Summit Team Building

Robert Swan, Explorer | Extreme Leadership Interview

About this Interview with Explorer Robert Swan

In this exclusive written interview for the Extreme Leadership Series, we get some great insights from Robert Swan and esteemed polar explorer and environmentalist renowned for being the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles. 

Swan’s unique leadership experience, shaped by some of the most challenging environments on Earth, equips him with invaluable lessons on building high-performance teams, mastering leadership in extreme conditions, and fostering environmental stewardship. 

Through this conversation, Swan shares his perspectives on what it takes to lead effectively, the critical qualities of a polar expedition leader, and the universal applicability of these principles to leaders in any context. 

Join us as we uncover the wisdom of a man who has navigated the ends of the Earth, offering insights and guidance for today’s leaders facing their own extreme challenges.

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The Keys to High-Performance Teams

Q: What are the keys to creating and developing a high-performance team?

A: Creating a high-performance team hinges on diversity and clear communication. It’s crucial to choose individuals with different characters and experiences, not just those who agree with you. This diversity brings strength and resilience to the team. Being crystal clear about our mission, goals, and each person’s role, and consistently leading by example, are fundamental. You must inspire through passion and maintain motivation, ensuring the team is always aligned and moving forward together.

Leadership Qualities for Extreme Conditions

Q: Can you tell us about the qualities you feel a polar expedition leader needs to be successful in such an extreme environment?

A: Passion is paramount. You must wholeheartedly believe in your cause, which in turn, inspires your team. Humility is also essential; acknowledging when you need support or don’t have all the answers fosters a strong trust and team unity. These qualities, alongside a clear, shared vision, drive a team’s success in extreme conditions.

Defining High-Performance in Expeditions

Q: How would you define a high-performance team for one of your expeditions?

A: A high-performance team delivers results, embodying strong character and a shared commitment to achieving something truly great. Such a team embraces challenges, leverages individual strengths, and remains focused on our collective mission, making history and effecting change together.

Fostering Team Support and Cohesion

Q: What do you do to help your groups form into a supportive team?

A: It starts with deliberate team building based on a vision of high performance. Open, ongoing communication about our vision, mission, and goals is vital. I ensure that all information, good or bad, is shared promptly to maintain trust and cohesion.

Leadership Lessons from Polar Expeditions

Q: What is it about Polar expeditions that can draw out the best and worst in a leader and in teams?

A: The physical and mental demands of polar expeditions magnify personal traits. Adversity can wear down optimism, revealing both strengths and vulnerabilities. Choosing team members for their character, values, and passion is as crucial as their skills and experience. The right people not only endure but thrive, reflecting the best of teamwork and leadership.

Instilling Confidence and Trust

Q: What can a leader do that will instill confidence in the team?

A: Walking the talk is fundamental. Consistency between what you say and what you do builds trust. A leader should work alongside the team, sharing in the challenges and successes, reinforcing that no one is above the collective effort.

The Impact of Leadership on Team Dynamics

Q: What can a leader do that will cause them to lose trust in the eyes of their team?

A: Transparency and honesty are non-negotiable. Sugarcoating messages or avoiding tough conversations undermines trust. Leaders must be forthright, addressing challenges directly and ensuring the team is fully informed and aligned on the path forward.

Navigating Change and Challenges

Q: How do you handle change as a leader and how do you share important changes with your team?

A: Anticipating change is part of our planning process. I communicate that while we have a plan, adaptability is crucial. When changes arise, we pause, assess, and re-calibrate together, ensuring everyone is prepared mentally and emotionally for the shift.

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Dealing with Egos and Disruptive Behaviors

Q: How do you deal with egos or disruptive behaviours on an expedition?

A: Egos are checked at the door. We establish clear behavioral expectations from the start. Disruptive behavior is addressed immediately to maintain the integrity and safety of the team, crucial in environments where cooperation is literally a matter of survival.

Reflections on Historical Leadership

Q: Historically speaking, who do you think was the best Polar Expedition leader and why?

A: Leaders like Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton each had qualities making them exceptional. Amundsen’s efficiency, Scott’s planning, and Shackleton’s unwavering loyalty and crisis management offer invaluable lessons in leadership. In times of utter despair, Shackleton’s ability to inspire hope was unparalleled.

The Essence of Teamwork

Q: Can you tell us a story where teamwork was the difference between success and failure?

A: On the Beardmore Glacier, a decision to remain tethered, despite the inconvenience, epitomized our commitment to safety and teamwork. This protocol likely saved my life when a crevasse unexpectedly opened up. It was a stark reminder that teamwork and adherence to protocols are non-negotiable for our survival and success.


Robert Swan’s experiences, as an explorer and leader and insights provide a profound look into the essence of leadership and teamwork in extreme conditions. His stories and reflections offer invaluable lessons for leaders across all domains, emphasizing the importance of diversity, clear communication, humility, and adaptability in building high-performance teams capable of achieving extraordinary outcomes.

About The Extreme Leadership Series

The Extreme Leadership Series is a dynamic exploration of leadership through the lens of extraordinary situations. Hosted by Scott Kress, it features a mix of engaging podcasts and insightful written interviews with leaders who have thrived in some of the world’s most demanding environments. From the icy wilderness of polar regions to the towering summits of the highest mountains, guests share their stories of resilience, teamwork, and courage.

This series goes beyond mere adventure tales; it delves into the core principles of effective leadership such as preparation, adaptability, and the ability to cultivate high-performance teams. It offers valuable lessons for leaders in any field, aiming to educate, inspire, and equip listeners and readers with the tools to lead under pressure.

Whether you’re an emerging leader seeking motivation, an experienced executive aiming to enhance your skills, or simply intrigued by the intersection of leadership and extreme challenges, the Extreme Leadership Series provides a unique perspective on navigating adversity and achieving success. Join Scott Kress on this journey to uncover what it takes to lead in the most unforgiving circumstances, where every decision can make a difference.

Interested in Creating Your Own Extreme Leadership Team?

Scott offers a series of Keynote presentations and workshops on team building. Here’s a quick video of Scott in action! Contact us to explore this further.

Scott Kress

Scott Kress is an accomplished climber and adventurer. He’s completed the 7 summits and skied to both the North and South Pole. His storytelling based on his adventures is captivating, but what sets Scott apart is his ability to weave his stories together with his 20+ years of leadership and team development education and experience. Scott is the president of Summit Team Building, and is passionate about helping teams grow and companies flourish.

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