Polar adventurer, Alan Chambers MBE, who after spending five years researching, planning and training, led the first successful British unsupported expedition from Canada to the Geographic North Pole, took time out of his busy schedule for an exclusive chat with us. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below to find out how he became a polar adventurer, how he deals with setbacks, and how it felt to be awarded an MBE.
In conversation with Alan Chambers
How old were you when you knew what you wanted to do in life?
I knew what I wanted to do when I was fourteen. I was born up north in a steel town, my whole family were steel workers, and most of them still are. It just wasn’t for me, you know? So, I decided at fourteen to get three paper rounds instead of one, and to use that money as a gym membership for two years, and I set my heart on joining the Royal Marines.
It was the hardest military force to get in to at the time, for a sixteen-year-old. But I left school and home at sixteen, and fortunately joined the Royal Marines, and got through all the selection without being injured. So fifty-four of us joined on day one, and six of us finished nine months later. I wouldn’t say it was a true ‘calling’ at that time, because I was only fourteen, but I really knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was quite focussed on it as a teenager.
I then passed out of the Royal Marines when I was seventeen – nine months later – and immediately went abroad. I then spent the next seventeen years in the Commando unit, which was great because you are on every deployment, every operation, you are always away. I think I saw fifty countries by the time I was thirty years old.
I went on an operation with the unit, and then got introduced to the cold – in Norway. We deployed there for four winters, and that’s what I really liked; I really liked the cold! I was also jungle trained and we spent months in the desert as well, and then went to the Arctic, and I really found that I was comfortable at minus twenty-five, minus thirty (degrees). I suppose the transition of leaving the Marines was all based around the cold weather, because I enjoyed that skill set.
How did you become a polar adventurer?
I think the polar explorer was really more about challenge than it was about the polar world to start with. So, foolishly, for ten-pounds I made a bet, along with another Royal Marine, that we couldn’t cycle from Gibraltar all the way to Dieppe! It was two-thousand miles and we were bet ten-pounds that we couldn’t do it in two weeks.
So, foolishly, we took the bet on and it was horrendous, you know, 150 miles a day, every day, on a £100 mountain bike. But me and a fellow called Bob, we managed to do it, to raise the money. Our first bit of money we raised, for a local hospital in Taunton, was £1,000.
Then a very close friend of ours in the Marines, which I think was a real emotional trigger, broke his neck. We came back from a deployment, he broke his neck, he was twenty-one and became quadriplegic. So, then we promised his mother and father in Leeds that we would raise money for spinal research by doing sponsored walks; we just never told his mother and father how extreme they were going to be. And at that point we managed to blag lunch with Princess Diana at Kensington Palace. She became patron of probably the first serious expedition I did, which was as part of a four-man team who were the first team in the world to ski across Iceland in the winter, from the west to the east. So, that was a forty-seven-day trip, for 850 kilometres, and we managed to do it.
And then from that point, knowing that I really liked the cold and the sledging and the isolation, because no British team had walked unsupported from Canada to the North Pole, I then raised the bar and set my goals and my sights on that.
How did you prepare for your first expedition from Canada to the North Pole?
To plan the first big trip from Canada, unsupported, to the North Pole, I actually spent five years planning the project. So, I was part of a two-person team who attempted it in 1998, and we failed miserably! I call that successful failure. The team dynamic was completely wrong, there were too many hidden agendas for me and it broke down.
I learnt from that and then put together another team to go two years later. So, over the course of that five years, I went and spent time with the Inuits and learned from their culture. I interviewed as many people as I possibly could that had already failed. I read every book, every report, but also I’ve got a mindset where the old way is not the only way to do things. I am a big believer in embracing innovation, and if there are things you think you need for the project to succeed, and they are not on the market, then I had them made.
So I kind of went to a level of planning and research that I believe no other team had done before, and that gave us the edge. I then – when I was happy with my five years preparation – I then needed a selected team; and for me this is all about attitude and behaviour. Skill sets you can learn, skill sets you can teach people – they might have the best skills in the world, but if you have got the wrong attitude for the project they’ll never give you one-hundred-percent. I spent six months on team selection, I think selfishly finding the right team that I could lead and manage under immense pressure, but I was also trying to find a group of individuals that would come together and align for one common purpose. So, I spent six months working with a team, and that’s how I did the selection.
What are the characteristics of a successful leader?
You can learn a lot from bad leadership; when you’ve been led by people that have made you feel really uncomfortable, made you feel like not part of the team, and you remember how they made you feel. So, a big part of me is that you include everybody in the process; whether it be the project process, or whether it be some of the decision-making. You can involve the team in the decision-making. So, making sure everybody in the team has felt that they have got a part of the project or they have got some worth to add to it, I think is a responsibility for a leader.
I think leadership is service, I don’t think it’s one size fits all, and I know I have to adapt my leadership style depending on the team and the challenge ahead of us.
I also think a leader has got to be quite flexible; I think you have got to be able to make some really tough decisions. This is especially so when the team may feel a little bit vulnerable because they are under pressure, because I think they will look to you to make really strong uncomfortable decisions, and you have to be completely honest. And that, for me, I think, overarches everything: a leader has to be honest, you know, if you’re not honest with your team, you can’t get honest feedback. And if a leader doesn’t get honest feedback, you can’t make the right decision. So, for me, service and honesty are two great things for a leader.
How do you manage risk?
Risk-taking in the polar world, or in the adventure world, is part of your due diligence, especially if you’re putting a project together. I would like to think that in all of the projects that I have taken on and led, that I have embraced the risk.
So, I choose the responsibility for others, and I will try and expose all of the risks and make sure the team are aware of them, and ensure that we have a process in place so we understand how to manage that risk if it happens, or when it happens.
But also, in leadership, you are only as good as your last expedition; as the last team you have led. You may have led – I think I have led twenty-three polar trips – but you’ll only be remembered for your last one, and if it’s a bad one, for whatever reason, it wipes out the rest! Well, it doesn’t wipe it out, but people forget about the other twenty-two successful ones, you know. And touch wood we have always delivered, we’ve always got to the ends of the earth. We might not have got there on plan ‘A’, but we have always adapted and worked out a new way to get the projects to succeed.
So, you do take a risk if you take on the leadership mantle, because there is more focus on you, and you’ve got to be able to handle that pressure.
How do you overcome setbacks and failure?
I shared the stage at Harvard a few years ago with a lady called Sheila Wallington, and she had a great phrase on stage, which has stuck with me, and she said, “failure is not about how hard you fall, it’s about how high you bounce”. And I think for a true leader that’s right.
I have never met anybody yet around the world who has had a perfect life; who has achieved everything they wanted to achieve and has done it first time around. So we all have a duty, I think, to learn from failures; whether it be a failure on a project that same day, or a failure over a five-year project, that you didn’t succeed at. But part of it is inbred; I think I’ve still got all the Marine values inside of me that we don’t give up, we don’t give it up easy, you know, and we will do whatever it takes.
It’s not a nine-to-five job, adventure is not a nine-to-five job. If you have to walk through the night, then you walk through the night. I have still got that in me, sometimes on a polar trip you do need the team to do that extra two miles or extra two hours, otherwise you will fail, you walk into failure. It’s about changing people’s mindsets away from quite a comfortable ‘well I am going to do an eight-hour day’ to ‘well I might have to do eighteen hours a day’.
I think you can learn a lot from failure, and I also think some leaders and some teams should expect to fail in certain parts, you know. In the military, especially, you learn more from your mistakes than you do when things just tick along.
Can you teach a winning mindset?
People say to me “are leaders born or are they created?... is a winner’s mindset born or can you create this?” And I think you can teach it, I honestly do.
I think we’re all born ‘ordinary’, you know, I think everyone is born ordinary, but I think you can get exceptional results out of people if you can help them believe that they can achieve certain things; and sometimes people don’t realise what they can actually achieve. I certainly didn’t when we started skiing across Iceland! You’d like to think you can deliver it, but until you push yourself you don’t really know what you are capable of. And once you realise that, then it opens up a completely different portal. So I think you can teach a winning mindset, I really do, definitely.
Where are the challenges of taking top business leaders to the North Pole?
I think taking CEOs and people who are leaders in their own right, to the North Pole, personally, I think that leading leaders is the hardest thing I have ever done. If I’m being brutally honest, you have ten or fifteen people who have never been to the North Pole, but they all know the best way to get there!... you know, I think that’s quite a challenge for me!
But on a serious note, I think the ice, whether it be the North Pole or the South Pole, Greenland, or anywhere where you are devoid of sensory deprivation, is a real leveller. So, it’s just you, it’s down to a team, and it’s cold –, it’s minus thirteen and below – and you’re three, four days away from civilization, all of a sudden, it’s a leveller. And what I really like about the extreme cold – minus thirteen and below – is that it exposes everybody’s character, and their values and their traits, and there is nowhere to hide. So, if you’re a team player you’re exposed as a team player, if you are selfish you are exposed as a selfish person; whether or not you are a selfish father or selfish husband, you’re selfish as a leader or as an employer, and you’re exposed and there is nowhere to go.
I like the ice cap because it is a leveller and it’s irrelevant if you’re a billionaire, a millionaire, or if you have the fastest car on the planet or the biggest house. Can you put up a tent, make a cup of tea for your friend in two minutes and keep them warm and happy? For them, you are a team player. So I like the fact that it levels people and brings them together, and you have that unity of one team. So, I think they come back and it’s a time for reflection, it’s also a time on the ice cap for a leader from a different walk of life to think about where they are going to go next in their own career. Albeit we are skiing to the North Pole and it’s completely different to running a multinational company, it gives them that time in their mind to think and work through things. This is because you are skiing eight to ten hours a day and you have got no control over what is happening in the business, at home, in the UK or wherever you live, so you can focus on one thing; which gives you the freedom in your mind to think about something with more clarity. I think everybody will come back and actually think, ‘I thought about where I want to go with my family, I’ve thought about what I’m going to do with my next career move, I’ve thought about setting up a foundation. Or I’ve just enjoyed the moment and we’re walking to the top of the planet. I always say to the leaders, don’t miss where you are going, don’t miss it, it’s not just a challenge. This is the end of the earth, so don’t miss where you will end up.
How did it feel to be awarded an MBE?
The MBE was a complete surprise. Ranulph Fiennes once told me years ago, he said, “Alan, never drag a sledge to make money, you should do it for pure passion of being on the polar ice cap”, which is something I’ve stuck by.
I have never put together a project and thought, right, I can get this out of it and that’s why I’ll do it, because it shouldn’t be the true motivator. When everything hits the fan, if your driving force is meeting the Queen or writing a book, or being a film star, and you can’t achieve your goal that day or on that project, then what you see slipping away is something that’s really not important to the project.
For me, the project has got to be everything; succeeding to that end point. It’s got to be everything, there shouldn’t be anything driving you afterwards, because that is a false driver for me. So, to achieve an MBE at thirty-two for leadership, it was a complete surprise and a complete shock… mainly because they sent the letter to my wrong address so I never really got it! It wasn’t until I read it in the paper on New Year’s Eve that I actually saw it, so that was quite interesting. I had to phone my dad and say “have you got the paper? Yeah, is it real?” He went “well, yeah!”. But the letter went to an address I hadn’t lived at for ten years, so that was a real surprise and quite unexpected.
I don’t think I’d describe my experience of growing up and being within the Corps of the Royal Marines, and then carrying on in the adventure world, that, I wouldn’t say “satisfied” is the right word, but I enjoy the challenges, I enjoy putting myself out there, I enjoy the uncertainty, I enjoy leading.
What are the main topics on which you speak?
I get booked to talk about leadership, not just leadership from a leader’s perspective, but what I call ‘self-leadership’, which is the team leading themselves and the project as such. So leadership is probably the overarching topic, but that can then filter in to effective team work; managing a high-performing team; and all those categories underneath that. But overall, it’s about leadership and self-leadership.
Is there a single most important take away message from your talks?
One thing I really like to talk about and discuss, which is, I wouldn’t say it’s revolutionary, but a lot of leaders don’t think of this, a lot of companies don’t think of this, is that, from my personal experience, we became more efficient towards the North Pole if I lead from the back. So, ‘leading from the back’ is something where a lot of leaders think they will lose control. But you gain more control leading from the back, and the team are engaged more. So I really like to tell the whole story of what I’ve learned, but the greatest thing I learned, the lesson I learned from the North Pole, was that we became more efficient, we became one team, if I led from the back.
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