Davis Station in Antarctica showing a small line of colorful tiny buildings surronded by white above and below, snow and ice. Davis Station, Antarctica (Photo:Shutterstock)

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In another time and place, before "coronavirus" and "socialdistancing" became part of the everyday vocabulary, oneleader learned crucial lessons that apply to leaders andmanagers today. Rachael Robertson was the youngest and only secondfemale expedition leader at Davis Station, Antarctica, in charge ofleading a diverse workforce in one of the world's mostextreme and isolated workplaces.

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She was presented with employeesof different professions and skills, from scientists totradespeople, of different generations, religions, andcultures, and told to "turn them into a team." Theauthor of two books about her experience,she discussed what it was like to workin the Antarctic as Station Manager of theAustralian Antarctic research base–and how the skills andstrategies she developed apply in many ways to our hereand now.

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BENEFITSPRO: How did you end upworking in Antarctica?

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RACHAEL ROBERTSON: It was quite by accident.The Australian Antarctic Division was recruiting station leadersfor the next year's expedition. They were looking for generalmanagers with extensive leadership experience. Knowledge ofAntarctica wasn't necessary–lucky for me as I'd onlybeen around snow once in my life, on a schoolexcursion.

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Rachael Robertson

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What intrigued me was the fact they recruited for personalattributes over technical ability. The Antarctic Division figuredthey could teach you about environmental policy or waste managementor the Antarctic treaty during the three months oftraining. But they couldn't teach you resilience, integrity andempathy.

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I decided then and there to apply for the job. Not because Iwanted it. But I had a fiendish plan to get as far as the jobinterview so I could learn what questions they were using and bringthem back to my organization. I was managing a team of customerservice staff and struggling to recruit people with resilience andempathy. This was my brilliant and foolproof plan.

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Except, as I soon discovered, they don't have a job interview.They have a week-long boot camp in a remote mountainarea. It was designed to pile the pressure on to see howwe'd cope. Imagine my surprise when they offered me the job. I was35 years old, single, my house was a rental, so I figured 'whynot?' I just decided I would rather "regret what I did, than regretwhat I didn't do."

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What was one of the toughest leadership challenges youfaced?

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In summer, when there were 120 people on the station, a planecrashed. A bolt sheared off the landing gear. Itstranded four of my people 300 miles away. They had 10days' worth of food on board, but we had four days ofblizzards and I was responsible for leading the search andrescue.

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I realized my team was watching me,  taking cues frommy behavior about whether to be worried or not about theirfour colleagues. My body language and words needed to instillconfidence. Additionally, I needed to be seen about theplace – even though I wanted to hunker down and manage thesearch and rescue, I needed to be seen to be leading.

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It's no different to what leaders are experiencing today. It's aleadership legacy moment – how we handle returning fromisolation back to the office will be long remembered by ourpeople.

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We got our four expeditioners back on Day 5 but it wasa lesson for me on the importance of not just leading throughadversity, but also being seen to be leading in a very publicmanner.

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What skills did you have or need to develop to deal withlife there?

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Resilience and self-awareness are top of the list. You need theability to understand what you can control and influence versuswhat you have no control over.

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So many things happen outside your control, particularly weatherevents, which we call the 'A' factor. I would plan for a plane totake scientists into the field to do their sampling, then ablizzard arrives and all plans are off.  You need to learnhow to deal with that.

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Self-awareness is also critical. The interpersonal pressure ishuge, and we have no privacy there. The ability to know andunderstand what pushes your buttons is important because it meansyou can remove yourself from a situation before it escalates.

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Equally, the ability to know how you are perceived by others isvery important. It's like standing on a balcony and looking downand watching yourself – you need that level of self-awarenessbecause we are living so closely with a team of very diversepeople.

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What lessons learned can you offer managers dealing withthe "new normal" now, and after the pandemicends?

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The most important thing is to understand there will be aspectrum of responses to returning to work. Some people will bethrilled to be back to a new normal. Others will be scared; someambivalent.

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I recommend leaders ask their people how excited they are aboutthe new normal on a scale of 1 to 10 and notice the difference.Also, physical contact will be an interesting dynamic. For singlepeople living alone, and not being able to visit family andfriends, it may have been months without even a handshake. On theother hand, there will be the people craving human interaction anddesperate for a hug. We need to respect that difference.

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My number one tool for leaders is to implement  aculture of No Triangles — which simply means, I don't speak toyou about him. You don't speak to me,about her. If someone has done something to upset you,then you have the professional courtesy and respect to go directlyto that person. You don't take it to a third party.

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For leaders, this frees up time and energy, which meansthey can focus on the important things that need to be done thatadd value to the team or business.

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What lessons learned can you offer workers?

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Manage your bacon wars! We had a major dispute that threatenedto shut down the station: Should the bacon be soft or crispy? Theteam wanted me to call a staff meeting to decide how it should becooked on Mondays, when the chef had the morning off.

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When I asked a few more questions, I got to the bottom of it anddiscovered one team thought the other team was deliberately cookingthe bacon the opposite way to what they wanted, just to irritatethem. So the issue was actually about respect – they were feelingdisrespected. It manifested in the bacon.

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Every workplace has their Bacon Wars. They are seemingly small,irrelevant issues that grate on people but build up until theybecome distractions and affect productivity. It may be dirty coffeecups; people who are consistently late for meetings; people playingon phones while someone is presenting…they appear to be smalloffences but in reality they are usually a symptom of a deeperissue.

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In the past we may have just put up with them, but I fullyexpect as we return to the office after an extended absence thesebacon wars will be magnified. My advice to workers is to raise theissue, discuss it, sort it out and put it to bed. When you aregoing through sudden change as we all have now, there is enough todeal with without these annoying behaviors which are reallysymptoms of a deeper issue–a lack of respect. Speak up.

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About your books – what seems to resonate withpeople?

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Both of my books are full of stories from Antarctica. The firstbook, Leading on the Edge, is a leadership book full ofpractical tools that I used to build a strong, high-performing teamfrom a group of random strangers. This book became aninternational bestseller in a matter of weeks because it's apractical, easy to read book. I kept getting emails from peopletelling me how much it had changed their lives, so I wanted to knowwhy and how.

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The second book, Respect Trumps Harmony, quantifies theimpact of implementing my tools, like No Triangles. We surveyed 200teams from across different industries and sectors. I was stunnedby the results–100% of the teams said the tool builtrespect, improved morale and encouraged innovation. The other partthat astounded me was 89% said it freed up time and energy, and in30% of cases it freed up to an hour a day.

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Would you go back?

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I loved the experience, and I don't regret it for one second.But the scrutiny of the leadership role, where you are beingwatched all day, every day, for a year, was exhausting. I never hada day off and was on call 24/7 for over a year. There issimply no ability to say, "I don't feel like leading today, I'mgoing have a day off."

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I learned to manage my boundaries better and not automaticallyrespond to the 'have you got a minute?' request (because it's nevera minute).  I realized if I was available to theteam every second, then eventually I would burn out. I needed tohave some boundaries that protected my time and space to ensure Iwas mentally strong enough to lead these folks around theclock.

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What would you say to people who wonder ifthey could do something on a similar level tochallenge themselves?

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I truly believe it's better to regret what you did, than regretwhat you didn't do. Whether it's a job promotion, online dating,learning a new skill, moving to a new country, it's always betterto have a go. If it doesn't work out you can always make anotherdecision. That's much better than living your life wondering 'whatif?'

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In terms of career opportunities I ask myself twoquestions. The first is, do I truly have the capabilitythat's expected and required? Can I actually do this? If you thinkyou can, you go for it. Even if you only have 80 percent of thecapability, you'll pick up the rest on the job with mentoring andtraining and experience.

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The second question is, can I acquire thatcapability in time? I knew I had the ability to leadpeople. I'd been doing that for 16 years. But I wasn't sure if Icould get my head around Antarctic science and the Antarctic treatyand managing complex capital works programs.

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It was then a case of saying, Okay, have I got time to learnthat? We had three months of predeparture training, and in between,I was reading and learning every spare minute. So, when I askedmyself the question, can I learn all of this technical knowledge intime? I realized, yes I could.  If my answer had beendifferent, if I didn't feel competent or confident that I couldlearn all I needed to know before we set sail, then I would havepassed up the opportunity.

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What was the most important leadership lesson youlearned?

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In Antarctica, my performance review was conducted by a thirdparty, a psychologist. That person meets privately with everyperson on the expedition team and asks about my performance asleader. When I sat down with the psychologist and askedher, "Well, what did they say?" She said, "They said you wereinspiring."

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I asked, "What about me is inspiring?" Was it how Ihandled the plane crash? She said no.

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"Was it that I worked 16 hours a day through summer every dayfor four months?" No.

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"Was it that I changed some policies so that we had a lot moretransparency around how resources were allocated? Or was it themasterpiece of an Excel spreadsheet I had for our rosters?"

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She said, "Well… Richard mentioned that his kid had a concertback in Australia and the next morning when you saw him, you askedhim if he phoned home to find out how was Lachie's concert. Martinementioned that you knew the names of all 120 people on your stationover summer and where they were from. Dallas mentioned that onetime he was on kitchen duty mopping the floors and stillgoing at 9 o'clock at night, and you came in to get a cup oftea and put a few chairs on the table to help–you didn'tsay anything, you just helped him out."

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My initial thought was, "So I didn't have to work 16 hourdays." But it made me realize it was the moments that theyremembered about living and working with me for a year, and whatthey found inspiring were the small interactions that occurred on adaily basis. The moments that matter.

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I thought to be an inspiring leader you needed to be anextrovert, to have a big personality. Now I realize it's not aboutpersonality or introverts and extroverts. It's about making peoplefeel valued

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As the wonderful Maya Angelou said: "I've learned that peoplewill forget what you said, people will forget what you did, butpeople will never forget how you made them feel."

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C.J. Marwitz

C.J. Marwitz is a writer and editor.