By Andrew Zaleski
In the mid-1980s, Robert Swan found himself surrounded by the white, icy nothingness of Antarctica, leading an expedition with two other men who, by that point, had grown to hate each other. His team, with no radio communications or back-up support, had trudged more than 400 miles already, and it was time to make a decision.
They could either turn back and retreat to base camp or continue on and haul their 360-pound sled an additional 500 miles toward the South Pole.
If he reached the pole, a feat that would take a total of 70 days in subzero temperatures, Swan and his team would complete the longest, unassisted march in history. But if he failed, they would die.
The outcome of Swan’s expedition became apparent when the 59-year-old walked on stage at the Welsh-Ryan Arena to close out the inaugural Kellogg on Growth Forum. Not only did Swan successfully reach the South Pole in 1987, but he also trudged to the North Pole in 1989.
“I am the first person in history stupid enough to have walked to both bloody poles,” Swan told the crowd, before adding that marching to one pole, let alone two, is “completely pointless.”
Lessons learned at the poles
Swan’s personal feats through polar expeditions taught the knighted Englishman important lessons about leadership. Being cooped up in tents with the same people over extended periods of time taught him how to be patient and listen to people.
He selected team members who weren’t “yes-men” and challenged him on key decisions. To make good time on his polar treks, he unconditionally trusted the route picked by whichever team member was leading on any given day. Once he decided he would march to both poles, Swan stuck to his decision so he wouldn’t be known as just a talker.
But perhaps the biggest lesson he imparted on the crowd was how to matter.
“I learned the most important thing about leadership: I realized I was not being relevant,” Swan said. “Yeah, I could remove garbage and polish penguins, but it wouldn’t really help preserve Antarctica. To become relevant, I had to become like you: business-like.”
Today, Swan helms 2041, an organization that takes its name from the year when the Antarctic Treaty System will be renegotiated, possibly lifting a moratorium on mining that has protected the southernmost continent since 1961.
Through annual expeditions with people from countries across the world, Swan has dedicated his life to preserving the Antarctic, raising awareness of the melting polar ice caps, and the importance of renewable energy.
And it all started because Swan decided to try something that other people thought was stupid.
“Dream big and do big things,” he said. “For boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”