Leadership in Extreme Conditions

By Pritam Doshi, an EO Bombay member and managing director of PAE, Ltd., one of the largest distributors of lead storage batteries in India.

Did you know that in -38°C (-36.4°F) weather, the human body burns 5,000 calories a day just to stay warm? That’s the weight-loss program of a lifetime! It’s also one of the many things you endure when you climb your way to the North Pole.

Earlier this year, I joined an expedition to the Pole in celebration of the first trek held 100 years ago. I snowmobiled on thin ice, narrowly avoiding glaciers, polar bears and reindeer; spent the night in a 100-year-old wooden ship that was stuck in a frozen fjord; dropped from a Russian helicopter; and “ran around the world” by circling the Pole. It was a treacherous journey, but one I’ll never forget. Like this adventure, running a company has its extreme challenges. Here are three business lessons I took away from this experience:

1. The Right Equipment is Critical
The team members who had equipped themselves with the right gear and learned how to use it effectively were comfortable throughout the expedition, while those who were ill-prepared were in pain. Carrying the right amount of gear and clothing is critical; too much or too little can be life-threatening in such cold weather.

This trip taught me that when you are well-equipped, you can endure pretty much anything. On the mountain, we had to always think ahead and consider what was around the bend. I do the same thing in my business. I use scenario analysis to understand what I need to do to prepare for and excel in certain scenarios. Doing so helps me consider what my business needs in terms of talent, tools and capital to perform successfully under stress.

2. Constant Pressure Helps Achieve Goals
I experienced this journey with people I had never met. Though we were different, we all had one goal in mind: To reach the North Pole together. We encountered compatibility issues among team members, problems with gear and mixed temperaments. However, because of the extreme conditions and pressures we faced, we had to let go of our egos, defeat our mental blocks and do whatever it took to reach our goal.

If a team member needed help with frostbitten toes, the entire group would stay back and make sure she was warm before moving on. Without the extreme pressure, the team would have divided into smaller groups, seeking out those with whom we felt the most comfortable instead of staying united. This taught me that pressure helps align individual objectives with team goals.

3. Extreme Conditions Help Identify Natural Leaders
Although we had guides to help us, a few team members emerged as capable leaders. No one was told at the beginning of the expedition that he or she would have to lead; however, as we encountered tough situations, certain members took charge by pitching tents in the fierce cold, keeping us oriented toward the elusive Pole or even sacrificing their own gear to keep someone else from getting frostbitten.

These members, like any good entrepreneur, instinctively understood that they needed to guide, help and lead the rest of the pack. This experience taught me that natural leaders rise to the occasion when they’re needed most, especially in extreme situations.

In the early part of my life, I was never an outdoor adventure-seeking enthusiast. However, I always dreamt of doing something radically adventurous. This expedition was my chance. Having journeyed to the North Pole and back, I now know that I can endure anything business throws my way, and more importantly, that I will learn from it and become a better leader.

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