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Antarctica is not a uniform environment. Some parts are far more vulnerable than others. Most people don’t realise that the West of Antarctica, as we see it today, rests on an archipelago with a significant body of ice resting on the ocean floor. The East (especially on the peninsula) presents a very different story. Most scientists feel the 5 – 7 meter rise that will happen when the ice is lost from the west is very likely. Our current global behaviour will cause, even with unified and immediate Covid scale change, unstoppable change in the next 50 – 100 years.

The ice in the east, however, is a different proposition altogether. Loss of ice in this context could raise the global water level by some 60 meters.

We have a chance to stop that now.

Be very aware as you read this that it is not just about how we affect Antarctica, it is how Antarctica is affecting us.

In the last 30 years, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula have seen severe change.  There has been extensive ice shelf collapse and glacial retreat, revealing islands, and increasing temperature (300% greater increases than anywhere else on the planet). Weather systems are getting faster and deeper (in the voyage for one Homeward Bound team, a storm blew up from the Weddell Sea for four days which neither our captain nor expedition team had seen before – scale and severity). It’s not just snowing in Antarctica, it’s raining.  Animals that have evolved in largely arid conditions (i.e., the Penguins we all so love), are not surviving until fledging; young animals are drowning or freezing because their soft down is not waterproof.

We are all hearing about ice sheets thinning and breaking up.  The already evident sea rise, even with concerted efforts across our planet, will reach 7 meters above current levels by 2100 – 2200. This prediction (with a significant confidence margin in predictions from a scientist’s perspective) will see many (say most) Pacific Islands gone. The prediction also suggests 31% of Dubai, for example, will be underwater. That’s 1 million people that will lose their homes. Scientists are shouting as loud as they can, this is likely already committed in terms of the ice in West Antarctica.

It is agonising (bewildering, challenging) for me that significant senior leaders everywhere have such a poor grasp of the facts and the implications of our misalignment on action. We are making choices right now that are causing irreversible damage that will last for a very long time. The systems that Antarctica affects are fragile, albeit on scale.  The vast Southern Ocean absorbs 90% of the heat we are creating and 30% of our carbon emissions.  Right now, as ice melts, and the oceans warm, the signals are clear: this incredible global system can’t cope with what we are putting into it.

We will lose on all levels: the miraculous cycle of life, the massive summer biomass of krill, which nourishes such vast and exquisite biodiversity, will stall, and ultimately fail and, the right to be cold, to be dark, to have a stunning night sky and an impossibly beautiful endless summer’s day will be lost.

There are endless scientific reports, increasing in urgency, calling for action. (Go online and do your search right now). Submissions, collaborations, and calls for action are happening now in Dubai at COP. Global leaders are being called to unite. Promises are being made to raise funds for countries worst affected by climate change. Nations are considering their commitments to keeping global warming to a minimum (because of carbon emissions). Engineers and infrastructure experts, researchers, and activists are doing what they can to help the world solve the problem AND even so, there is not a lot of faith that leaders, the actual practice of leadership, are up to the challenge. There is a widely shared sense that despite the effort, it is leadership at the most senior level that will stall meaningful and timely solutions.

Scientists must manage grief. They are trained to present the facts, to hold back on their opinion and how they feel about what their science tells them. Feelings and opinions are left to the rest of us and scientists don’t think we are listening.

What I and the women of Homeward Bound learned this season is mildly terrifying (take out the ‘mildly’ if you wish).

As a leadership activist, it is inspiring me to ensure leaders in all contexts understand that leadership is, indeed, a practice not a person. A doctor can’t do a degree at one point in time, and then stop learning, nor an engineer, violinist, or physicist.

We must ensure the practice of leadership evolves to support the times in which we live.

Three critical propositions:

  1. I must know myself as a leader, have insight, be open to feedback, learn and grow, adapt and respond; how I have led to this point in time, is likely not sufficient for how I need to lead going forward; I must evolve as a leader, as much as evolve what I technically and cognitively know.
  2. I serve people (in product and service); I must work within the human community, be a part of it, and understand the skills of collaboration, inclusion, and legacy; in a volatile and uncertain world hierarchies are fragile, and no one person or executive team have all the answers
  3. Recognise the context of the times in which I lead – have the wisdom to understand the context and system of which I am a part; the system is changing rapidly; change with it or move out of the way for people who will.

I think these last 5 weeks have changed much of how I see the world. I appreciate that some will ask why I go to Antarctica given my perspective on our world and why I endorse the number of women going (all recruited to a shared mission to lead for a sustainable future, all equipped to do so). My reasoning is clearer today than it was before this year’s expeditions. One of our captains said it better than I can:

“Tourists to Antarctic are often converted to advocacy on visiting the frozen continent and perhaps some 30% move to action. Homeward Bound, however, is a very different visitor. Your capacity to act is 1000 times stronger; you have the mission, the values, and the skill. You see, feel, hear, and understand the need for action.”

To the best of my ability that is the commitment I bring back this year, in the work I do with Dattner Group and as the founder of Homeward Bound, in helping leaders, at all levels and in all walks of life.

Face the facts, own the solutions small or large, and be part of creating the future we want not the future we fear.

We can do this hard work; stronger together.

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