What you can learn about purpose driven leadership from the Antarctic and 1,000 women

Purpose-driven leaders and organisations outperform their counterparts.

I have experienced this first hand throughout my career, and numerous sources of research support it. However, one example stands out as an exceptional demonstration of this proposition.

Homeward Bound is an example of a powerful combination of the right purpose, right people, right outcomes at the right time.

Homeward Bound (HB) is a globally recognised strategic initiative which aims to heighten the leadership impact of women with a science background to better influence policy and decision making as it informs the future of our planet. The vision was conceived by Melbourne based leadership expert and activist, Fabian Dattner, who literally dreamed the whole idea of addressing the role of women in shaping our world through a world-class leadership programme, culminating in a 21-day voyage to the Antarctic continent accompanied by a documentary film crew.

Why women? Globally women are underrepresented in leadership positions and despite a recognition of the benefit of parity, change is painfully slow. There is a particularly leaky leadership pipeline for women in science, a reality many of us face in Financial Services.

Why science? Science informs every part of our lives, we stand at a critical point in determining our future.

Why Antarctica? It is a majestic yet confronting backdrop to the leadership dialogue, a place where the impact of human activities on environmental change is being directly and clearly evidenced.

The speed at which this dream has become a reality is extraordinary, which is a testament to the engagement and commitment of those involved. Fabian had the vision in late 2014, in 2015 the initiative had gone viral, we had brought together a globally renowned faculty prepared to donate their time and expertise, and sponsors were beginning to line up. The programme launched with the first 76 women and huge media coverage (reaching an audience of 350m). The inaugural voyage in December 2016 represented the largest all-female expedition to Antarctica. The documentary – “Beautiful Minds: What would the world look like if more women had a seat at the leadership table?” – will be screened later this year.

I have often heard Fabian refer to the 'follower as leader' concept in reference to our leadership approach. The entrepreneur Derek Siver coined the phrase 'first follower' as a crucial leadership characteristic in his wonderful TED talk from 2010. He screens a handheld video, taken at a music festival, which shows one shirtless man dancing like a lunatic on the side of the hill. Others sit around, bemused, ignoring him mostly until a second dancer joins him. The leader embraces him as an equal, and the first follower calls to his friends to join in. As Sivers says, “If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.” Within a few minutes, the entire crowd is dancing on the side of a hill; the first dancer isn’t even visible. That video encapsulates Homeward Bound beautifully.

Fabian explains, “Homeward Bound is not about me, the first dancer on the hill. It’s about the people who have joined, added to it, improved it and led it in different ways.”

Given the global distribution of the leadership team from the UK to Australia, and all of us having day jobs requiring HB activity to be done in our personal time, the community engagement approach was fundamental to being able to fund, communicate and deliver the vision. It started with us, the first followers being absolutely clear on Homeward Bound’s purpose, values and the organic way of working and to trust each other. A strategy map was created to use as a guiding framework to ensure alignment to the critical priorities. We established three key principles of the way of working to guide our decision making:

  1. Use your best judgement
  2. Co-opt others to help
  3. Share the learnings from the mistakes you make

How does this apply to business success?

We can create this sort of unstoppable momentum in our own organisations and teams when there is clarity of purpose, congruence between demonstrated and stated values, alignment with the strategic priorities and critically, a constructive leadership style.

Like any pilot project, there was a lot to learn from the first cohort. The second cohort stands on the shoulders of the first – in Homeward Bound’s case, those who took a leap on what was an audacious experiment in 2016. It took the work of many to evolve and improve the programme.

Homeward Bound’s collaborative leadership approach could be a forerunner of the kind of leadership needed to bring the planet back from the brink.

It could also serve as a framework for successful leadership in our own organisations and teams.

The outcome of Homeward Bound is for each participant to be equipped with the strategic capability, the visibility and leadership skills to be both willing and able to lead at the end of their year-long programme; in the years following to play an active role in the Homeward Bound community to be ‘stronger together’; and to have a tangible impact on the world we live in and the strategic issues that we face.

Last week I watched the second cohort of 78 women board their ship in Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of Argentina, and head off into the Drake Passage with its legendary five metre plus seas. I had been working with them on developing their personal strategy map to encompass the insights from the leadership, strategy and visibility parts of the programme over the past year, combined with the reflections on the conscious choices and trade-offs that they will now make across the three aspects of their life – themselves, their relationships and their work – congruent with their purpose and values. As I watched them depart I knew that Antarctica was merely the backdrop, the canvas, for imprinting leadership skills on a group of women who can and probably will, change the world.

Having led the strategy component of the programme on the inaugural voyage in 2016, I am aware of the unique experience that lies before them and the transformational outcomes that will result for so many of them. And as I return to the London office I reflect on what more we can all be doing to lead purposefully and what we can learn from this extraordinarily ambitious initiative.

What are you doing to ensure that you and your organisation benefit from being aligned with purpose, values and strategy so that it is an environment where talent flourishes and vision is realised?

If you are interested in exploring ways to apply some or all aspects of this programme in your personal or organisational context please get in touch. If you would like to follow the scientists on their journey go to A podcast of some of the stories from the first voyage can be found at ‘This is Our Time’ by Samantha Hodder.