What 16months of stay at Antarctica taught me?

It’s been twenty years since I went to the magnificent seventh continent (which, ironically, became the first continent that I visited, apart from Asia, where I was born and grew up). I just have to close my eye for a few seconds, and I am still able to teleport myself back to majestic and pristine Antarctica, and the Indian station Maitri which was my home for 16 months during 1993-95. The sailing through equatorial waters, roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties, endless parties on the ship, breaking through the pack ice on our icebreaker ship MV Stefan Krasheninikov, surviving in the summer camp on bare necessities of life, seeing the mesmerising Aurora Australis for the first time, firefighting the whole night to save our station, winter-over with its cold and darkness for two months, fun and parties with neighboring Russians, cleaning the station (and toilets) during galley duty, prepare three meals for 25 men as part of the cooking duty, and on and on…. It was surely the best part of my life, and I was lucky to be there.

Rescuing an Adelie penguin near our station in Antarctica

Over the years, I got chance to reflect upon my experiences through TEDx talk and also various leadership talks. In this blog post, I want to reflect back on things I learnt that have high relevance to the workplace dynamics of today. Hopefully that connection will be valuable for some of the readers.

Satisfaction is extrinsic, motivation is intrinsic but engagement happens when you work for a meaningful cause

When I was at Yahoo!, and Marissa announced free food for all employees, we had situations when some people would simply crib endlessly about food quality. I remember one particular mail on “yblr” (the internal, informal ranting channel for Yahoos! in Bangalore) where someone commented that there was nothing worth eating at the breakfast – the sambhar was watery, the chutney was salty, the dosa was cold, and so on. Some other Yahoo! asked him a very nice question : “you mean, out of those 18 options available for the breakfast everyday, you find nothing worth eating?”.

I think there is a dangerous growing trend of the culture of ‘entitlement’, at least in IT industry (and not singling out any one company in particular). I can’t work because my 15″ Retina Quadcore Mac doesn’t work well with SharePoint! I need some goodies to be given so the people will come for this meeting (my favorite pet peeve – unless you bribe people, you can’t get them to do stuff that they are paid for!). No one called me for our project meeting! Our (free) office buses should have wifi, and yes, the drive should call me just before he reaches my pickup point so that I don’t need to waste time! and so on…(sigh)…

Back at Antarctica, everyone had a different motivation for being there. Some were there for serious work, and even though some among us were working on really important stuff like monitoring glaciers, or Ozone hole, of research on sleep patterns due to polar magnetic activity, etc. strangely, I never heard the fluffy terms that you hear every so often nowadays – like “we are here to change the world” (and boy…it does look so cheap when used in context of companies selling crayons and socks online). Some volunteered so they could save money (and I completely respect their reasons) while some, like me, were there to simply explore life, and learn and do something new. However, one thing that still stands out – everyone was engaged, whether satisfied or not. When people did 24-hour galley duty, patrolling the station the entire night and cleaning up toilets, they couldn’t particularly relate it to their motivation to be there, and definitely not to satisfaction! However, I never saw anyone shirking away from their volunteered responsibilities towards their fellow expeditioners. Everyone had a sense of commitment towards the team and the expedition, maybe in their own different way. And we had ten thousand reasons to crib and bitch about things – every day, but I never saw the feeling of entitlement creep in any of us. I guess we look for engagement in all wrong places…

Leadership is initiative translated into action, executed with teamwork, and delivered with accountability

A lot of what I see at the workplace today – ideas like situational leadership, servant leadership, shared leadership – we lived it first-hand during those 16 months. Every day and every task in Antarctica is kind of new (even though the individual skills needed to accomplish it might not be), and no one person would know all the answers to every situation, least of it any single designated leadership. Out of 25 of us men who came from some ten different organizations and almost no one had worked with each other before, only two had been in a previous wintering-over expedition, and had some prior experience which was better than nothing, but certainly never enough.

  • What’s the best time to start the next convoy to the shelf ice? Who knows? Check the weather forecast, talk to radio officer, ask the engineers. Is the emergency shelter in top shape? How about the food supplies in the emergency stations?
  • What’s the best place to lay the next gensets? Check the ground conditions. What about the interference from the communication equipment? Are there food dumps nearby? Could the ground vibrations affect the station’s foundation and stilts?
  • We had one chopper down with a broken engine and another one down with broken blades. Just couldn’t fly (till Naval HQ would allow). What’s the best options? Ground transport was not possible due to water channels in the summer, so there was a limited about of transportation possibilities. Should we carry food, or medicines, or samples, or people or equipment?

In literally every single instance, I saw how we all came together. Some people took initiative to kickstart the conversations, some took the next step to own up activities, a few came together to be the volunteer, and the work was done. The official leadership was there to provide support so that people could do the stuff. Surely, we had some interpersonal conflicts (to say the least!), but by and large, the real leadership evolved from the trenches, and the credibility was earned through accomplishments (and rewarded through followership).

Self-organization is all about letting the team figure out their own process, tools and even leaders

On our first night in the main station, we had a major fire. We had all moved inside the main station just a few hours back that evening before bidding goodbye to the last sortie that took the old team’s last members back to ship, which set sail promptly a couple of hours right afterwards. Except for the paperwork of taking-over the station, we had hardly had time to really familiarize ourselves with the station, its facilities, and so on. HK and I were on the all-night galley duty and were playing scrabble when HK felt there was some unusual light in the main corridor. HK being a seasoned naval officer, I would always trust his instincts. We knocked at the room where we felt there was a light, and on getting no response, we just barged in. And we were frightened by what we saw. Our fellow team member was bravely fighting the fire inside his room which was full of thick smoke. In the next few hours that ensued, we had the entire winter-over team come together and what no amount of taking-over and familiarization could ever achieve, we were on top of our fire control systems, and we learnt exactly what was the best way to deal with such accidents. One by one, we would volunteer to fight the fire, take a deep breath, enter the smoke-filled room and fight the fire till we could, and then get out of the room to get some fresh air. The best part – there was no designated leader, we didn’t follow any chain of command, no one waited for instructions, why – no one even asked people to come and fight the fire in the first place!. Through trial and error, we quickly learnt how to solve the problem as a team, and also found out who were the best set of people whose judgment could be relied upon. The team not only self-organized itself, it also discovered it own process, figured out its tools, and was able to identify the people who were best suited for the job.


I have many more stories to share but these stand out as the most important learnings concerning self, leaders and teams. In a team where no one had worked with each other before, where competencies (and education) varied so widely, where the resources were limited, and the situation so choppy and unpredictable, it was strange that 25 men could come together for anything! And imagine doing it for 16 months at a stretch.

And when I see workplaces today, I see people chasing satisfaction in the name of engagement (and landing with entitlement). I see old-school managers so insecure about their fragile egos and shallow power that they are not willing to delegate and empower folks working “under” them (whatever that means!). I see organizations insisting on ‘standard processes’ for teams to ‘self-organize’, in what can only be described as stupidity at best and tragedy at worst.

No wonder, I often close my eye and travel back in time and space to get some inspiration…


(Originally published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-16months-stay-antarctica-taught-me-tathagat-varma)

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