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Interview with Robert Swan: Conquering the South Pole


Interview with Robert Swan: Conquering the South Pole


Robert Swan is a polar explorer, environmental leader and the first person to walk to the North and South Poles. Here is an extract from an interview, in which Robert talks about the importance of involving others in his goal to walk unsupported to the South Pole.


Well you have to believe in yourself that you can take it. Now let’s get one thing straight, raising £3 million is a lot more difficult than walking 900 miles in 70 days pulling a sledge. The real test is getting it together and then doing it. Captain Scott wrote those same lines,


“An expedition, the execution of it is a lot easier than the planning and preparation”.


So, you know, probably some of the worst times I’ve ever had aren’t anything to do with having frost bite at minus 70, that’s reasonably understandable. It’s that moment when you know you’re going to run out of steam, the money’s not coming in, that people have said things that they won’t do. That’s the time which is the most difficult. And it is actually far more relevant to real life.


Those are the difficult bits. The planning and the preparation, the crushing of the dreams, the bullshit that people tell you about your dream and the mistakes and the problems and all those things in putting it together. Those are the times, those are the really, really important times when you have to hold that self-belief and say we can do it, not I can do it, we can do it.


But, first to make that happen, I’ve got to believe it. So, if you don’t believe you can do what you are doing, it will not happen. It’s as clear as that. You believe it; you commit to it, and then hopefully you form a team of people to pull it off. Because no individual is good enough to do what we do. It has to be a team that does it. It’s alright if people believe they can do something, but the big question is, and I ask our teams this, “Do we believe that we can do it?” It’s a good start that individuals believe they can do it. But, do we believe we can do it, is the essence of it. And what I’ve learnt in this. And it is crucial. Is that each of us as people, often find that the people who irritate us, are those who, what they say has an element of truth that we would rather not hear.


Myself I’m rather an optimistic sort of a person. So, instead of surrounding myself with optimists, which would be boring, I believe for a proper team you need to have different people, with different skills, with different attitudes, different ways of doing things and different ways of thinking about things. Consequently, those people are bound to irritate each other. However, I believe that is the ultimate team.


If you’ve got the patience and the lack of egos to say, well hang on a minute maybe that person could be right. And to believe in what you believe in enough. But not so much that it excludes what other people might have to say and their contribution to it. Therefore, I look for different people, different skills, different ways and different thinking. Put that together and of course it is a bit tricky, because you do rub each other up the wrong way and irritate each other. However, if you can have the courage to tell each other the truth and listen to what the other people say, not always be thinking about what you are going to say next, you’ve got the beginnings of a really fantastic, top class team.


In order to raise three million quid as a complete and utter nobody, I had to find some serious heavy guns to support us. It took me four years of my life to persuade the brilliant, late Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, to become our patron. Captain Scott’s son, it took me 4 years to persuade him. And eventually he said, “You’re the most persistent man I’ve ever had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting, will you never give up?” I said, “No.” And he said, “I will help you, for one simple thing, you must show leadership, that at the end of your expedition you must remove all of your base camp, leave no rubbish, to show leadership on the preservation of the Antarctic.” I had no idea what he was talking about. If he’d sat there and said, “Right Robert, I’ll become your patron if I can cut off your right arm.” I’d had said, “Get cutting Chief, I can manage with one!” I’d have done anything, so I said, “Of course, we’ll remove the rubbish.” I had no idea what he was talking about, preserving Antarctica, clearing up the continent, I just sort of thought, done! I’ll do anything.


So, suddenly we go to the Antarctic, we end up reaching the Pole. But very sadly our ship was crushed by ice, it sank. I was left with 60 tons of rubbish on the shores of the Antarctic, nearest civilisation 3000 miles away. And we’d made a public commitment to remove that rubbish. We don’t have a ship. Do we do it or not? Well, if there is one thing I believe in, this life is too short to come out with more fancy words, we hear words all the time. I think if that you deliver on your word, as we did, to dig in, volunteers stayed there, took another ship a year later, ended up with £526,000 in personal debt, for the privilege of removing 60 tons of rubbish from the Antarctic. I’d never had a job. I was 28 years of age, and it took 10 years to repay that money. But, the point is this, what I’ve learnt through that, and the reason I did it, was to honour what Sir Peter Scott had asked me to do. We don’t pull back when a guy like that asks you to do something.


What I found is, if you get known as a person that when you speak, that those words are likely to happen, people listen to you in a whole different way. You get known for that, known as a deliverer. Okay, you can’t deliver everything. And occasionally you’ll come up against a brick wall and that’s the time to stand back, say look sorry I can’t do this. But, the rest of the time, deliver on your word, and people do start to listen and take you much more seriously.



  • Robert’s commitment to the success of the South Pole expedition was in no doubt. You can tell how committed he was. This commitment was used to get others involved. The people that he needed to help him achieve his ambition. He realised it was a ‘we can do it’ philosophy and not an ‘I can do it’ philosophy. This message was constantly reiterated, particularly during the difficult times in the planning of the expedition.


  • He also realised the importance of getting the right team together. And, getting the right people didn’t mean involving people that were like him. He needed people with different skills and different ways of thinking. People who would challenge him and others.


  • A lack of ego is a prerequisite when leading a team. If you want to maintain the involvement of others, encourage them to contribute and recognise that contribution. Involve them at all stages, be prepared to be questioned and really listen to what they say. Above all, be prepared to change your mind if challenged. This isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s confirming that you do believe that we can do it.


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