Engineering leadership lessons from Antarctica

MBA graduate, Daleen Koch

If you thought you needed a cool head for business, you’re right: University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) MBA graduate, Daleen Koch went to one the coldest places on earth to prove it.

Ms Koch, an engineer by profession, spent time in Antarctica, exploring the mindset of South Africans when it comes to leaders and their expectations of them, while living and working as part of the South African Antarctic Programme on the remote research stations of Gough Island, Marion Island and Sanae.

“Antarctic and sub-Antarctic stations provide unique challenges to management and leadership due to the harsh climate, limited infrastructure and isolation. Organisations, especially those finding themselves in distress, could benefit from the learnings uncovered,” she said.

Ms Koch’s research finds that the type of station leader who is effective in Antarctica has many similarities to a leader in a traditional business environment, and that similar competencies, such as emotional and social intelligence, are required.

“Antarctic stations typically are home to between ten and 30 individuals spending the extreme polar winter in isolation. Members can spend anything between eight to fourteen months on such an expedition with individuals they did not choose themselves.

“Being remote from family, social and support networks, together with the lack of sunshine, severe weather conditions and limited resources, creates a high interdependence on one another. Successful missions re-
quire a positive group climate that facilitates adaptation and consensus among team members. The person, who holds the decision-making authority, is critical to prevent conflict on the ice,” she said.

She says the station leader plays a crucial role in the management of day-to-day activities and dealing with conflict, emergencies and other team related decisions. The choice of team leader has a significant impact on the success of the expedition, since the station leader depends on the team members to each achieve the goals of their position.

Ms Kock said the leaders formed part of life at the station, and had to lead by example, especially when it came to performing shared station duties. That differed, however, from company managers in South Africa, who could delegate tasks and coordinate activities.

“Being more visible and more involved in the day-to-day activities of scientists and field workers emerged as a prominent theme. Respondents felt that station leaders required an active involvement, knowledge and interest in science, conservation and the outdoors as part of the position. Team members were appointed as a specialist or professional on their team, and respondents felt that the leader needed to respect the team’s professional experience, knowledge and opinions.”

Other qualities that were found to be important were: the ability to remain calm under stress, flexibility, endurance, perseverance, resilience and some knowledge of psychology. More emergency and survival competencies were required for Antarctic station leaders, which are competencies usually required only in specialised industries in South Africa.

“Respondents felt leaders should be able to deal better with interpersonal conflict and any issues arising from cultural and race diversity, as these issues are amplified in the confined environment of the station.”

Ms Koch draws parallels between her findings with South African companies where employees and leaders are changing as organisations move from the industrial age into the knowledge era, which calls for new approaches to leadership.

“Distressed organisations find themselves in a situation or environment that is harsh and unforgiving, similar to that of teams overwintering in Antarctica.

“These changing landscapes may call for a different type of leader, and it’s important to understand the needs of team members in stressful situations.

“Such companies would be advised that a more participative leader would be better suited to deal with the challenges that arise from the stressful and unforgiving environment in which the organisation and its employees find themselves. However, just as in Antarctica, during some types of emergency, it is better for the leaders to retain decision-making autonomy.”

She said a leader who was trustworthy, skilled at conflict management and who possessed advanced communication skills would be a good person to have at the helm whilst the organisation was in distress.

The research was gathered from 180 multidisciplinary team members, between the ages of 25 and 61, who participated in overwintering expeditions between 1961 and 2015.

The participants comprised scientists, engineers, doctors and personnel who were specialists in various disciplines such as physics, biology, geology and oceanography.