This interview was published in the first issue of ‘Strategic Intelligence’, the Jersey International Business School Journal, in April 2012.
“At some point in any career, a normally unjustifiable risk might need to be taken to make the quantum leap from the mediocre to the big time”
To overcome his fear of heights Ranulph Fiennes started climbing buildings at night whilst he was still at Eton, and concluded his relationship with this fear by successfully reaching the summit of Everest at the age of 65, having previously overcome a double heart by-pass. He still has a fear of heights.
Having followed his father into the Royal Scot Greys, he went on to be the youngest captain in the British Army, fought Marxist Terrorists and wed his childhood sweetheart, Ginny Pepper, to proceed together in achieving the ‘first’ in many world-breaking records, including first man to reach both poles by surface travel, and first to cross the Antarctic Continent unsupported – the only man alive to have travelled earth’s circumpolar surface.
Along the way he was awarded the OBE for human endeavour and charitable services, having raised over £14million for UK charities. It was on the eve of his speech at the Business School’s Leadership Forum that I had the privilege to spend time with such an inspiring and charming man who is more widely known as the ‘world’s greatest living explorer’ (Guinness Book of Records).
SC: What makes a great leader? Are the qualities actually innate?
RF: I don’t really form policies about leadership, I react at the time to what I think is the best way to move forward with the people who are meant to be moving forward with me.
Sometimes it is good to be dictator-like and at other times democratic. If you are up against a tight weather programme, like we are with our expeditions in Antarctica, the period when you can travel is quite short so you’ve got to be fast getting through the crevasse fields, without humming and hawing. It is not necessarily a good idea to be sitting tight arguing with the other members of the team. So, on first sight if I can see the best way through the field I am not going to democratically ask anybody else, I am going to lead as I see fit. On the other hand, if I can see there are all sorts of perfectly reasonable ways through the field then this offers a very good opportunity to appear democratic by opening up the discussion. You need to approach obstacles quickly whilst keeping the team as happy as you possibly can. But if you know you are going to make somebody unhappy with your decision, then too bad, too bad – you can’t afford to be a populist.
Clear vision, speed, a happy team; react to what you will at the time and ensure that you take the people who need to move forward with you. An expedition without a single clear leader, who isn’t afraid to impose his or her will on others when the chips are down, is asking for trouble.
SC: Do you feel that business leaders are becoming reactionary rather than innovative? Last year you expressed concern over a general reduction in risk-taking when responding to The Telegraph about the polar bear mauling of a school boy.
RF: This is because of the ‘blame-claim’ culture, which has gradually been taking a grip on pretty much every side of life. You end up with situations where teachers no longer do what they’ve been doing for decades, such as taking their class to a local superstore to see how the store is run because a child might get run over by a trolley! It’s ridiculous. It has reached a stage where people are afraid to take risks at all and insurance becomes horrifically expensive. As a result it stunts any form of risk-taking and of course the mentality leaks in to business. What the media seem to forget when reporting about the banks is that any form of risk-taking wouldn’t be risk-taking if it didn’t stand a chance of failing. Luckily it doesn’t affect the expedition side of things since the sort of person who is determined to go into expeditions is of a risky sort and nobody can put them off. In business we will end up with people less able to make calculated risks and entrepreneurs with less imaginative ideas.
SC: You mention in your book ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ that the chief threat for Antarctic travellers is the same today as it was for Scott – the ability to fall down crevasses. Which challenges do you believe are similar today for business & world leaders?
If you would like to read the rest of this interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, you can read it online in Strategic Intelligence.
There will be An Evening with Sir Ranulph Fiennes at the Jersey Opera House on Wednesday 31 October. After his involvement with our Leadership Forum in 2011 we know that audiences will be in for a highly entertaining evening.