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Rachael Robertson: Leading on the edge


Considering she dislikes cold weather and had only ever once seen snow, what motivated Rachael Robertson to take on a leadership challenge in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments? Robertson talked to Quarry prior to her presentation at the IQA conference in late March.

Rachael Robertson is an author and speaker who has delivered more than 1800 keynote sessions to organisations and associations throughout Australia and New Zealand, and across the USA and Asia. She started her career in public relations for the Victorian Government’s former Melbourne Parks and Waterways before crossing over to Parks Victoria for 14 years, initially as park ranger in customer service and then as the Chief Ranger of Victoria’s West Coast District.

In 2004-05, Robertson accepted the unlikely challenge of leading the 58th Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition to Davis Station (upon applying, she did not seriously expect to be offered the role). As the Antarctic Expedition Leader, she oversaw a team of 120 scientists and tradespeople from December 2004 to February 2005 and then led and managed the 17 people that remained at Davis Station until the scientists and tradespeople returned the following November.

Robertson’s experiences in Antarctica, and her thoughts on leadership frameworks, have been chronicled in her best-selling autobiography Leading on the Edge (Wiley Books, 2013). In 2019, Robertson released her latest book, Respect trumps Harmony, which provides the research and data to support a high performing culture built on respect. She has furthered her leadership frameworks through a 12-week Extreme Leadership video program.

For those who missed it, what was your key message for the audience at the IQA conference?

To build a high performing team, where there is a focus on safety leadership, there must be a culture of “respect trumps harmony”. People need to feel they can speak up, and out at the time and not let things build up. We don’t all have to love each other, or even like each other, but we must always treat each other with respect. 

My team in Antarctica was an incredibly high performing team, even when we had to launch a search and rescue following a plane crash. But it wasn’t because we were all best mates, it was because we had a rock-solid foundation of respect.

Rachael Robertson says of her appointment as Antarctic Expedition Leader: “When they offered me the role I decided I’d rather regret what I did do than regret what I didn’t do.”

Can you outline your professional background?

I have spent all of my career in remote and regional areas as a park ranger, a program manager and then Chief Ranger of the West Coast District of Victoria. I managed a team of 54 staff who cared for the national parks and facilities along the Great Ocean Road. Most of the time was spent on maintenance and visitor management, but in summer there was a huge focus on fire-fighting.

What motivated you to lead an expedition to Antarctica? Was it a lifelong dream?

It was the complete opposite – I ended up there accidentally. I never intended to get the job. I saw it advertised and what intrigued me was the fact the employer – the Australian Antarctic Division – was recruiting for personal attributes such as resilience, empathy and integrity. They were qualities I wanted in my ranger team. 

My plan was to get to the job interview stage and find out what questions they were using to establish an applicant had resilience or empathy, and then copy the questions for Parks [Victoria]. When I was offered the role I decided I’d rather regret what I did do than regret what I didn’t do.

What work were you engaged in during your year in Antarctica?

In summer we have 120 people on the station. They are mostly scientists conducting climate change research – that’s why we are there. But we can also only do capital works in summer, including quarrying from the local area, so we have a large contingent of tradespeople who are there in summer too.

At the end of summer they go home, and 18 of us remain behind for the next nine months to maintain the station – keep the lights on, keep it running – through the long dark winter. There is no way in or out in winter, so it’s a strange feeling when that last ship leaves and you think, “this is it”.

You lead a “diverse” team. Were they Australians or internationals? If the latter, did you have to be mindful of language barriers and cultural sensitivities?

We had an incredibly diverse team – married, single, gay, straight, men, women, ages ranging from 23 up to 64, an electrical engineer from Germany and a plumber from Mudgee. They were mostly Australian citizens, but in summer we hosted several international teams. 

The biggest challenge around diversity wasn’t age or generation or gender. It was actually thinking preferences – a big-picture story-teller tradesman with a fine detail, data-driven scientist. They had completely different minds and senses of humour. My job was to pull together this group of 18 random strangers and turn us into a team.

Did having leadership roles in the 15 years before you went to Antarctica prepare you for the challenges there? Or was it a case of “chalk and cheese”?

I learned so much on the job down there. The biggest difference was that I had to deal with issues immediately. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting until the next week, or getting advice from HR or a mentor. I had to make a decision and make it fast. 

A tool we used was “no triangles” – ie you don’t speak to me about him, and I don’t speak to you about her. Always have a direct conversation. That was created out of me running out of energy listening to those conversations. They are exhausting, and people don’t necessarily want you to do anything, they are often just complaining. But I was struggling with it, finding it absolutely exhausting dealing with it 24/7. So we came up with the rule of “no triangles” and encouraged people to have a direct conversation.

You’ve described Antarctica as a “leadership laboratory”. What were some of the unique challenges that you faced as an expedition leader?

I was unprepared for the relentless 24/7 nature of the job. I’d been in leadership roles for a long time, and in small regional areas, but nothing prepared me for the round-the-clock scrutiny. You never knock off. You can never make an off-the-cuff joke about, say, head office and think it won’t be repeated. Everyone knows where you are at all times. I had to learn how to manage my personal boundaries. 

At the start I would respond to every inquiry, request, every “have you got a minute?” But I soon realised I couldn’t sustain that for a year. I couldn’t have people knocking on my bedroom door at 10:00pm at night to discuss an issue that wasn’t urgent. So I had to learn to say, “Not now, I’ll meet you in my office in 15 minutes”, and actually manage the boundary.

It seems like there was a deep sense of isolation –  in terms of psychology. Would that be correct and, if so, how do you overcome that sense of isolation in one of the world’s most remote environments?

It was a really unique situation – we are incredibly isolated, but at the same time we have no privacy at all. You are living in a small space with 17 other people and the interpersonal pressure is intense. 

You need to have great self-awareness to know when you need to take yourself out of the situation and be alone in your room for a while, perhaps. Or the opposite – if you are feeling lonely it often is a good time to go to the mess or the bar and have a chat with someone who knows what you are going through.

The title of one of your books is Respect Trumps Harmony. This implies to me (without having read the book, admittedly) that an uncompromising type of leadership is required in some circumstances and that conflict/debate is actively encouraged among workers. Can you elaborate on the style of leadership you discuss in the book?

I worry about teams that strive for harmony above all else. It’s certainly important and we all want it, but when harmony is number one it’s dangerous. 

Because any bullying or harassment still goes on, it just goes underground – people don’t want to raise the issue because they don’t want to rock the harmony boat. It also stifles innovation because people won’t offer a conflicting view or a different opinion. 

And most importantly, when a team focuses on harmony people get hurt, physically and mentally. If someone is not following the correct procedure or wearing the correct PPE [personal protective equipment] then people walk past, they don’t want to get involved. Equally if the focus is “Isn’t it great here, we are all one big happy family?”, then people are not inclined to put their hand up and say, “Actually, I’m struggling a bit right now”.

We’re very much in an age of digital and social disruption. Are there leadership traits that you believe are applicable to the COVID age that we live in now?

Yes, respect trumps harmony.

I think we are responding very differently to the COVID challenges. Right now, people are hanging out to get back to normal, they can’t wait for things to be the same while other people are very anxious about the future. I think as leaders we need to understand and accept that. It’s not one-size-fits-all, there will be a spectrum of responses and that is perfectly fine.

What advice do you have for young quarry professionals who are starting in leadership roles in their work environments? 

It’s better to regret what you did, than regret what you didn’t do, so have a crack at opportunities that come your way. You can always change your decision.

Lead from where you are. Don’t wait until you have the title to start demonstrating leadership – because it’s a behaviour not a title. If you have a great idea then bring it up. If you see something that needs to be done then do something about it. That’s leadership, it’s not a title.

As a leader and an individual, do you think you think you are better for your experience in Antarctica?

Without doubt. It taught me so much about myself, leadership and people. I got a lot of stuff wrong for sure, but I learned from it and didn’t make the same mistake again. 

If you had the opportunity to do it all over again, would you? 

No way! Actually, if I could go back as “one of the boys” and I could relax, have a beer, knock off and watch a movie in peace – then perhaps I’d consider it. But to go back as the leader, where you are being watched the whole time, is exhausting. I don’t regret it for a single second, but once was enough for me.

I think leadership is about creating more leaders, not creating more followers. I believe if you try to tell people what to do all the time, especially Gen Y and Gen Z, then you will lose all your good people, they will simply leave. If you want to retain your talented people then you need to listen to their ideas and include them in decisions. 

Leadership can also be very lonely and tiring. Having a peer in the industry, who you can talk to and bounce ideas off, is absolute gold. In Antarctica the only person I could talk to who had any idea of what my job was like was the Station Leader at Mawson Station. We could never see each other but we could pick up the phone and chat to each other and it was truly the only way I had to stay resilient. Just having a friend, a peer, who “just got it” and knew exactly what I was going through – and vice versa – was crucial.•

For more information about speaking opportunities, her Extreme Leadership course and her books, visit

An edited version of this article appears in the March issue of Quarry Magazine.

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