26/04/2012 - 11:03

Leadership: the human capital iceberg

26/04/2012 - 11:03


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A true leader needs to inspire and motivate, as well as lead a team successfully. But this is not always the case.

A true leader needs to inspire and motivate, as well as lead a team successfully. But this is not always the case.

Leaders who can inspire and motivate their teams are more important now than ever. Yet recent research shows a gap between what we need from our leaders and what they’re delivering.  

In the most recent World of Work Report by recruitment and HR services specialist Randstad, more than half of all employers and employees surveyed confirmed the critical need for a leader who inspires and motivates – yet half of the respondents rated their own direct manager as poor or average in this area. Clearly we have a problem. 

There is a significant gap between what is expected of our leaders and what they are delivering. Add in the fact that productivity is directly related to employee motivation and it becomes not just a people issue, but actually impacts the bottom line. 

So how does a successful leader inspire and motivate? What’s below the surface of this particular human capital iceberg? 

The chance to live and work in Antarctica for 12 months, leading a team of 18 very diverse people, around the clock, gave me a rare opportunity to road test my leadership ability. With no opportunity to come home, and the support of our HR team 4,000 kilometers away, I had to pull together a group of complete strangers and meld them into a high-performing team, because quite simply our lives depended on it. 

The ability to inspire and motivate my team, particularly through the long, dark Antarctic winter (where we can’t go outside for four months) was critical. 

Keeping this team happy, productive, motivated and resilient required strong and constant leadership. This required five key characteristics:


The ability to tell, and sell, a compelling story is crucial. Inspiring leaders are those who can articulate the big strategic directions of the organisation while at the same time clearly explain how each individual contributes to these larger goals. 

Feeling valued and recognised for the work you do is the bedrock of employee morale. As the Randstad World of Work report highlights: “38 per cent of respondents said being valued and recognised was their top motivator, followed by a strong understanding of how their role contributes to achieving organisational goals. Salary and remuneration were not as highly valued.” 

In Antarctica I spent considerable time ensuring every person understood in some detail, the actual tasks performed by every other member of the community. It started as a simple social event entitled a ‘Day in the Life’ where we shared a cake (scientists), or a BBQ (plumbers), or afternoon tea (doctor), and the host showed us the tasks they completed in an average day. This simple social ceremony turned into something vastly more important as each person came to fully understand, and value, the contribution of his or her peers. The question “what do they do all day?” was asked and answered. 

In the quest to retain talent in a highly transportable workforce this value and recognition becomes even more important. It is especially so in the world of IT and telecommunications where employees responded in even higher numbers than other industries, that value and recognition (31 per cent), and understanding how their role fits into the organisation (24 per cent) is their biggest motivator. 


Inspiring leaders know themselves and their capabilities. They dedicate time each day to reflect on their decisions and evaluate their own performance critically and honestly. This ability to reflect enables leaders to learn and develop; and more importantly it enables you to correct a decision that may have been incorrect, no matter how well intentioned or how well considered. 

In Antarctica we had a situation where I made the correct decision, but I made it the wrong way. It was a simple issue around whether live sport should be broadcast on the station’s PA system, when traditionally only music had been played. There were strong feelings both for and against the sport broadcast.

So with a decision-making style that is naturally collaborative and democratic I canvassed the entire station. In turn, I managed to turn this into the biggest issue to hit Antarctica in 58 years of expeditions. Not because of what I eventually decided, but because of how I made the decision. In this instance a decisive, clear direction should have been given.  

Yet it was only by reflecting on this issue for several days that I realised my role in creating this mountain out of a molehill. The self-analysis improved my self-awareness and without doubt, my leadership ability. 


Leaders need to be consistent in both their decision-making and their emotions. A leader who displays appropriate emotion is powerful and human and demonstrates a strength and confidence that is inspiring. Disappointment at missing out on an important job the team pitched for, happiness at an unexpected success, sadness over a departing valuable member of the team, relief at the closure of an event – these are all appropriate emotions and being consistent ensures your team can predict with some clarity how you will react and respond. 

It’s even more critical during the tough times that leaders respond consistently. 

During our summer months, while we had more than 100 people on the station, I had to lead the search and rescue effort to retrieve four of our team who had been stranded 500km away following a plane crash.

Yet leading the rescue effort was just one part of this crisis. To ensure the remaining 96 people felt confident that their peers would be brought home safely, and to keep the rest of the community focused on delivering their work while the leadership team focused on the rescue, it was critical that I was seen to be leading. Choosing my words with care, being seen about the place often so people could ask me questions, providing regular updates on the situation and most of all carrying myself with poise and calmness were all vital. 

The context is less important than the leadership principles. Whether it’s a plane crash in Antarctica, a financial crisis, a merger, or a restructure – while the context changes the principles remain the same. The leader needs to be seen to be leading, in a calm and consistent manner. 


Knowing the individual differences in your team members will inspire and motivate them. Appreciating their skills and capabilities means you can match individuals to tasks, thereby increasing your productivity as staff undertake work they are good at, enjoy, or even both. 

Similarly, understanding that different issues affect people differently, and empathising with that, will improve motivation. During our expedition we had a dispute about how to cook the bacon when the chef wasn’t working. Soft or crispy? It escalated into a full on Bacon War with some staff requesting a meeting to discuss how it should be cooked – at the expense of stopping a $20 million science program. 

While on the surface this appeared to be on of those trivial issues that arise in any workplace – like dirty coffee mugs lying around or people arriving late for meetings – it was actually escalating into a problem that was distracting people from their work and therefore affecting our productivity and teamwork. It needed to be dealt with swiftly. 

It requires empathy to take care of these little things that emerge in every workplace – but ignore them at your peril.


An inspiring leader will find a reason to celebrate, regularly. During the Antarctic winter it was important that we celebrated along the way. Not just the big things like birthdays or Midwinters Day, but also the smaller successes such as a month without a power blackout, significant scientific data collection or uninterrupted Internet access with a fully functioning server.

During long periods, or even just times when it’s business as usual, an inspiring leader will find a reason to stop and celebrate. Whether it’s with an event, a reward or a simple thank-you, the acknowledgement and recognition will inspire and motivate.


Inspiring leaders fully appreciate and understand the responsibility that comes with the leadership role. They realise it’s their accountability to develop their team members and grow capacity.

As Randstad reports: “Traditionally managers have risen through the ranks purely based on logical progression from one level to the next as opposed to their qualities and skills as a leader”. Developing leadership skills for the next phase of growth is the key productivity challenge for 51 per cent of Australian businesses.

Emerging leaders should understand that along with the promotion comes greater scrutiny and their behaviour is being interpreted, often in ways we could never imagine. In Antarctica, where I sat for meals, what time I left for social events and how often I took my turn cooking and cleaning were all noted.

Managing performance is also a key responsibility. Rewarding great work and counselling against poor performance are both a core part of leadership. Yes it’s tricky stuff that requires mental robustness and lots of energy – but try doing it in Antarctica where there are no sanctions or rewards.

Similarly, mapping out a development plan for individual staff is a critical role of every leader. Showing staff future possibilities and the route to get there is more important than ever. As the World of Work report highlights, “half of all respondents intend to leave their current role citing lack of opportunity for growth and development, (which is) more than double the number that will leave due to uncompetitive salary and remuneration”. 

In the world of accounting, banking and finance it’s even more important – 53 per cent rated this number one, yet 37 per cent rate their manager as poor or average. 

To develop a high performing team that thrives in an increasingly competitive marketplace will require something special in our leaders. They need to inspire, motivate, and most importantly, know how to cook the bacon.

Antarctic leader and Australia Day Ambassador Rachael Robertson spoke at the recent Randstad Shaping the World of Work Information Series in Perth.


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