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Breaking the ice - leadership at Mawson

Breaking the ice - leadership at Mawson

On the 29th of January 2016, I set out on an adventure 2 years in the making, going to a place I had always dreamed of going: Antarctica. My day dreams had not really included staying there for 10 months with 12 men and only one other female, but life is funny like that. - Jen Wressell, ARLP C22

The trip from Hobart to Mawson Station on the East Antarctic coast took 4 days, we left Hobart at 0600 on the 29th Jan and flew 6 hours to Wilkens, Australia’s only ice runway certified by CASA. Then transferred onto a USA Hercules for the 4 hours trip to Woop Woop, a ski landing area near Davies Station. At Woop Woop we boarded helicopters for the 20 minute flight down to the Station. All three of the Australian Antarctic stations are on the coast but the plane landing areas have to be up on the Plateau were the ice is hard and strong enough to hold a plane like the Hercules. At Davies we paused to wait for a weather window to open up so we could fly on a little twin otter plane to Mawson. The weather windows can take a week or more to open up but we were lucky and after only 2 days waiting we are off and flying over the Amery Ice Shelf. It was an amazing trip with the constant wonder of knowing that we were flying over pieces of land that few people in the world will ever get to see.

The build up to this voyage had been a steep learning experience in team building strategy, as a station leader I was given a team of 14 including myself and my job—as is usual for the team leader—is to make the team work, make the group successful, productive and cohesive.  In this case though there was an added complication of not just making a functional team, but a functional 24/7 community. We had six weeks in Hobart prior to departure and I wanted to try and develop as strong a connection with each other as possible prior to leaving. 

I spent a long time coming up with a structure to guide my approach to ‘creating a team’. A wise coach involved in Australian Rural Leadership Foundation program sessions, Jonathan Biss, suggested reviewing Tuckman’s theory of group dynamics which proved to be a good reminder of the stages of team development and reassured me that a bit of healthy disagreement is not necessarily a sign of dysfunction but can be a sign of team development. But I wasn’t just building a team, I was building a community; a support network for us all to rely on. So I investigated theories of community-building and used Creating Communities Australia’s framework, the Sociology of Community, to guide my interactions with the team and create opportunities to not just build a team but also to build a community.

To set the ground-work for social capital building and wellness quadrants, I facilitated discussions about our individual and group values and we discussed the importance of accepting each other’s differences.  I introduced the concept of Tuckman’s theory of team dynamics and we spoke about the stages of team development and how to have ‘healthy’ disagreements.  Socially we went to the pub once a week, had BBQs, and at work we spent days learning to use fire-hoses, ride quad bikes and safely use inflatable boats as a group. 

Shortly after arriving in Antarctica, resupply commenced. This is an annual event where the Aurora Australis arrives and offloads food, fuel, building and project materials for the upcoming year. In return the Station sends all recycling, no longer needed equipment and empty fuel drums back to Australia for disposal. About ¾ of the way into the resupply there was an intense blizzard with winds up to 150 kms/hr and zero visibility, it was predicted to last about 48 hours.12 hours in, the Aurora broke its mooring lines and ran aground. It was without a doubt one of the worst radio calls I have ever received for a number of reasons, but first and foremost there was very little I could do. Even though the ship was only 1km away, we could not get to them or even see them, the conditions were so dangerous that even our experienced search and rescue team would have had extreme difficulty getting to the ship.  The isolation and wildness of Antarctica had struck us in the very first couple of weeks of our adventure. 

Fortunately all 66 expeditioners were able to wait on the ship until the weather improved 48 hours later, there were no injuries and it was a well planned and executed evacuation. Over the next couple of weeks as we struggled with over-crowded facilities and infrastructure strain, team dynamics and inter-group dynamics and maintaining morale and momentum. I was incredibly thankful that as a team we had taken time to make some initial investment into our community. 

My personal learning from this incident combined with the responsibility of building a community have been immense. I have been surprised (although I don’t know why) that there are so many overlaps between building a cohesive, productive community and building a cohesive, productive team. My idea of what constitutes a community has also grown and I think that the Creating Communities model almost needs concentric rings because communities are full of layers; the local community of 14, the wider organisational community and finally in this case the greater Antarctic community made up of many different countries working together.        

So my lesson’s so far in this journey:

Lesson One – Always have an incident plan that incorporates a crisis management team structure that recognise (s) individual’s roles in the greater scheme. This helps to reduce turf wars and protectionist behaviour and creates an atmosphere that allows everyone’s skills to be recognised and utilised. The way that the grounding of the Aurora incident was managed contrasted positively against my prior incident management experiences in the health sector. There was an obvious lack of micro management, and this allowed individuals to competently and confidently do their job and play their role in the overall scheme. They were valued through being assigned a role, whether it was making the sandwiches, peeling potatoes or developing a fuel spill plan. The importance of providing a safe space for people to learn and develop skills is critical to both healthy team development and healthy community development. In a critical incident situation it is also vital to recognise everyone in the team’s skills and contribution.    

Lesson Two – Investing energy and time in team development will pay you back. The team work that had been done in Hobart was invaluable during this crisis, people knew each other and had the grace to accept a cross word and help each other when they were having a hard time. We had established a baseline set of values and individual acceptance of each other within the group, during the crisis time, social capital was invested and withdrawn from the community by all team members.

Lesson Three – Having cultural anthropology is as important to work group development as it is to community development.  The crisis enabled the community to develop distinctiveness, shared experiences and a sense of belonging; as a team and a community we are starting to develop cultural anthropology. 

Looking forward I am still defining my position description and learning what it is needed to ‘create community’. Initially back in December, I stated to the group that I wasn’t the events planner and if they wanted to have a special event I would help but I wouldn’t initiate. I have come to realise from applying the community sociology theory to team building, that a catalyst is sometimes required. Sometimes it is the responsibility of the leader to be a catalyst in all aspects of community including those that we are not comfortable with, like event planning.  This is the leader’s role to develop the sometimes unquantifiable aspects that make a team or community, like social capital and cultural anthropology.

In terms of life outside of an all-encompassing ship wreck, the station itself and physical surrounds are amazing. There are distant mountains behind that loom out of a massive glacier. In front of the station are little Islands, and at the moment sea ice as far as you can see. The Islands are slowly turning white as snow and ice lands on them. There are massive big white and blue ice-bergs which are now locked into place by the sea ice and as soon as it is deep enough (mid May-ish) we will be able to take the quad bikes out to have a look around them. We have seen loads of Adelie penguins, Emperor penguins, Wendell seals and on a very special evening a pod of Orca's came and swam around within 20 metres of the shore giving us a spectacular show. I have much to be thankful for.

Jen Wressell is an Australian Rural Leadership Program participant who commenced with Course 22. She has deferred the final three ARLP sessions in order to take a role as Station Leader at Mawson. She will complete the ARLP with Course 23. Jen's ARLP scholarship is provided by the Department of Health.

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