a team of 120 isolated scientists and technicians at one of Australia’s two Antarctic stations. And then, in the winter, she led a team of just 16, through four months where they never saw the sun.

Looking back, the former park ranger says she “doesn’t regret it for a second.”

“I learnt so much. But I wouldn’t do it again.

“I’d been in leadership roles for 16 years. I should have been more aware of the scrutiny. That’s what the toughest part was. The absolute scrutiny of when you came down for breakfast, and what time you had dinner, and what you’re wearing.

“And anyway,” she laughs, “most of the time there was nothing else going on so of course people took notice.”

At the station, the scientists and technicians had email but no internet. They could make phone calls, but it was expensive. Most had bought a bunch of movies and books with them when they moved, but after a few months, those ran out.

To break the boredom, they had a formal dinner every Saturday night. Once a month, they had a theme night, preparing innovative costumes for the occasion. They threw birthday parties. They made their own fun.

But spending all that time together wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t select these people. And they didn’t choose me. The elements were harsh. But it had nothing on the interpersonal pressure of living on top of each other.”

To make it bearable, Robertson laid down some ground rules.

“We had a thing called ‘no triangles’. So, I don’t speak to you about a third party. We had direct conversations. We made sure we dealt with stuff, because we couldn’t ignore the issues and hope they went away.

“It worked really well. It was really honest, and became part of our culture. It seems obvious, but not enough businesses do that I think.”

Despite the stage being ripe for disagreements, Robertson says for the most part, her team exceeded her expectations.

“Our toughest moment was equally our proudest.

“Someone was diagnosed with depression. And the guys closed ranks and looked after this person. They kept inviting him out, kept him engaged. He kept saying no but they kept doing it. I didn’t have to say anything – and I couldn’t reveal his illness for confidentially reasons – but they picked up on it and showed they cared.”

Away from friends and family, in a world of routine and little choice, many of her team had rough patches.

That’s why Robertson found reasons to celebrate.

“We’d throw celebrations for things like 100 days without a server dropping out, or 50 days without a power outage. Those things build momentum, and a sense that we were moving forward and progressing.

“Every workplace has an Antarctic winter – a period of time where work is work. Leaders always need to find reasons to celebrate.”

A book about Robertson’s experiences, “Leading on the Edge” is published by Wiley and available in bookstores across the country and through Rachael Robertson’s website www.rachaelrobertson.com.au. RRP $29.95.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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