Robert Swan is a polar explorer, environmentalist, and the first man ever to walk unsupported to both the North and South Poles. He compares his icy experiences to boardroom maneuvers and his inspirational addresses have received the acclaim of discerning audiences worldwide. It is Robert’s lifetime goal to work for the preservation of the Antarctic, as it is the last great wilderness on earth. Discover more about Robert and his mission and how to create your leadership story on today’s podcast.
Developing a Leadership Story, 50 Year Missions, Survival and Inspiration
Welcome to the show, Rob.
Wonderful to be with you.
So, I first heard you talk at the Royal Geographical Society in the late 1980s, and then 30 years later, we met, working with a CEO and his leadership team on helping his company become more innovative and develop their leadership story. I’m curious, as I’m sure our listeners are, how did you become an explorer?
Well, I started at the age of 11 when I saw a film called “Scott of the Antarctic” about the great British explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and it was just this amazing film about courage, about Antarctica, this place at the bottom of the world, and I just wanted to be like Captain Scott, Ernest Shackleton, the real explorers. This just came into me and, thank goodness, it never left. So, it was a dream right at the beginning.
I guess it wasn’t straightforward? I recall you spent a number of years preparing for your first expedition. What were the key lessons that came out of that rather challenging journey? I think you were driving a taxi and living kind of hand to mouth. What were your key lessons on that that you took away from your first expedition and use in your leadership story, Rob?
Well, 30 years ago, people did not have the luxury, I wish I had it, of flying into Antarctica. Today, people can undertake journeys in Antarctica by flying there. Thirty years ago, we were the first private expedition to go to Antarctica after Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen. So, we had to buy a ship, we had to live in Antarctica for a year, we had to have all kinds of extra expenditure. So, about 30 years ago, I had to raise $5 million, which is a stack load of money today, but it was a huge amount 30 years ago. So, it took, in total, seven years to raise the money. I had no credibility, I had never been on an expedition, I was really doing the whole thing because it went down well with girls at parties. You know, this was just a young person with a crazy dream, in many ways.
But, what I learned is that in a world, even then, dominated by, I think, too much instant communication, I learned that people would take me seriously if I actually walked the talk, if I actually believe in what I was saying, that I was willing to spend those years working as a taxi driver on the streets of London. I think I gained credibility by persistence. I also learned a key thing in life to do with sales that if people say no to you, listen as to why they’re saying no. Because, if you listen carefully enough, you eventually will understand how to get a yes. So, being positive, hanging on in there, walking the talk, and I think, also, showing persistence, gaining some sort of credibility by not giving up.
So, you learned those skills over the period of time and you made it out there in the first expedition. Was this early 90s?
This was late 80s and there was a huge battle. We had to sail from England to the Antarctic, and eventually, when the ice settled, rather than the dust settling, there we were, five of us in Antarctica living for one whole year, and then three of us would make a journey to the South Pole without radio communications, without backup. Just three of us on the longest unassisted march ever made anywhere on Earth. A huge undertaking, but that was the plan.
Someone once said to me that if you can survive a few weeks with someone in a tent, they become a very good friend. I mean, you were a year with these four other individuals. What did that teach you about people and about your own leadership style?
Well, I was a young person, but I did realize, being the number seven in the family, I’m the youngest of seven, and I realized, early in life, that why people upset me is because they’re right. So, I learned, early on, that you need different people on a team, that diversity might be hard, but it’s actually really strong. So, if we were on the expedition and everybody was thinking the same, we’d die.
So, I learnt that diversity, five people who did not like each other, living in a box for nine months, I realized that that was actually strong, however irritating it might have been. And learnt also that if you’ve got a strong group of people, you should have the courage to choose them. You should have the courage to choose people who challenge you, who maybe even want your job, this is all part of my leadership story. That’s strong, and we learnt, inside that hut, in those tents, that two simple ways of survival and holding the team together, one, was to try to tell each other the truth and, secondly, to try and learn to listen to what people were really saying rather than listening to what you want to hear. The very fact we survived, we must have got something right.
I mean, those are timeless kind of truths, I guess, so I can imagine, but maybe you can just confirm, when you talked to corporations, and I think you address new entrants in Wall Street banks and the new interns, do these messages still resonate or do people feel they know it, but in actual fact, you have to drive home the message in a far stronger way, if you’d like?
I think, well we’re very lucky is that if we make mistakes, we die. So, it’s not some sort of corporate message from some leadership book, this is actually survival, and therefore, it’s very simple, and I think that people do listen to what we learnt, and we didn’t always get it right. We made a lot of mistakes, but I think keeping it simple in a world that is slightly over complicated and far too many words, keeping it simple, a very simple straightforward message underlined by the fact, “If we get it wrong, we don’t come home.”
Yeah, very powerful. Then, one of the things that came out, I think, of this expedition was 2041. Can you say a little bit about that and maybe explain to the listeners what that is, but then the second question is why do you think a mission is so important? Those are two questions; can you have a go at that?
Of course. I think that it was actually quite easy to have a mission to become the first person in history to walk to both Poles. It actually was, physically, very hard. It was really hard to raise money, but it was a very simple, straightforward goal. So, when people said, “What is Robert Swan doing?” “He’s trying to walk to both Poles.” They probably would say, “That’s a bit strange,” but they would understand it. So, I think it is absolutely crucial to always have a clear mission and stand for something, otherwise people don’t know what they’re dealing with, whether you’re just an average person like myself or some very important CEO, or you’re trying to set up your own company and get things going as an entrepreneur.
So, what came out of walking to both Poles, and let me say, the first person in history stupid enough to walk to both Poles, that’s for sure, but what came out of that was this mission given to me by the great Jacques Cousteau from France. He said, “Rob,” and he said this to me 25 years ago, “Please, can you make sure we have the sense to leave one place alone on Earth alone forever, the Antarctic.” The treaty that preserves Antarctica, we all own it right now. Nobody owns it, no country owns it. We all have a responsibility for it.
That treaty can be altered, can be changed in the year 2041. So, I have been on a 50-year-mission given by Jacques Cousteau to inspire, especially young people, that we should look after the last great wilderness left on Earth. I have 25 years to go on that mission. It’s clear, it’s precise, people know where they stand. That’s so important.
I guess that, as you say, clarity and precision and understanding, as you go into large organizations and work with executive teams, what are you seeing? What are the barriers that are being put up that you help them, perhaps, remove in this area of mission, in this area of clarity, in this area of leadership model that gets the results that they’re looking for?
I think the people in great corporations are doing a fantastic job, I might say, much better than I could do. But, what I try and bring to the table is this idea that all of us often overcomplicate things. Maybe we don’t stand back enough to see where we really are, and I think it’s terribly important to stand back and think about one simple thing, especially as a leader. That doesn’t matter whether you’re a leader on your own with one person setting up a company or you’re the leader of a massive, fantastic corporation, what people get wrong, in my humble opinion, is that they expect people to remain inspired by one simple message that you give, one big speech to the annual conference, one quick chat to the one person that works with you or your small team.
No! Human nature is such that inspiration tails away. So, I think it’s really important in your leadership story to revisit inspiration, to go back to your people and tell them where things are. Reinspire them on the mission, keep it simple. I call it “sustainable inspiration”. Go back and not expect people to be psychic. On average, we are not psychic. So, go back, revisit. Don’t just drive the ship and expect those people behind you in the engine room running the ship as a metaphor that they actually know exactly what you’re thinking and doing. So, I think more communications, more sustainable inspiration is a huge part of what I see missing.
I think the second thing that I see missing is that people are not as truthful as they should be, in my opinion. I don’t think that people trust each other enough in companies, and especially a lot of leaders I meet pretend to empower people, but they don’t really. They just spend most of their time looking over other people’s shoulders. If you truly want to empower people, you must. So, I come across complexity, and I think it’s important to make that simple.
As you were talking about sustainable inspiration, the question that came to me straightaway, Rob, is how do you personally sustain your levels of inspiration and motivation? I mean, 50 years in the world of quarterly earnings is I mean, it’s 200 quarterly earnings calls, right? It’s a long, long time. Very few people actually think that long. How do you do it? Where are your wellsprings of energy that help you sustain your personal levels of inspiration?
Well, just like anybody, I actually have to pay the bills, so I have to try and create something that is reasonably sustainable from a business sense, and that’s normally a massive failure. But, I do try to be businesslike. I also believe that it’s important that if somebody in my area on preservation and inspiration of young people needs to try and at least be businesslike, otherwise businesses don’t take you seriously.
So, yes, I am inspired to try and pay my bills, to make sure that my medical insurance is covered and that my son can go to college. Pretty simple stuff, like everybody else, but when I look at our world, I’m truly inspired by hope. We live in such a gloomy world. We live in a world that’s over-dominated by negative news, and what inspires me is to try and be, in my own very small way, positive amongst that negativity, that’s part of my leadership story. It really inspires me to have returned, very recently, from the Antarctic with 140 young leaders from 30 different nations and to see their enthusiasm and their hope. Facebook is on fire, and all these young people have really come back inspired in a way that makes me want to carry on.
So, I think, like anybody, I’m inspired by results. I’m inspired to try and do my best. But, truly, I’m inspired when I think of where we are. We’re on this tiny, small dot in a universe that goes on forever. I’m very privileged to work closely with NASA on some of the new missions that we’re undertaking in Antarctica. As they say, there is no one, anywhere out there, in the kind of sphere that we’ve got. So, we’re pretty much on our own and we should, as best we can, look after what we have because there’s nowhere else to go. So, that inspires me.
Excellent, excellent. You mentioned, just at the end, that you’ve just come back from Antarctica. You had 140 people from 30 nations. I’m curious, was this a mixture of executives and young people or was it fundamentally young people on this trip?
What I like to do in Antarctica is to have the full mix. So, we have executives who come and they are our mentors to Antarctica and they’re mixed in with fabulous young people from a diversity of nations of which I’m so proud. So, you’ve got the young people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates. Really important countries, to me, mixed in with senior executives from the UK, Switzerland, Germany, the United States of America, and what’s really interesting, Mark, is that the executives go away hugely refreshed and inspired by the young people because, after all, they need to learn how young people really think because their businesses within the next 15 or 20 years are going to have these young people employed. These young people are going to be people who are buying their products or their services. So, they go away, both sides truly inspired by each, and that’s a magic mix, especially in the most extraordinary place on Earth: Antarctica.
A number of our listeners are Millennials and they constitute, today, the most significant economic force in the history of mankind, demographically. As you say, a number of them actually are beginning to run some of these large organizations. I’m curious, but also, our listeners are executives and senior leaders in some of these more mature, perhaps, organizations. So, give us a sense. Just paint a little picture as if I was watching on a video. The first evening when you’re talking to some executives and some younger people in the I don’t know whether it was a bar or on the ship, but I just want to get a sense of what kind of conversations were happening? Give us an example of a couple of the big insights that people took away early on that really surprised them from this immersive experience you’ve invited them into.
Well, what is fantastic about going to Antarctica is that there isn’t a mobile phone buzzing on your desk or in front of you because they don’t work. So, people actually can have conversations, which is fantastic, and it’s very simple. It really is simple. First, we are in the last great wilderness left on Earth and outside, you have the most spectacular place, which is trying to tell us something. We see where the great ice caps are melting.
We see evidence that, for climate change doubters, just go to Antarctica and you’ll see huge areas of ice that shouldn’t be breaking off. So, that is, without being negative, is incredibly positive. The second thing which is really, really important that we try and work on from day one, is this idea that all of us have a leadership story. You cannot inspire other people if you don’t have a leadership story. Who are you? What have you done so far? How are you going to take this forward? We spend a lot of time on the expedition working with people on their leadership story. Where are you going? How is your leadership story going to engage with other people?
So, people go back with a really good method and way and content for their leadership story. And for any of our listeners, get your leadership story right. Because, when you’re in front of either your entire company or you’re in front of your first possible sale as a young entrepreneur, get your leadership story right. Without a leadership story, you will not inspire other people in order to engage with what you’re trying to say, and if what you’re trying to say is, “Hey, let’s do the right thing on the environment, let’s get more renewable energy going, let’s make businesses out of looking after our little old world,” get your story right. Creating a leadership story is probably the biggest thing that we work on during the expedition as well as leadership skills, teamwork skills, and also understanding how to take on sustainability that is part of your life, not having it as a separate issue, but having it integral to your life.
You talk, clearly, this is a hugely powerful transformative experience for a lot of people coming on this kind of expedition. To what extent do what are some of the younger participants who are faced with life choices who are, perhaps, thinking about how are they going to spend their life? I mean, how do they respond to someone who has made a 50-year commitment who’s got a very clear leadership story and who is also exposing them to some of the things that some of the consequences of previous generations’ behavior on the planet. Give us a sense of what ideas, what steps do people take, having left your expedition. Are they all planning to rush off into the corporate world, or are there a lot of entrepreneurs who burst forth from your expeditions, for instance.
What people take away mostly from the expedition is a sense of hope, a sense that, yes, we can do something about our own lives in very simple terms. I don’t take people to the Antarctic to save Antarctica. I take people to the Antarctic to make sure we help them make a huge success of their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their corporate careers, their entrepreneurial careers. Why? Because, that really puts them in a strong position that, in 25 years’ time, when our world will decide on the future of the last great wilderness left on world, and please bear in mind that if we left Antarctica go, there’s nowhere left that we could show generations, thousands of years from now, that we actually did the right thing. So, in 25 years’ time, successful people will be in a position to help preserve the Antarctic.
So, it’s helping them now so they can help us in a powerful position in the future. What people do, really interestingly, is to feel not like they’re going to go hug a tree and sort of be all green. No! What they come back with is that sense that they could set up their own business. They could become a really good entrepreneur. They could go into the corporate world, join, if you like, the enemy with big corporations, oil companies, gas companies, energy companies, and say, “Hey, we can join some of the biggest companies in the world and make a difference,” because all of them are aware, clearly, that they flew in an airplane to the most southerly city in the world, and they’re on a boat powered by fossil fuels.
So, they come away with the same that, in order to move things forward on our planet, you can’t just have one side of the equation saying, “Hey, let’s all be green, hug a tree, and wind and solar is the only way forward.” No. There is a balance somewhere in the middle. Making good business is key, especially if those young people, which many, many do, come from countries like India, China, the future powerhouses of the planet. So, when they go back to those nations, they’re thinking, “Hey, we’ve got to set up a business. We’ve got to get things going, but let’s do all those things in the most sustainable way we possibly can.” Why? Because it means good business.
Got it. Got it. So, Rob, thanks for that. What are your plans for the future?
30 years ago, I was that first person in history stupid enough to walk to both poles, and over the last couple of years, the situation that we face on Earth Mark, I am not an explorer. I am not an environmentalist. I don’t even like the word. I’m not a scientist. But, actually, you’re speaking to a person that is pretty good at staying alive. I’m a survivor, whether that be in business or it be on expeditions.
In the last year, in fact, only in the last six months has the world been told, endlessly, by the likes of NASA, who are not saying, “It’s climate change or global warming.” They’re measuring these things that huge areas of Antarctica which they didn’t think were disintegrating or melting are. Now, that might be to do with climate change. It could be just part of the natural cycle. Personally, I think we believe we are responsible with 7.2 billion of us pumping out a hell of a lot of energy into the atmosphere. I think we probably are responsible for some of these things. So, that is a massive challenge. Sea level will rise, Antarctica is disintegrating, and we need to respond to that challenge.
So, over the next two years, we’re undertaking what we call the South Pole Energy Challenge, and I’m so proud to be partnered with NASA on this, and basically, what we’re doing is that, at the end of 2017, my son, Barney, who’s 21, and I are undertaking a 600 mile journey on foot from the edge of the Antarctic, and trust me, this wasn’t actually in the plan of life. Because, at my age, I’ll be 60. To undertake a journey like this is pretty damn hard work, but we’re doing it at the end of 2017, and we’re going to survive only on renewable energy, something that has never been done in the Antarctic.
So, this requires very careful use of small wind, small solar to melt the ice so we can drink and survive, and our backup will be some fantastically strange bio-fuels to really inspire young people. We’ve got bio-fuel made from maggots. We’ve got bio-fuel made from waste coffee, from waste food just to show young people who are following my son and I and he can deal with all the fabulous young people. I will deal with the more senior people to say, “Hey, we’re out here freezing our you-know-what’s off it again and we’re surviving on renewable energy. We’re walking across the great ice caps. But, deep down, our melting, which are a threat to our world and, hey what are you doing with your energy?” in a really positive way. Inspiring people to think about energy, to think about, perhaps, using more renewable energy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
To get there, I might be stupid, Mark, but I’m not crazy. So, to get there at the end of this year, 2016, I’m taking a team down to Antarctica to test out all of these different types of renewable energy so when we undertake the expedition, we’re not going to be close to death yet again. So, a lot of communications, a lot of effort, a lot of inspiration for young people because what young people say to me, Mark, is very simple. They say, “Rob, we do not need any more information. We have too much. What we need is inspiration, and that is what we try to do in our very own small way.”
Wonderful. I mean, so many institutions that used to provide some of that inspiration have just been shown over the recent years to be wanting, and it’s rare. It’s rare and I can understand that. So, where can people get in touch with you, Rob? I think there’s also your wonderful YouTube videos that’s been viewed by several million people, but where can people get in touch with you?
Well, they can get in touch personally with me. We’re all a family. They can look at our very modest but fun website, which is 2041.com, and I’ll be delighted to hear from anybody.
We’re out there to help in a world, which I think is overly-dominated by bad news. So, let’s all be in the good news business. That will help us, it will help our future, and it will help our business.
Brilliant. Absolutely. So, I have to say, as I said in the beginning, you and I first met 30 years ago and it’s been wonderful to get to know you again and about creating a leadership story and I’m very excited about what we might be able to do in the future. So, Rob, last three questions which I sent through to you yesterday. First question: what are your morning rituals when you’re not on a boat on the way to Antarctica?
Good question, Mark. Morning rituals, it’s what is, which is absolutely pathetic, actually. I am often overused by technology. So, right now, I’m really irritated with my morning ritual. It’s sort of like get up, sit in front of the laptop, get some messages out, panic about all this money raising, fundraising, maybe do a couple of stretches, and if I’m really feeling positive and the weather’s good, might go out for a bike ride.
So, I’m under a lot of pressure right now with all that we’re doing and I’m not handling it very well. By the mid-afternoon, I’m in much better shape and I’ll go out bicycling. That’s how it is now. It’s just dominated by technology, endless looking at screens, calling up people, drinking five gallons of coffee, and it’s not good, Mark. It’s not good.
What I would like to be, and I’m working towards it, and maybe two or three days a week now, I’m saying, “Stop.” I go outside, sit, have a look around, do some more stretches, breathe a bit more, and very gradually, get into my workday. I just think, when you die, no one remembers you more than about two weeks, so why die all stressed and pushed out. I think how you start the day is really important. So, right now, I’m in a storm. I would like to be more calm when I start the day and not be over-dominated by too much technology.
Well, I’ll do my bit by sending you the email first thing in the morning to make sure that you are not looking at technology but you are out on your bike. Because, that’s what you need to do if you’re going to be successful on your trip with Barney at the end of next year, right? I guess your levels of fitness need to be pretty high.
Yeah, and that is an absolute priority, and a lot of people say to me, “Rob, why do you keep doing these things?” Well, actually, I keep doing these things because exactly what you just said. At the end of this year, I’ve got to be ready to roll and it will really, really hurt me, and perhaps even be dangerous if I don’t get my act together. So, yeah, it’s an inspiration to look after me more than, perhaps, sometimes I have.
Yeah, okay. Second question: what have you changed your mind about recently, Rob?
I’ve changed my mind recently about the volume of work that I take on. I have always been somebody blessed with a massive amount of energy, a massive amount of attack power, and I suddenly realized that, actually, I do far too many things that I don’t need to do, that I need to be a lot more picky and decisive rather than just always saying yes, which I do. I have to learn to politely say no and manage my time much, much better and not just rely on the fact that I have an endless supply of firepower.
I’ll tell you why. Because I think it’s boring to be the person that’s always the driven person doing everything always, and my son, Barney, has helped me hugely in making that choice. “Dad, let’s just say no.” So, I’m saying no more than I ever have.
Wonderful. I guess, there’s this concept of the idea of the unfair advantage. There’s something so unique about each of us, and if one’s able to focus all one’s resources on what makes us unique and outsource everything else, you have this sort of compound effect where you get far more done, and it becomes far more effortless as well, because you’re not putting up with all the stuff that you don’t necessarily enjoy doing, but you’ve said yes and you feel a sense of commitment for having to do it.
Exactly. I have always got remember, I don’t sell anything. I don’t sell a product. I sell hope, I sell dreams, I sell expeditions, I try to preserve Antarctica. So, a lot of people have helped me get where we are, and I always felt a responsibility to always say yes to everything because everybody had always helped me. But, I’m realizing now that I need to help myself first, and then perhaps with a bit more organization, I can help what I’m doing much better. So, more focus is the question. Looking after me better is probably the solution.
Got it. Finally, and this is probably very real for you. You’ve mentioned Barney already. What advice would you have for your 25-year-old self?
Very simple, and that’s this, that I now try to put myself in the shoes of other people. So, if I’m giving a talk, talking to you this morning, I’m thinking, “Yeah, Mark’s in Switzerland, this is him, this is what’s going on,” trying to put myself in other people’s shoes who I’m dealing with. That’s what I could have done a lot better when I was 25. At 25, I was out of control, totally focused just on walking to both Poles, nothing, nobody. It just was a storm to make it happen, which probably was important for it to happen. But, I believe that one should put yourself in other people’s shoes. I’ve learnt that. It’s created a lot of success for the way I deal with people now. I wish I’d learnt that when I was 25.
Great. Well, it’s been a great pleasure having you on the show, Rob. I’m sure our audience enjoyed it as much as I did, and thanks very much for your time today.
Well, good luck to you, Mark. You’re doing some great stuff. And to the audience, thank you very much for listening, and good luck to you all.
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