Leadership through turbulent times: Lessons for business from a mountaineer, polar explorer and global adventurer

Explorers - speaking at Governance and Risk Management Forum

They have led some of the most intrepid - and risky - expeditions around the world, overcoming adversity, adapting to the unexpected and ultimately triumphing (most of the time!)

And while their challenges and calamity are typically faced on the summits of grand mountains or in deep subarctic wilderness, there are some key lessons that translate to the boardroom.

We asked Louis Rudd, Tim Cope and Steve Plain to identify the key factors underpinning their leadership style in a crisis, plus tips for leading teams through challenging times.

The trio will share their stories as part of Governance Institute’s Governance and Risk Management Forum 2021

This year, the focus of the forum is on ‘leading with intent for effective strategy and culture’. A face-to-face version of the forum is currently being curated specifically in Queensland (5-6 May), South Australia (12 May), Western Australia (13-14 May), NSW (17-18 May), Victoria (20-21 May). A virtual two-day option is also on offer on 17-18 May.

Polar adventurer Louis Rudd MBE, who will speak at the NSW, Queensland, South Australia and virtual forums, has crossed Antarctica twice and been to the South Pole three times.

Well versed in leadership challenges in difficult conditions, he says promoting a common and motivating purpose throughout a team is essential for effective leadership, especially when times get tough.

“For me one of the most important factors when it comes to leadership on an expedition is having a unifying sense of purpose,” Mr Rudd said.

“[This means] ensuring that the mission or goal of the expedition is clear and inspiring, and everyone understands it.

“I find if you get this right from the outset, it motivates the team and keeps them driving on when things get really difficult. It helps bind the team in times of crisis. You are all working together towards a common goal that you truly believe in.”

He said this can motivate people to do “incredible things and think beyond themselves and their own suffering and put the team and mission first.”

Adventurer Tim Cope, who will speak at the Melbourne forum, is also very familiar with adverse situations, having ridden a bike from Russia to China and then riding 10,000km on horseback across the Eurasian Steppe.

When asked about his risk management and leadership strategies, he draws upon an ancient saying: "Trust in fate... but always tie up the camel."

“It is crucial to be able to take risks and have the conviction for the many leaps of faith that are required to achieve,” Mr Cope said.

“However, it is equally important to take risks responsibly. In our society I feel that the reverse of this saying can also be true - sometimes we plan too much so that we don't leave room for the unexpected, and therefore avoid risk at the expense of growth.”

Mr Cope also said that a key tip for navigating a crisis is to “rush slowly.”

“[Rush slowly is] a concept I was introduced to while getting through all kinds of calamity during my winter in Kazakhstan on my way to riding to Europe,” Mr Cope said.

“Among other things this means where responding in real time to an urgent crisis or something more slow burning, whether alone or leading a group, it is important to do things thoughtfully and carefully.”

Australian mountaineer Steve Plain who will speak at the Western Australian forum, is well-versed in overcoming adversity. After recovering from a near fatal neck injury he went on to set the fastest ‘Seven Summits’ climb record, climbing the highest summit on each of the seven continents.

“Adverse situations are a true test of leadership. When facing challenging situations, it is crucial to make rational decisions and take decisive action. And the only way you can do that is if you stay calm and focused. Not only can you then think clearly but it will also have a reassuring effect on those around you.”

Mr Plain also has a favourite saying that he draws upon for inspiration: “There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers''.

He said staying calm as a leader is more important that being bold.

“Leadership, particularly through adversity, is not about being bold or brave, but rather staying calm, assessing the situation with all the information available and making clear, rational decisions.

“That decision making process should not solely be focused on achieving the summit, but rather making it back down safely.”

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