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Antarctic Expedition Leader Who Spent 9 Months in Isolation Reveals How You Can Lead Through a Crisis

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As we enter times of uncertainty, social distancing and essentially lockdown, how do we lead our teams and families through this crisis?

Someone who is familiar with total isolation is Rachael Robertson, an Australian speaker, executive advisor and author of the new book, Respect Trumps Harmony. Rachael led a team of eighteen people through a year-long expedition in Antarctica, which involved nine months of total isolation and months of darkness.

“While the environment was tough – minus 35 degrees and blizzards, the interpersonal pressure was much harder, as we experienced compounding anxiety, boredom and a lack of privacy;” she says. “Our current situation is similar – as we’re staying inside, isolated from families, friends and our normal routine.”

So, to help leaders (be it at home as parents or work) work their way through this unprecedented situation, here are Rachael’s most useful tips:

  1. Choose your words carefully and thoughtfully. In Antarctica, four members of Rachael’s team were stranded 500km away from base due to a plane crash. Leading the search and rescue, she conveyed to her team that she had “concerns” rather than being ‘worried”, very different words that convey very different emotions.
  2. Have poise and maintain calm body language. Regulate your voice so it conveys authority and decisiveness.
  3. Communicate clearly and often. If you don’t communicate regularly then people are left to fill in the gaps, which is often the worst-case scenario. During Rachael’s search and rescue, she sent out emails every two hours, even when she had nothing to update, she said, “I have nothing new to add but just to confirm…”.
  4. Early intervention for any issues that arise. You need to set expectations and boundaries with your co-workers, families and housemates early on, as small things are magnified under stress.

In Antarctica, Rachael also created a culture where people could speak up early and respectfully, rather than let issues fester. To achieve this, she used three main tools, which any individual can replicate in their own context right now:

  1. No Triangles – a tool to stop gossip, improve accountability and drive innovation. It is the practice of direct conversations e.g.: I don’t speak to you about him, and you don’t speak to me about her. If I have an issue with someone I go direct to that person, I don’t take it to a third party.
  2. Bacon Wars – a gentle circuit breaker for calling out dysfunctional behavior. Every workplace or home has a seemingly small issue, which is actually a symptom of a deeper issue, and that is a lack of respect. E.g. leaving dirty mugs in the sink, chronically turning up to meetings late.
  3. Lead without a title – leadership is a behaviour, not a title. It’s seeing something that needs to be done and doing something about it, so that responsibility and initiative is shared. E.g. saying ‘no’ to social invitations right now or instilling a sense of confidence at home.

Rachael knows that these tools work as she researched 200 teams, including corporate teams, schools and volunteer groups, who implemented these. From this, 100% of respondents cited that these tools improved morale, 89% said a culture of no triangles had a significant impact on productivity (freeing up to 1 hour a day) and 89% said it reduced gossip.

“From my 15 years of experience and speaking at over 1,500 events on these issues, the evidence is clear. When leaders can lead with empathy and clarity, we can steer people through a crisis,” she concludes.

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