What can leaders learn from a record breaking polar explorer about resilience?

17/06/2024
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Having just had triplets, lost her job as a bank clerk, and going through a divorce, Ann Daniels felt she had lost her self-worth, wasn’t good enough and was desperate about what the future held.

But from the pain she was feeling, she knew she had to do something to change her life. So, Ann did something out of left field and responded to an advert asking for ‘ordinary’ people to join the first all-female team to reach the North Pole. 18 months later, she had conquered the Arctic, became a world record breaker and discovered her new career path.

Ann certainly isn’t ordinary, she’s an exceptionally resilient leader. In the face of the most extreme conditions humans can endure, Ann has gone on to conquer the South Pole and led 14 further expeditions for the likes of NASA and the European Space Agency. Described by the Daily Telegraph as one of the top 20 British adventurers of all time, Ann has worked with some of the world’s largest organisations, been interviewed by the biggest names in media, featured on Desert Island Discs and completed numerous TED talks on resilience.

So, what can leaders learn from such an exceptional individual? Quite a lot, as you might expect!

Here are Ann’s top five tips to becoming a more resilient leader.

1. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Being fully prepared is key to developing my resilience and mental strength. Knowing that I’ve done everything I can to make an expedition successful is one of the most important elements of any trip (or project for that matter).

As well as ensuring I was as physically fit as possible, logistics, food, support and kit were always planned to the nth degree.

My focus then turns to the team. Are they fit enough, what are their individual strengths and weaknesses? I also made sure they were fully briefed – 100% clear on the expedition objective, exactly what was expected of them, and the role they were going to play in our success.

That way, when things went wrong (and they always do), I had the mental capacity to deal with challenges and focus on solutions. If every duck is in a row, it sets the right tone and you’re positive about the future, positive that you’ll be successful. If you can’t be positive from the outset, then the chances are something isn’t right, or you’re not fully prepared.

If you do fail, and there will be times when you do, you can be confident you did everything in your power to make it a success and remove the negative drag of ‘what if’ thoughts.

2. Believe in the vision, plan for success

When I set out on my first expedition, I wanted to dramatically change my life, my circumstances. I was compelled to provide a better life for my children and give them the best opportunities I could. So, the vision was there. I just needed a strategy to deliver it.

My vision is what kept me going in my darkest and most challenging moments. Focusing on ‘why am I doing this’ allowed me to dig even deeper and drive my desire to succeed. I could also draw upon friends to help me – collaboration is a really powerful tool, and you’d be amazed at the number of people who really want to help.

I think it’s the same in business scenarios. Having the objectives or goal completely nailed down is half the battle, and makes the strategy easier to develop and stick to.

3. Accept the uncontrollable, and control what you can

On expeditions you can’t control the storms, the temperatures and the ice movement (you can often move backwards while sleeping). There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

During one 500-mile expedition, extreme weather forced us to a halt after only 65 miles. For three days we couldn’t move, couldn’t erect our tent and couldn’t get warm. We were forced to lay the flammable tent lining directly over us, meaning we couldn’t light cookers so we’d hardly eaten, and a rescue plane was two days away. It looked like the expedition was over before it had really started.

I had to accept the circumstances were beyond my control. But as a leader, I could control my own reactions and how I dealt with the situation, I could control my attitude. I understood the situation, chose not to panic, accepted it, and spent my time working on solutions to put us back on track.

I focused on the vision and knew the storm would pass. When it did, we obviously couldn’t walk more than 24 hours a day, but we could add five more minutes to every sledging session to make up time. We could store snow bricks inside the tent where it was a few degrees warmer so they would melt and boil more quickly. Little contingencies like that made a big difference.

Tomorrow became a new first day. We worked on the little things that could ‘make the boat go faster’ and we succeeded.

4. Maintain a positive attitude

Accept, overcome and keep positive, is my mantra.

On a solo trip to the North Pole I’d fallen through the ice, been stalked by a polar bear for three days and was within touching distance of the finish when Russian officials pulled all permits and the trip was over. Just like that, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was beyond my control, but I took a positive view of the situation.

Getting on the helicopter was a positive as I’d escaped the horrendous weather. Then I thought if Russia hadn’t stopped me, the next polar bear encounter might have killed me, or I could have gone through the ice again and died. I’d spent 21 days on the ice at one with nature and lived with a polar bear, so I thought the next time I do this it will be for the good of the earth, which opened a whole new series of opportunities with many scientific bodies and the joy of working with NASA. Something I never imagined would be possible.

I’m also big on having the same positive attitude with my team. How you consistently turn up every day has a huge impact. Some mornings I’d have a little cry as I scraped the ice from the inside of my tent. But then I’d compose myself and put my game face on. Then I’d sweep snow from the team’s sleeping bags and bring them all a coffee. They were only small actions but I think they had a huge impact on morale. The opposite would have been true if they’d witnessed me at my lowest mood.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I’ve experienced numerous instances of injury or frostbite where individuals have required help, but refused to ask for it, and subsequently put the expedition in jeopardy. It tends to be more of a male trait, but asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak or a failure. It simply means that at that particular moment you need something you don’t have.

Throughout my polar career I asked for help with kit, childcare, training, with emotional support, strategy, and with planning. It’s made me a much more resilient and successful leader with a greater capacity to solve problems, develop solutions and ultimately achieve my goals.

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