After three days of an all-out effort, the team had not found an access route from the frozen sea to Coronation Glacier. We were north of the Arctic Circle, we had a science agenda to execute, and we were running out of time. It was only reasonable to acquiesce to the situation. We agreed we would get extracted the following morning and climbed one last time to retrieve our cached sleds.
But once we reached the sleds, confronted with a next step that would seal the deal, we could not let go. We tried again along a route that had seemed impractical earlier on. It was probably as impractical as before, but we had adjusted our expectations of the sacrifice needed to succeed. We went a long way towards the glacier, and turned around as a whiteout developed around us. There was still no guarantee that we had a breakthrough, but we were committed now. On the way down, we saw animal tracks up an ice wall. We scouted up the wall and found the way. It was backbreaking work, but it was safe, and it did lead us to the glacier.
How did we shift our stance from assuming defeat to insisting on success? Why didn’t we see the path until we made that shift? Have you ever faced a similar situation – in other time and place?
A small expedition into a remote and harsh place is a good laboratory to study the same leadership challenges we all face back at home or at the office. We make ourselves busy and leave little time to reflect on how we are designing our lives. It takes a long time to tease out the consequences of our decisions in the complex world of the cities we inhabit and the companies we build.
For a small, self-supported team in the Arctic, however, consequences are quick, tangible, and easy to trace back to team biases, dynamics, decision-making, preparation, commitments, or interests. Clarity yields insight, and that insight is relevant in the more complex spheres of our everyday worlds.
We can look for clarity through practice, in an environment that demands clarity.