Leadership training in Antarctica

As I’m flipping through my Homeward Bound notebook, I’m amazed that it’s nearly full. Last time I took any notes was probably during my bachelor studies. Nowadays, I write rather than type only when I’m putting my signature. However, the HB notebook proved to be quite useful for the learning and reflection we were doing on the ship in Antarctica and now it’s time to revisit it. This post summarizes the most important lessons I learned from the program (see my previous post on what I learned from being in Antarctica).

HB4 faculty (left to right): Justine Shaw, Ana Payo Payo, Lorraine McCarthy, Julia May , Garciela Sczwarcberg, Sandra Radovini, Jen Martin, Kit Jackson, Fern Wickson, Cass Brooks, Fabian Dattner, Musimbi Kanyoro.
Photo by Will Rogan

Leadership as it is understood in Homeward Bound has nothing to do with career building, competition and struggle to be acknowledged and rewarded. Instead, it’s about stepping up and leading based on our values and vision, with the purpose of making a positive change and contributing to something we really care about, something that is bigger than ourselves. Even before we embarked on the ship, Fabian Dattner encouraged us to work on understanding our core values relevant for the three areas: work, relationships, and self. For many of us, this happened to be a difficult but eye-opening process.

Fabian Dattner on leadership stream. Photo by Will Rogan.

Building on the core values, we developed our Personal strategy with Kit Jackson. For me, this was the most anticipated and useful program stream. It changed my perspective on my potential to make a difference. When joining the HB program, I already knew that I was not feeling fulfilled in my current work situation and planned a transition to applications of computer science for the ocean and the environment. I was thinking about this transition as follows: “Given my life situation, what are the existing meaningful projects I can join where my current skills will be useful?” Now I think about it differently: “What do I deeply care about? What needs to be done to make a positive change in these areas? What skills do I already have and need to develop, how do I need to change my life situation to be in a position to make this difference? Who are other people caring about the same things? How do I connect to them and work for them and together with them?” This was a big mindset shift for me. Now everything seems possible, especially given the support of the Homeward Bound network of like-minded people.

On the ship, we worked on our 100 days and 1 year strategic plans, turned and twisted them over and over again, bounced them off our peers and coaches. As Kit has repeated multiple times: Strategy is only as good as the capability to execute it. The next year will show how good my current strategy is and how it needs to be adapted to become more realistic.

Working on our core values and personal strategy map. Photo by Will Rogan.

Lorraine McCarthy worked with us on the Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI) diagnostics meant to support effective leadership and make people more fulfilled in their personal lives. In particular, we studied our aggressive and passive defensive behaviours in order to move to self-actualization and constructive leadership styles. One of the big realizations for me was that aggression and ambition are often related to insecurity and need for approval. My favourite exercise was on collectively constructing an LSI profile of an ideal leader.

Being a public figure has never been my thing, therefore I was initially sceptical about investing energy into Visibility. But Julia May was very convincing when explaining that visibility is a crucial part of leadership when it is driven by our values. This quote is now seared into my memory: Visibility without value is vanity. We practised being authentic and vulnerable and thinking about our audience first. Designing a message starts with understanding what actions you expect from your audience as a result. But it is even more important to figure out what are the needs of the audience and what you can offer them. Jules calls it “the generosity principle”, give first in order to receive, and I’m now trying to organize my communication (work-related or private) based on it.

Graciela Sczwarcberg shared with us many wisdoms about Team work. My main take from her is that people are more important than tasks, especially in a long-term perspective. Sounds trivial, but in practice I would sometimes push for getting work done at the expense of someone’s comfort. Gracie taught us several vital principles of a positive team culture, for example, how to build trust and safety, reward each other, have difficult conversations, foster motivation and accountability. A cornerstone to a successful collaboration is shared vision and goals, which should precede anything else. Easy to say, but difficult to implement as we have discovered during a tower building exercise and discussions about our work situations.

Musimbi Kanyoro shared with us her experience of Global leadership and international networking and led discussions on diversity going beyond gender and racial equality. The diversity discussions were also greatly enriched by the HB4 participant Hinemoa Elder, a Maori from New Zeeland. Among other things, we were exploring the dominance of the Western values and culture in both global leadership and academia (see a related post I wrote a while ago).

One of the last leadership-related sessions on the ship was on Recovering from failure with Jen Martin. The ability to analyse and rewrite stories we are telling ourselves about our failure is the key to this process. Among other exercises, Jen suggested us to write down these stories and focus on distinguishing between facts and assumptions, then check the assumptions and turn them into facts if possible or dismiss otherwise. The final step is to rewrite the story based on facts only. I found this exercise particularly useful and applicable to many emotionally difficult situations.

We learned a lot about Antarctic science, politics, and policy making from Justine Shaw and Cass Brooks, from the Polar Latitudes expedition crew as well as from the scientists at the Carlini and Great Wall research stations. The amount of information we received on the topic cannot be summarized in a paragraph. Very briefly, there were two main take-home messages. First, because of climate change Antarctica is loosing its ice sheet and sea ice, which results in global sea level rise, destruction of the marine food chain, and changes in biosphere. Second, the Antarctic treaty was a significant international achievement, and the next important task is to make the Antarctic peninsula a marine protected area (see my previous post for more details). Honourable mention goes to the Shackleton Antarctic expedition leadership story by Seb Coulthard, who also taught us how to open a bottle of champaign with a sword.

Marine protected areas proposed by Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

Fern Wickson ran a Negotiation role game on whaling and sealing imitating real negotiations she facilitates. I ended up in a team of commercial whalers, which is especially ironic, because whales are my favourite animals and I’m vegan. It was interesting to explore the variety of arguments for and against whaling and sealing coming from such diverse interest groups as indigenous communities, animal rights activists, sustainability groups, environmental scientists etc. Although I’m obviously strongly inclined against whaling, this game confirmed for me that such negotiations should be based on economic and environmental rather than moral arguments.

Sandra Radovini ran a session on Self-care, burnout, and climate change anxiety. Unfortunately, I missed it because during this session I was practising self-care and catching up on much needed sleep. Now, reading the endless stream of news about Australia on fire and feeling so desperate and useless, I regret it.

Ana Payo Payo together with the HB4 participant Jessamyn Fairfield organized a workshop on Improvisation comedy. I’ve never been interested in comedy and my sense of humour is quite alternative to what is socially acceptable. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this workshop a lot. It offered us simple yet effective exercises demonstrating that pretty much anything said and done without self-control and filtering can be funny in a certain context and anyone can be a comedian.

There were more sessions organized by the HB participants themselves. Plastic pollution in the ocean, current environmental policies and practices in China, sustainability aspects of meat production are a few topics that I can remember. There were thematic lunches and dinners, e.g. a marine science lunch or a dinner on academia and parenting. I cannot even begin listing things I learned from these sessions, otherwise this post will never end.

Last but not least, I’d like to mention our Symposium at sea (S@S) where each participant talked about her work in 3 minutes and max 2 slides. For many of us, this was one of the best parts of the program. This symposium was very different from scientific conferences where people mainly present themselves and their achievements to receive acknowledgements possibly leading to a promotion. Presentations at S@S were all about purpose and values, about our stories and journeys including personal obstacles, successes, failures, aspirations. Some people were talking about very emotional experiences which brought them and the audience to tears.

My S@S presentation. Photo by Emma Kennedy.

It’s hard to believe how much content could fit in just 3 weeks. But we were told many times – it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s only the beginning of us processing and applying what we’ve learned. It’s also hard to believe that I spent 3 weeks in the company of such knowledgable, talented, and dedicated people. This is what made this voyage one in a life time and I hope that it is also only the beginning of us enriching each others lives.


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