3 Leadership Lessons from the Arctic

Originally posted on Education Scotland PLL blog.

It might not be everyone’s idea of relaxing, but my February breaks pre-Covid were spent leading charity treks in Arctic Finland. 3 days of walking on frozen rivers and lakes, winding through forests, and sleeping under the stars (and frequently, the Aurora Borealis). At the start of the week, a bunch of strangers would climb aboard a flight to Rovaniemi, excited and nervous in equal measure, with great hopes for both the journey and the funds being raised for their chosen cause. At the end of the week, the beginnings of a team would emerge, new friendships being formed as they battled through blizzards and temperatures as low as -35°C.

Whilst these treks have always been great fun, they have acted as a microcosm in which to hone my leadership style.

In the week leading up to the treks, we had a small advanced team in Finland mapping a trail, navigating obstacles, observing potential hazards, preparing the way for these novice adventurers so that their experience was challenging but enjoyable. Often, due to the weather, all we could offer was Type 2 fun and challenge far outweighed the enjoyment at the time. Early in my career, this was how I viewed leadership – leading from the front, tackling challenges head-on, hopefully making it easy for others to follow me.

The day before the treks, we would complete two very important tasks. The first, a kit-check, to make sure all the trekkers had the right equipment and had listened to our advice on kit ‘admin’ (sorting dry bags into ‘spare clothes’, ‘extra rations’, ‘sleeping kit’ etc). This gave us a chance to have a quick 1-on-1 chat with every member of the party and soothe any anxieties. The 2nd task was an introduction to snowshoeing. Often, the ice was hard packed and snow shoes were not needed, but in fresh snow, the use of snow shoes was essential – saving effort, time and energy and ultimately making completion of the trek far more likely. But snow shoes take some getting used to, so a chance for the trekkers to don a pair and acclimatise was essential. When we seek to build Teacher skills in schools, giving your team a chance to air their concerns and questions ,and a chance to try things before adopting new systems, is key if we want staff to come onboard.

The format of the treks was straightforward. Wake early, eat breakfast, strap into our pulk harnesses and then walk pulling our sled full of kit until the sun had disappeared. Stop for camp, sit around the fire having a good chat, then sleep. Every day the trek would be led by two staff, one at the front and one at the back. The ultimate leader: the one at the back. They set the pace, watched each trekker for signs of injury, fatigue or disengagement, offered encouragement (and sometimes took some of the weight from the struggling trekker’s sled). The one at the front was simply there to show the way (and stop eager beavers from ‘running ahead’ too far and getting into potential issues). 

As a team leader in school: 
  • Are you too busy leading the way to sit back and observe? 
  • Who are you giving the chance to take the lead and show the way?

Takeaways from the frozen north:

  1. Leadership is not always about bashing ahead with ideas. Sometimes you need to let your team members go first, then observe, coach and support them to success.
  2. Don't scrimp on the kit check and practice walks. Talking to your team will help you establish competencies and support needs. And remember that, despite general feelings, classroom observations should not be tests to see how brilliant a teacher is (they already passed a ‘crit’ at university).
  3. Take the stress out of the situation, use these opportunities to kick-start coaching conversations about the support your team members need after a hard slog, nothing beats sitting down together for a social chat (campfire ideal but optional). Building those bonds and sharing those stories of success and failure mean when the weather closes in, your team will pull each other through, and they’ll help you too.


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