Next week, four of my colleagues at Bain & Company will set off to Antarctica on a unique mission to promote sustainability. The expedition is run by an organization called 2041, led by Robert Swan, OBE. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rob and talk about his views of leadership. Rob is one of the most inspirational people you’ll ever meet, and I am pleased to say he is also a good friend of mine. Our meeting reconfirmed for me the value of thinking about leadership along two dimensions: (1) the actions of the leader to create an extraordinary, mission-driven team and (2) the actions of the leader to scale the impact of that team.
Before we dive into the leadership lesson, let’s talk about Rob. He is the first person to walk to both Poles, reaching the South Pole on January 11, 1986 and the North Pole on May 14, 1989. To put this feat in context, consider the fact that more people had walked on the moon than to the South Pole at the time Rob reached it. He has continued to be a great adventurer, moving on to yacht expeditions that circumnavigate Africa to promote AIDS awareness, water saving and recycling. His true passion is sustainable development, and his organization, 2041, is dedicated to this cause. Each year, 2041 takes a group of promising environmental champions to the Antarctic Peninsula to inspire them to become leading advocates for sustainable development.
Eight hundred people have now joined Rob on these expeditions—and many of these have gone on to become the leaders he set out to create. Two-time trip alumnus Richard Dunne, for example, returned to his role as headmaster of Ashley Primary School in Surrey, the UK, and engaged the community to make the school a model of sustainability. By educating his pupils on how to better manage their energy, food and waste, he has guided the school to reduce its energy consumption by 80% in four years. Another alum, Paras Loomba, once a technical consultant in India, came back from the 2012 trip and, with an organization called Global Himalayan Expedition, began leading expeditions that focus on providing education and renewable-energy access to remote communities in the Himalayas. Others have developed waterless toilets for Africa, convinced a major US-based corporation to replace much of its traveling with teleconferencing and raised awareness about the environmental threats to Antarctica itself.
I met Rob two years ago through Bain associate consultant Ben Lane, who had raised his own funds to be part of one of Rob’s Antarctic expeditions. Ben is an ardent recruiter for 2041: In addition to the four Bain leaders heading out on this year’s expedition, another five joined the expedition last year. I’ve promised Rob that I’ll be in the group one of these years, but in the meantime we meet regularly to talk about the mission and strategy of 2041 and how it can have more impact on the world.
In our most recent conversation we discussed Rob’s own development as a leader. “I came back from the Poles inspired,” Rob recounted. “In particular, I was determined to save Antarctica, which at the time was threatened directly by the big hole in the ozone level that had opened up directly over the South Pole.” As he became a huge champion of sustained development, he then tried to figure how he could create other champions and “scale” his energy. That led to the annual expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula, in which he tries to create 80 new champions every year.
Rob’s own trek to the Poles turned him into a champion for sustainable development and his actions to create the expedition has helped him scale his passions. As we talked, Rob described the next phase of his mission. “From our first 10 expeditions, I think we’ve probably created 20 real heroes for sustainable development. That’s amazing, but I think we can improve the yield,” he said. “So my mission now is to help each person on the boat to define their own strategy to scale their passions.” His goal is for 2041 to move from helping one in 10 members of each expedition to become true sustainable development leaders to helping four in 10 achieve that goal—creating “a massive improvement in impact,” as he says.
Rob’s mission is extraordinary, and I’m sure he’ll succeed. But I also think his journey is a wonderful case study of leadership. Let me retell his story in Founder’s MentalitySM terminology: In the first phase of Rob’s journey, he developed a nobler mission for himself and his 2041 team. They were insurgents, taking heroic steps in their commitment to changing the world (they moved East). The second step was to figure out how to make 2041’s mission more scalable (move North). The organization has done this through annual expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula, where the 2041 team develops new champions committed to sustainable development. The third part of the mission is where Rob is now: refining the approach and working to turn these inspired champions into impact leaders.
In a nutshell, that journey illustrates one of the key roles of a leader: Create an inspired team committed to a nobler mission (move East). Then make the mission scalable (move North). And then work with each team member to make their own jobs more inspirational and more scalable.
Rob’s final piece of news for me was that he is now committed to going back to the South Pole, 30 years after his first mission, but using only renewable resources—a very difficult technical feat. His goal is to reach the South Pole in November 2015.