‘I had to put my ego aside and look at the facts’

What the polar explorer and endurance athlete Ben Saunders learned about himself when, during a major expedition in Antarctica, he had to ask for help.

This is part of a larger feature on how to lead in times of crisis. Read the other features here.

‘On New Year’s Day 2014, I found myself in a precarious position. I was fairly warm in my tent, but there was a high wind blowing outside; the temperature was around -35C. My expedition partner Tarka L’Herpiniere and I had been journeying across the Antarctic Plateau for three months. We were weak after covering more than 1,600km on foot in 55 days. We’d spent the preceding week eating half rations to eke out our meagre supplies. The next food depot was 58km away – perhaps two days’ travel – but we had only half a day’s food left.

‘One option was to call in a rescue, but that would have meant failure and we’d been planning this expedition for a decade. So I thought about moving forward, but we couldn’t cover that distance in those conditions. Certainly not in our states. We’d have died.

‘I knew I had to find the solution, as much as I was tempted to ask Tarka. And I realised that the best solution was to have the aircraft standing by to rescue us drop off supplies instead. At more than $100,000 it’s surely the most expensive takeout that ever was, but it allowed us to continue. We crossed the finish line in February, thereby completing the first return journey to the South Pole on foot, from Ross Island. At 2,888km, it remains the longest human-powered polar journey in history.

‘My goal was to complete the trip unsupported and unassisted, in essence, dragging our supplies for nearly 70 back-to-back marathons. We were close to pulling it off, so it was hard for me to decide to call in supplies. I had to put my ego aside and look objectively at the facts. The main objective was to get home safely. As much as it felt like failure then, I’m as proud of my decision as I am of the expedition.

‘People might assume I am a natural leader but I’ve frequently sought external advice when facing a difficult choice. In those moments in our tent, high on the Antarctic Plateau, where the closest people to us were on the International Space Station, I matured as a leader. Until then, I was motivated by my own ambitions and this nebulous idea of perfectionism. But life doesn’t work like that. Being in charge can be a profoundly solitary position, but at the end of the day, that’s part of the role.’

Sometimes the most important, and the most challenging, part of being a leader is working out the best compromise in the face of factors beyond your control.

Read more about leadership in tough times.

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