Everyone who knows me, knows how highly I value the capability to lead yourself. Not only to feel personally stronger or to be able to deal in a better way with setbacks, but also to be a more impactful leader. To be able to lead others one has first of all to be able to lead him/herself.
As I coach & train senior managers in this topic, I challenged my own personal leadership skills last year, and participated in a North Expedition within the Arctic Circle. An unique experience, in which I could see whether I would be able to apply my own principles on personal leadership.
6 athletes and 1 runner
Personal Leadership is managing your energy: mental-physical-emotional. Some are better at the start, others at the finish.
After months of preparation I gather with 6 participants and the expedition leader at the start of a 9 days expedition without any standard comfort: no electricity, no water, no phone connection. Nine days I will be disconnected from the professional world. All food and equipment is stocked in our six pulka sleds that we will have to pull ourselves. My six teammates seem to have a high calibre athletic background: one participated in Paris-Dakar (for bikes!), another one biked the Andes trail, Sven’s is a semi-pro skier and loves heli-skiing, Kim has a black belt karate and Kristof participates in his 5th expedition. Just to say these are real athletes. In contrast I’m a runner…, that’s it. To be honest, it doesn’t motivate me but as my former Nike colleague tends to say: “it is what it is”. No doubt, the others are better, at least ‘on paper’. Can I influence it? No. So let’s not think about it and keep thinking how well I prepared myself the past months. Well, at least that’s what I hope…
Overall objective is to reach our final destination within the next 9 days of which one day is a spare one we can use in case of bad weather or other setbacks. It’s impossible to return once you are on the road. If one has to stop, it will be either a ski-scooter or a helicopter that will have to pick him/her up, depending where exactly we are located.
A good start is half the race, a bad one as well.
Personal Leadership: you are not responsible for your thoughts; you are responsible for what you do with it. Bring back your objectives.
The first stage is announced as a light warming-up stage. Sure? We wake up with
-15C and a fairly blue sky. We load all food for the coming nine days, our gear and technical equipment (satellite telephone, shovel, emergency kit, among others) in the pulka’s and kick it off around noon. The pulka’s weigh heavily at the start but with the hopeful forecast that they will get lighter every day we come closer to our final destination.
In the meantime weather is changing. The sky fills with clouds and one hour before the start we get heavy snowfall and an increasing wind from the Northeast.
The expedition leader takes the lead and I decide to start in front, assuming that – as in a bike race – it is the most comfortable position to be in. After already half an hour I find out that assumptions are not the best things to rely on during an expedition. With fresh deep snow it are the front runners that have to create the path, the ones in the back can make use of the path created by the guys in the front. Knee deep in the snow, pulling the heavily loaded pulka sled uphill, I experience that there is no worse place than being in the front. Despite -12C and the increasing winds between 80-90kmph, I’m drenched in sweat. My muscles feel already sour and we just started. My mind get filled up with confusing thoughts: if this is only a warming-up stage; how to finalize the other 8 days? The Clash’ song, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ pops up.
I see the expedition leader becoming more and more nervous. After 2 hours climbing at an average of about 1,5km/ph we have a first stop. It’s the first moment I can have a look at the others. I see them suffering as well and it might sound strange but it gives me back a sparkle of motivation. See it as our human mechanism of comparing us with others – often when we are in trouble – to mitigate our own suffering.
Due to the extreme bad weather we can only stop for 5 minutes to drink some tea and grab a snack. I would prefer to drink the whole thermos of tea, but all drinks and snacks are obviously rationed and divided amongst the team members. The more we look at each other and share some first thoughts, the more I see everyone had an extremely difficult start, also the athletes! The expedition leader starts to inspect some of our pulka’s and finds out that most of the pulka sleds are frozen due to the deep snow. Frozen sledges means hardly gliding and that is the main cause of this trouble start. The warm tea feels good, however the wind keeps blowing ice and snow in my face. Darkness arrives. We put on our headlights and continue.
I stop thinking about our final goal and break it down it to the first and foremost important goal at this stage: arriving at our first stop this evening. Finally we will arrive this so called ‘warming-up stage’ at 10 pm, four hours later than expected. Sore muscles and a deep burning pain in my right knee is for me personally the outcome of this stage.
Making fire, melting snow, cooking water and preparing food keeps us busy till deep after midnight. The night will be short. Eight more days to go before the finish line!
A lot of sweat so far, no glory.
Read the second episode here: https://thinktalent.eu/personal-leadership-north-expedition-part-2/