A version of this article was first published in Thrive Global on 1 October 2020.
What can drinking blood with Nenets reindeer herders in Siberia, horseback riding with Kazakh Eagle Hunters in the steppes of Mongolia and taking teams across the hottest and coldest deserts in the world teach you about leadership? A lot more than you might think.
These past few years, thanks to my work with my two NGOs Women on a Mission and HER Planet Earth, I’ve had the great privilege of taking all female teams, over 150 women to date, of all nationalities, ages and backgrounds, to off the beaten track locations around the world on challenging, often pioneering, expeditions that really push them outside of their comfort zone.
We’ve run expeditions to some incredible places, from regions of the Arctic circle, to the coldest, windiest and most remote continent on earth, Antarctica. We’ve crossed the largest caves in the world in Vietnam, so big in parts you could fly a 747 through them. We’ve sailed across remote islands in Asia and experienced real Robinson Crusoe-like moments.
My teammates and I became the first all-female team to bike across the frozen Arctic Circle Trail of Greenland, the first group to stand-up-paddle board down rivers in the Kingdom of Bhutan and bike across the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia – the hottest place on earth. We’ve migrated with reindeer herders in the middle of the Siberian winter, ridden on semi-wild horses with Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia and climbed many mountains in the Himalayas, Iceland and Africa. All these expeditions have had as mission to raise awareness and funds for vulnerable women.
As you can imagine, these unique experiences with teams of women to some of the most inhospitable and remote places in the world, have truly been incredibly humbling and formative experiences for me personally. They have forced me to push my limits on multiple occasions – really testing my mental, physical and emotional resilience – while allowing me to grow, succeed and fail in countless ways. And as I take stock of these past few years and plan the next stage of my career in this post-pandemic world, I realised that I’ve learnt more about myself and about leading teams through these experiences than in my 20 years in the corporate world, and as a result, I’ve found my own brand of leadership.
Without a doubt, one of the most important lessons from this unusual journey has been that true leadership is about empowering and advancing others. It is not about yielding power or being in charge. It is about lifting others up and helping them progress.
I’ve come to realise that good leaders inspire their team, their tribe, their pack – whatever you want to call it – to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something more meaningful and ultimately, more fulfilling. Put simply, leadership helps people grow closer to who they are meant to be. And our ability as leaders is not measured by how much we have achieved in life, but by how well we advance the lives of others along the way.
Some questions that come to mind are: how do you harness the power of your team to build success, not just for yourself but in your organisation? How do you empower your team to use its collective energy and influence to impact the world for the better? To do all that well, many vital ingredients need to be in place:
Practice what you preach – To begin, a leader needs to walk the talk and be authentic, aligning actions with values – and not the other way around. This is the first and vital step for any leader to gain respect and inspire the team to unleash their own power within.
Listen and be attentive – Leaders also need to be good listeners and try to understand people’s aspirations and motivations. This will demonstrate they care deeply for their team and will instil a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to the greater mission. You can empower others by highlighting their strengths and potential contributions. The key is to be attentive and identify those qualities and skills. Then, invite them to lead and contribute in their area of expertise. Everyone wants to feel like they are growing in strength and contributing to the bigger vision.
Be humble and take responsibility – Humility and having the courage to take responsibility when things don’t go as planned or when mistakes are made, are important qualities for any team leader. Leadership is not about being perfect or being the strongest. It is about being better together and crediting the team when objectives and milestones are successfully achieved.
Demonstrate empathy & compassion – Our future is a world where technology and automation are on the rise, and because of this there will be an equally massive swell in demand for people who have these valuable skills of empathy and compassion. They will continue to be some of the most critical workplace skills of the future because of their power to boost quantifiable business results and increase employee satisfaction.
Courage & vulnerability – Last but not least, have the courage to show vulnerability. It takes courage to show your authentic self in a way that exposes your vulnerabilities. Most of us are brought up to believe that showing those deep wounds is a sign of weakness. In reality the opposite is true and showing vulnerability is an incredible superpower when it comes to leadership. It creates an atmosphere of safety and trust, which in turn, increases productivity and wellbeing within the team.
The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we all are in times of crisis. It has made me realise that to drive change moving forward, corporate social responsibility needs to be at the heart of corporations, embedded in their business model, aligned with their values, and not merely part of a separate initiative.
Indeed, research says purpose-driven firms— the ones that place their commitment to something other than generating profits — are more profitable for their investors in the long run. However, theories and good intentions can get tossed aside when stock prices or profit outlooks tip the wrong way. I believe most companies do not lack purpose, they lack the courage, commitment and follow-through to actually live their stated mission.
In truth we need leaders who don’t just support such sustainable initiatives, but who champion them passionately because they believe deeply in their intrinsic value for humanity, the planet and for their organisation in the long term.
Leadership for the greater good, the likes of which we haven’t seen for years has been one of the great advantages of the coronavirus pandemic. And while it may be intuitive to return to the way things were as soon as possible, what we actually need to focus on now, is not how things were, but what needs to change moving forward.
As Economics Nobel laureate Paul Romer famously noted in 2004, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” During a pandemic priorities come into focus, trends accelerate, rules and regulations suddenly become more flexible, leaders pay attention and real change, is finally possible.
Perhaps the most important lesson now unravelling is one of human empathy and the urgent need, today more than ever, for more purpose-driven leadership, focused on empowering and advancing others.