leader of the pack


What do you learn from managing a team in one of the world’s harshest environments? Leadership expert, Rachael Robertson, shares her experience of working in the Antarctic.


You haven’t seen the sun for weeks, the mercury – on a good day – is topping -50°C, winds are howling and the days (which are as dark as night) seem never-endingly dull. Plus, you are far away from your loved ones, instead cooped up for months on end with 17 colleagues, who may, or may not, get along…

Now, imagine it’s your responsibility to keep everyone safe while maintaining buildings and services through the coldest months of the year.

Welcome to one of the toughest “offices” on earth: Davis Station in Antarctica. It is the largest Australian outpost on the continent and a scientific base that sees its population rise to more than 120 researchers during the summer months.

The conditions are gruelling and leading a team through the long winter months proved to be the biggest challenge Rachael Robertson ever faced.

"My job as leader was about bringing a team of random strangers together and ensuring we ere operating as a high-performing team."


Wanted: Antarctic leaders

How did someone, who by her own admission had her dream job as Chief Ranger of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, end up leading a team in one of the most remote places on the planet?

Like all good stories, it didn’t happen quite the way that you might imagine.

"I had been in a leadership role for 16 years when I saw an advert recruiting Antarctic expedition leaders. The ad outlined specific personal attributes like empathy and resilience. It made me think about what sort of job interview questions they would ask, so I thought I would apply in order to go through the interview process and learn more about the type of questions they asked.”

“Once I applied I found out that there was no interview,” she says.

Instead, there was a boot camp in Tasmania that pushed the applicants to their physical and emotional limits. During this “interview process”, Rachael discovered she had the attributes required for the job.

She was offered the position and after three months of raining, including learning the ins and outs of the Antarctic Treaty, Rachael boarded an icebreaker for the two-week journey south.

“During the summer there are 120 people living on the station. My team, which comprised 18 people, stayed behind for the winter and our main tasks were maintaining the station. One part of the year was very busy and then the other part of the year was about maintaining relationships,” says Rachael.

As we all know, maintaining good working relations in an office, hospital, school or even family environment isn’t always easy – and it’s 10 times harder when you are living and working together, with no way to escape and only patchy email connection to contact friends or family.

“My job as leader was about bringing a team of random strangers together and ensuring we were operating as a high-performing team."

“The team was so diverse – in terms of culture, age, gender, professional backgrounds, sexuality – but we had to all live and work together. I recognised we weren’t all going to be great mates but we needed to maintain good relationships,” she says.

Three techniques proved invaluable for getting the team through the long dark winter months

1. No triangles

Everyone will be familiar with this scenario: Person A has a problem with Person B. Instead of addressing the issue directly, Person A goes to Person C. This creates a triangle, which erodes trust. It was the first thing that Rachael banned on Davis Station.

“If someone was upset about something, they had to go directly to the person they were upset with – that builds trust,” she says.

In the harsh conditions, the team needed to be able to truly trust each other – as they discovered when they had to deal with an aviation accident.


2. Negotiate “bacon wars”

Another situation that will probably sound familiar is what Rachael describes as a “bacon war”. On Davis Station, an argument erupted about the correct way to cook bacon – whether it should be crispy or soft.“It wasn’t about the bacon,” says Rachael.

“It was actually about a plumber and a mechanic who had a frosty relationship. The reason there is an annoyance is deeper and it’s often an issue of respect,” she adds.


3. Everyone’s a leader

An environment like Antarctica meant that every person on the team needed to be willing to step up and lead, if required. This was a key attribute that Rachael instilled in her team, particularly when it came to safety.

“It was very clear that you didn’t need a title to be a leader, especially when it came to safety and innovation. I expected everyone to show leadership and they really did.”

These techniques can go a long way to building a more harmonious and well-functioning team, which is vital in every sort of environment or workplace.

Leadership techniques for your workplace

Celebrate milestones

Every job has boring periods — Rachael would build momentum by celebrating milestones, such as 100 days without blackouts.

Build self-awareness

Leaders need to reflect — don’t simply charge through each day.

Embrace diversity

There are five generations in the workforce — recognise this can be challenging and work at building trust in teams.




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