Leading on the Edge - Extract from Chapter 11

Understand the game, and play your hand carefully

I decided to ensure that all expeditioners would have ready access to information about the science program. In previous expeditions, the scientists were expected to run their own programs in isolation. But this, I believe, was a mistake. Scientists needed the support of the tradies and engineers, and if the matter was urgent, as would sometimes happen, the person would need to drop what they were doing to help the scientist out.

Adding to the complexity was the issue of budgets. Where the science was paid for out of the individual science program budget, labour and materials for the engineers and trades would come from the Engineering budget. When faced with the question, ‘Do we continue to do the “programmed” work, or do we drop everything to help out this scientist?’, my view was that we drop the program work to help the scientist, because we were here for the science. A lack of knowledge, and pressure from the engineering program manager back in Hobart, could potentially derail this.

Cooperation through shared understanding To help alleviate the problem, I decided that every individual should know and understand all of the science program . . . a big ask!

To put out a communiqué that plumbed the scientific depths of each program would have been an exercise in futility. The concepts behind the science projects were complex, the language often unfathomable. So I asked each scientist to come up with two or three sentences explaining their science project. In plain English. In a form that an electrician or plumber or even a Station Leader might read and understand, so they would willingly drop what they were doing to lend a hand.

Now, these scientists, all card-carrying PhDs, were highly expert. Many of them had been working in an incredibly specialised field for decades and knew an enormous amount about their field of study. I was asking them to explain their work in a couple of sentences to people whose formal schooling may have finished in Year 10, who may have had no exposure to scientific concepts in their lives.

They couldn’t do it. Of the 40 or so scientists who were coming to Davis, only two were able to summarise their projects in this way. There was a lot of pushback. Why was I pressuring them to ‘dumb down’ their highly complex research. It was incredibly difficult for them, and me, to find the right balance between simplifying their research hypothesis so it was clear and understandable, and not dumbing it down so much that it actually became incorrect or meaningless. They were all justifiably proud of their work and didn’t want it oversimplified — totally understandable.




Monday 30th August

Today I met with the Program Leader of Biology, and he was totally inspiring!  I could have talked to him all day and as he explained the climate change data I really felt like I understood it. He also encouraged me to continue with the changes I’m trying to make, like creating plain English versions of the science work so that everyone can understand them.
Still only two summaries. 47 to go. (I think!)

Sharing leadership around

As more and more expeditioners started to arrive at training I quickly found my days consumed by daily interactions with my new staff. Unlike the other stations, almost all of my expeditioners were first-timers to Antarctica. They were unsure of what to do next, how to prepare, and required a lot of guidance and support. Many of these early interactions were extremely fruitful and important. I relished the opportunity to get to know each and every one of them at a personal level. However, many such interactions were highly transactional and mundane, and served little purpose other than to inform people about what was coming up next. As the rate of these interactions accelerated I felt myself sliding into ‘management’ mode. I was doing less leading and much more managing than I wanted.
I was concerned I would become the ‘go-to’ person for every request regardless of whether it was important and whether I was the best person to ask. If this was allowed to continue unchecked I would spend all my time managing the little things and lose the opportunity to keep my head above the daily grind and focus on the big, important things I would need to do to lead the expedition successfully.
I quizzed the other Station Leaders about how they handled this situation and the predominant response was just to stick with it. ‘This is how it is. They need to know all this stuff and they’ll be easier once they understand more. If it all gets too much I just lock my door,’ was one response. Again, I wasn’t satisfied with this. I didn’t want to spend the next three months and then a year in Antarctica being the font of all knowledge on station, but equally I didn’t want to run from my staff.

I began to toy with the idea of creating a small leadership team. I hadn’t heard of any expeditions sharing the management beyond an appointed deputy station leader, so again I was headed into uncharted territory. How positively Antarctic of me!

Wednesday 18th August

Finally had a day to start organising some things for my team. Sent out the first newsletter and arranged the first meeting.  I’m still trying to work out the roles and responsibilities of a Station Leadership Team.  This has never been formally done before so there is no guidebook or framework to follow. I’ve created leadership teams before so I know what I’m doing but I have to make sure I get the right balance of leadership and management responsibilities The AAD supported the move to use a wider group to guide decisions. Unsurprisingly, the concept was discounted by some of the other station leaders. Traditionally it was seen as very much a command and control leadership role. ‘I tell you what to do and you do it.’ I was told quite emphatically that it wouldn’t work, it couldn’t work and I would erode my position as leader by surrounding myself with a team. I thought, ‘Obviously this new kid on the block has very different ideas about how a station should operate!’

Friday 20th August

I met with Richard and he supports my ideas for wider involvement in decision making using an on-station leadership team. But he also kept mentioning the importance of maintaining Antarctic traditions like celebrating mid-winters with a swim etc.  Innovation meets tradition.
It’s going to require a fine balance between making changes to operate more professionally at the stations and keeping up the traditions. Some of the traditions no longer pass muster with today’s society, mixed gender and the like (e.g. compulsory shaving of heads on the way south – why? Who knows).
Richard brought up the issue of Station Leaders not being ‘one of the boys’ again. I don’t think he’s specifically targeting me. One of the other Station Leaders, who is returning for a second season, told me ‘the secret is to try not to ever say no…’. In my mind this isn’t good leadership. So I can see why Richard is banging on about it.
At this stage I am determined to manage with integrity and stay true to my own leadership style. I realise this will be bloody hard at times and no doubt there will be tears. I expect there will be many times when I will want to throw my hands in the air and say ‘sure, do it your way’ But these are the times I’ll need to stay strong and remember that I want to be a certain type of Station Leader.
My goal is to run a professional station with a strong leadership team and a happy, healthy community. I have to be careful because talking about professionalism may suggest I think the AAD is unprofessional. I don’t. I just think there is a new, better model for station management that I can implement. Maybe I’m wrong? Time will tell!  

information is power

My mind was like a sponge. I had moved into learning mode and was absorbing and assimilating information faster than it was given to me. I have never been particularly mentally agile; there have always been people around me who are much smarter. But I had an incredible thirst for knowledge about everything that might or might not be useful in Antarctica. So I quizzed people, asked questions, went to extra briefings.

I was convinced that the more I understood what was happening, at Davis, out on the ice and back in Hobart, the better I could lead. Time and again during training I was told ‘you don’t need to know that’. It frustrated me no end.

Friday 27th August

I’m worried about the lack of wintering experience among my expeditioners. Of the 18 going down, only two have been there in Winter before and one of those hasn’t been down for 20 years.  I wanted to get my head around what they did for work during winter so asked Richard for a copy of the ‘works program’ for my own benefit. I want to know what my guys are up to but I’m told ‘you don’t need to know that. The guys know what they’re doing so just let them get on with it’. I don’t think I conveyed WHY I need it to support delivery of the program.

It’s happening a lot. Today I also got a ‘you don’t need to DO that’.  I’m trying to bring innovation and change to the station but also to lead the team the best way I can, which means I need to use the tools that have worked for me in the past. Things like org charts and FAQs help clarify and communicate things and I find them useful. But it’s seen as criticising the status quo and what ‘has worked’. I’m not criticising. I just want to lead well and lead in my own way that I know works for me.
Maybe I should just say ‘no I don’t need that, YOU need me to have that’. Grrr…

Tuesday 31st August

Another day, and more office politics, continually being told ‘you don’t need to know that’. Bloody frustrated! Aaargh!  I know it’s not them being mean, they are trying to protect me from too much work by reassuring me that I don’t need to know the detail. But all the same, I’d like to make that decision myself!  My job is to build a supportive environment and I can’t do that when I don’t know what people are doing. But obviously people are reluctant to relinquish any power.

PS. Most of the team is thoroughly insulted by Nikki Gemmell’s new book on Antarctica that portrays expeditioners as ugly, bearded and sex-crazed! I’m certainly not bearded!  

I’d had enough! If I, as the leader of the expedition, was constantly being ‘put back into my box’ I could only imagine what my fellow expeditioners were experiencing. I decided there and then to absolutely break through this culture, if not for the broader AAD then for my people. I wanted to ensure they had all the information they would need. It needed to be easy to find and easy to consume. I turned to the ‘Davis Station Handbook’ that had been provided. It was a scant 24 pages, roughly cobbled together from bits and pieces, snippets of information from disparate sources. It covered station-specific items such as meal times, muster points for emergencies and included a map of the various buildings.  I determined to compile a comprehensive handbook. One that would be useful for all expeditioners. One that my people could turn to first for guidance. It would be practical but also informative. It would contain all the things you would expect on entering a new workplace — who does what, when and where, how we are structured and organised. But it would also explain what we are doing and why. And, it would absolutely contain the summaries of all science and trade programs.

As with many changes I had tried to bring to our expedition, there was resistance. I anticipated opposition from the usual suspects, fellow Station Leaders and past Station Leaders, for whom the existing handbook was more than enough. Water off a duck’s back . . .  by now I was kind of immune!