Lessons From Antarctica
April 13, 2016phdgreg
I spent much of Wharton’s winter break getting to and from or being in Antarctica. From 12/27/15 to 1/9/16 I flew over 15,000 miles along with 8 days and 7 nights of camping out on King George Island, hiking in slushy snow and mud, moving camp 4 times, building (and rebuilding) snow walls, and carrying a 50+ pound backpack. It also included being with 6 veteran venture guides (the lead guide has scaled Everest), 3 Wharton Leadership Center leadership fellows, several logistics personnel, and 36 first year Wharton MBA (i.e., alpha types).
The trip is one of many offered to MBA’s by the Center. In the service of learning, students go to new and different places and coordinate living, teaming, and leading in a very different environment. Each student led their six person team for a day. So, six groups of six rotate leaders, a different leader for each 24 hour block, and a daily debrief of the day, the team, and the leader. Venture fellows led the debriefs with assistance from the guides and, occasionally, a faculty member, i.e., me. A guide trails each group as it navigates through a day’s trek. The guide provides simultaneously wide discretion and a human safety net.
On this trip, I was the ‘occasional’ faculty member. I lived and worked as a member of the venture, debriefed a team a day, and twice taught a case about Shackleton and his 1914-1916 expedition to and fight for survival in Antarctica. I offer below observations, primarily metaphoric, that occurred to me during my time in Antarctica, metaphors that resonant, for me at least, with what I have learned about leadership over nearly 40 years of studying it, teaching it, and, mainly, helping others exercise it.
If you need any encouragement to read the article, then consider this quote from writer Thomas Pynchon in V., “You wait. Everyone has an Antarctica.”
What I Learned Over Winter Break
1) Loving your tent
A tent keeps out the rain and snow, stops the seemingly ever present 20 or so mile an hour wind (and the 50 or so mph wind that visited most of one night), and allows those perambulating hot water bottles known as homo sapiens to warm that small, enclosed space just enough to make a difference. You cook in the alcove, dry out, inspect, clean (as possible), and tend to your body and your gear, plan the next day, and talk with and learn from your co-occupants. (It’s difficult to talk while trekking. The wind and walking in single, often roped, file limit conversation to brief respites along the way.) The tent is your refuge, a safe (well, safer anyway) place. It is a place to look forward to visiting and to being inside.
Translation: make sure that you (and your team) have a tent, a safer time and place between work and home that provides you the opportunity to regroup and to process in between challenging days. Kayakers would call it time off the river. You are not home and the river still awaits, but you have pulled yourself and your craft out of the fray with every intention of rejoining it. You are in this for the whole journey but for now, you are in your tent.
2) Loving (and hating) your backpack
A backpack, especially one stuffed with gear and weighing about 55 lbs., resembles an inbox. It is full to overflowing with recommended, mandated and self-selected items. It regularly needs organizing, sorting, and reorganizing, at least at the beginning and end of every day. It literally weighs you down. Hateful. It is also essential. Without it, you simply lack what you need to deal with the world around you. Loveable. You can hate it for the load it places on you or you can love it for what it makes possible… or both. It’s a complex relationship, but embracing its complexity frees you up to put the required energy into the relationship with it, i.e., spending the necessary time together and really sorting out what you really need.
3) Living inside the ping pong ball
The ‘right’ weather conditions create the ‘ping pong ball effect’. ‘Right’ here means a specific combination of melting snow, limited wind, and precipitation which produce a fog that simulates white out conditions or being inside a ping pong ball. One can easily lose sight of the front of even a six person line and losing contact leads equally easily to being lost without a clue of how to regain contact.
Translation: when you can’t see, rope yourself to others and stay connected. Striking out blindly is just that, striking out blindly and likely turning into Jack Nicholson’s character at the end of The Shining, grimaced and frozen, lost in a maze of footprints.
4) Accepting that the environment is what it is
Antarctica, like competitive markets, will find your weaknesses, whatever they may be. Forget to cover your face? The sun will appear and burn, even blister your face. Forget to treat your hands? Welcome to chapping then cracking and then infection. Overdress? The exertion will make you sweat and stopping will bring a deep chill. Underdress? Any stop or pause will seem interminable. Exercise bad form in building a snow wall? Endure back pain. It’s like an ongoing dental exam. It just is. Attend. Do your best. Know that you missed something and that the environment will ‘point it out’. Or, in white water language: you are going to flip so work on your roll. Notice, then adapt and overcome.
5) Following in the footsteps of another
Just a brief time trekking in the snow and one learns the value of following, literally, in the footsteps of another. It takes considerably less energy to move in and out of his or her step than to make your own and in a day of thousands of steps that energy saving adds up. In short, the trekkers up ahead work harder and you need to do two things: 1) take advantage of their effort and 2) remember that every step you take increases your debt to them.
6) Take care of yourself… and your gear
For the sake of the team, you need to keep yourself ready. At the very least, you don’t want to slow them down. So, get yourself in shape; it’s too late once the trek begins. Muster the right gear; they don’t sell it there. Tend to your feet. Dry them out each night lest infection or trench foot set in. Don’t drink. Just don’t, it will lead to dehydration. Get your sleep and eat what you need. You will draw down your batteries again tomorrow.
Translation: make sure that you keep yourself well in order to play your part. It’s the least that you can do for your team.
7) Is the forcefield up?
In a place like Antarctica, someone needs to tend to the environment in a holistic way, e.g., monitor the weather, get the group in and out, handle expedition logistics, provide medical aid and emergency evacuation, and day by day make sure that nobody, for whatever reason-including ignorance– does something that endangers themselves or others. The guides did that. A guide on this venture also followed each group every day, allowing full latitude to each group to pursue its mission while providing a safety net if necessary. They managed enough of the environment to enable each day’s work and learning to unfold. They were essential and their efforts on full display but often in the background and easy to underappreciate or even miss.
Translation: Know what it takes to secure the space for your team or organization to do what it has to do and never, ever, never forget to acknowledge those who do the securing, be they the supply chain folks or the maintenance crews or business intelligence. They are both the platform on which others perform and the force field that protects them ‘on stage’.
8) Dedicate resources to learning
This trek was in the service of learning. Only MBA students (and aging faculty) could participate. Students had to apply and, although co- curricular, i.e., not for credit, participants had to accept the learning agenda that forms the skeleton of this trek. Incredibly, the level of oversubscription necessitates a lottery. Venture Fellows (competitively selected and then well trained second year MBA students) oversee and facilitate the construction and development of teams. Finally, in Antarctica, those same Fellows in combination with the guides structure and facilitate daily debriefing of each team’s experience, especially as it pertains to the leader. These debrief sessions last at least an hour and sometimes as much as three. The guide for the day joins the group and the faculty member (in this case me) joins a different group each day. Teams become impressively proficient in the conduct of these sessions, covering task performance, teaming, and leader performance.
Translation: if you want to build a learning organization, then invest in learning. Doing so amounts to constructing a set of Russian dolls: set the overall environment, support the individual program or project, embed the learning in the work, and facilitate (through structure and personnel) the active mining of lessons learned, every day if possible.
9) Teaming is all well and good, but sometimes you just have to look after yourself
In Antarctica, you are not to leave anything behind, including feces. Hence, one defecates in a plastic bag and places the bag in a tube, roughly similar to the kind that one used to carry sets of paintings, blueprints, and architectural drawings. The contents in this case become ‘poopsicles’. One person carries the tube for the team each day. The savvier team members figure out quickly that the can gains weight as the week progresses.
Translation: it’s better to carry the tube early in the week.
10) Alpha play: penguin suits, New Years Eve, and skinny dipping
Yes, alphas do play, hard of course. Students brought penguin outfits, performed skits on New Year’s Eve (with a little venture fellow encouragement), skinny dipped in public, and took seemingly endless pictures of everything, and… and… Amidst the cold, wind, freezing rain, they laughed and they played. Sometimes they downright cavorted. After working all day, they warmed themselves with each other’s company and demonstrated that they were never alone in this barren continent bereft of land animals, bushes or trees.
Translation: Provide the room for play, even encourage it. Shackleton had regimented work for all of his shipwrecked party… and they put on plays, listened to music, and played soccer on the ice. He knew: to lead the work, facilitate play.
11) Rebuilding the wall
We camped for two nights at a place called the Dome. It is what it is named, a dome or flat-topped hill with great vistas (weather permitting)… and no protection from the wind. Protecting your tent (which as you know now, you love) requires building a snow wall. A snow wall amounts to a partially completed igloo, more precisely one without a roof. Building a snow wall requires using ice saws to cut snow blocks, piling those blocks up and patching any holes with shoveled or glove scooped and then hand packing that snow. It takes hours and cold, wet, and even back aching work, and it’s after hiking up to the Dome. We did it. Its value was apparent whenever you raised your head above the wall and felt the wind. Effort well spent.
The next day we day trekked from the camp and were gone most of the day. The sun broke through and shone for brightly, nearly blindingly all day. As we ascended the Dome on our return, it looked as if we had found some other party’s camp. Barely a trace, indeed only a mocking semblance of our painfully (and lovingly) constructed snow walls remained. The sun had melted them. Another end of a hike, another snow wall construction project. Conversations tailed off. Reconstruction began.
Translation: sometimes, you just have to rebuild the snow wall. It has to get done. It’s not worth talking about it. If it needs doing again, then you’ll do it again. Just rebuild the wall. We’ll talk later, but nothing else happens until we rebuild the wall.
12) Bring dark chocolate covered espresso beans
I brought 2 bags of chocolate covered espresso beans with me to Antarctica. They were for energy and they were the only treat I brought. I had perhaps 6-10 a day and I savored each one. I also gave about twice that number away every day. I’d hand the bag to the team I was traveling with during some stop and/or during our evening debrief. People carefully regulated their consumption of the delicacy, most needing encouragement in order to take more than a single bean and commenting on how good the bean(s) tasted and expressing gratitude.
Translation: small treats matter both in and of themselves and symbolically. They can occasion pause and provide moments of shared appreciation. (Shackleton’s men, starving on Elephant Island, reportedly read to one another from a cook book each night and then discussed and critiqued the selected recipe.) Remember to take a moment and treat yourself and others. At least as important though, take the time to savor it before moving on.
13) Accept love from home, even if it means listening to your kids
To say that my wife opposed my doing this trip would understate the matter. She recognized and supported my desire to go while simultaneously viewing it as ill- timed and ill-considered. Actually, the word “dumb” would fit here. That said, as a loving spouse, she tolerated my enhancing my fairly rigorous normal exercise routine and taught me Yoga for specific maladies that I might experience, especially for my long abused (and suffering) back. My kids, both accomplished athletes, talked to me about diet. My wife and daughters (especially my elder daughter, Ms. MMA) stuffed my Christmas stocking with carefully selected foods and supplements for the trip. I used the Yoga for days on my snow wall aching back, ate the food-occasionally ravenously, and thought of them often.
Translation: keep the images and symbols of your family at hand. Keep the indications of their love nearby. They love the person that you bring to your role. They work to keep that person well and able. That is worth remembering and honoring, at work and at home.
14) Mission on a t-shirt
Two pictures from the closing dinner show us all (20 something participants and fellows along with generally 30 or early 40 something guides) all wearing a black t-shirt from our first meeting as a group. On the front is an emblem, a snowy, mountainous island with “Antarctica 2016” written below it. (We trekked on St. George Island.) On the back of the t-shirts appeared the words, “Bring Him Back Alive”, except on one t-shirt, mine, the one worn by the only 60 something (i.e., moi), on which it said only “HIM”. I told folks that the t-shirts came from my family and me in order to clarify the real mission before them: namely, Yes, I’m a faculty member, but I’m a human being and my family is worried about me.
Translation: Regardless of rank, recognizing and occasionally acknowledging your dependence on others matters. Humor doesn’t hurt in delivering the message of what otherwise might remain unspoken-we’re all humans; we’re all trekking; we’re all facing a set of challenges, some uniquely ours… now let’s get going!
15) Boil the snow
Antarctica is the most arid place on the planet. The wind blows nearly all the time. You’re often working hard and, incredibly, sweating. You need at least 3 liters of fluid a day. No water makes for a very bad day. However, for the most part, the temperature freezes water. Obtaining water therefore means melting snow. Making sure the water is clean entails not just melting the snow but boiling it. Boiling water in a 3/4 liter pot over a bunsen burner type stove takes about 15-20 minutes in order to avoid burning the pot. That’s 4 pots a day or more than an hour plus the time getting the snow far enough from the campsite to make sure that the snow is as clean as possible.
Translation: Take the time to do the important stuff right, every day.
16) The zen of being where you are-fully
The trek of the day fills the day: getting ready for it, doing it, resting from it, and preparing for the next day. The gear (tent, pack, clothing) need careful tending as you put it on, take it off, pack, repack, put up, take down, cook, boil, and store.
The concreteness and immediacy of the tasks fill your day. Boiling the snow, pitching and taking down the tent, carefully placing your feet in footsteps already made, and tending to your pack. Such activity both fills the day and allows for other activities such as musing. What bubbles up is personal and warrants attention as would a dream. In mid-week, a thought came to me as if spoken during a snowy trek complete with greyness and persistent wind: ‘Your life is only a whisper on the wind.’ I stayed, almost meditatively, with the notion for much of the rest of the day, contemplating the perspective on my importance. During similar conditions the next day, came the rest of the notion, ‘But it’s MY whisper.’ Both are true for anyone, especially any leader-your efforts are ‘as a whisper on the wind, but it’s your whisper’-what you do matters little in one sense and yet is everything in another. Holding both thoughts at the same time enables us all, including leaders, to avoid hubris while committing passionately to the work at hand.
“You wait. Everyone has an Antarctica.” Thomas Pynchon, V.