Survival expert expeditions banner
Expedition Leadership

Organizing an Expedition
Part 2 Expedition Leadership


History is a great teacher and as far as expedition leadership goes it is often the case that the person who came up with the original idea for the expedition, the person who puts up the funds or the person with the greater level of knowledge about the proposed task is not necessarily the person who should lead the expedition. Expeditions are organic, they grow from the initial concept into a fully–fledged project that undergoes many stages of evolution as the expedition progresses. The constants in this growth should always be the personal safety of all involved and a single–minded determination to succeed and achieve all the set goals of the expedition.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. He was repudiated in the press at the time but rapidly became a leadership role model in the 20th Century as one who, in extreme circumstances, kept his team together.
An expedition leader is the boss on the ground, so to speak. The expedition leader's role is more akin to the role of a military leader than that of leaders in any other area because bad decisions may not just mean failing to achieve the expedition's objectives, or losing funds, it can lead to loss of life. So it makes sense that the expedition leadership role follows more the military model of leadership, in fact, ex–Army personnel, especially those with a logistics background and those used to taking command often make very good expedition leaders.

I once worked with a group of scientists planning a research trip into the Amazons. We reached the stage where the objectives for the expedition were agreed, the sponsors were happy, all the necessary permits were in place and the expedition members had been chosen. When I asked how they were going to find the right person to lead the expedition it quickly became obvious that the senior scientist involved thought he naturally would lead the expedition. I find this sort of thing often occurs. Once I pointed out that with everything he, and the others, had to achieve on the expedition, none of them would have time to also manage the leadership role even if they had the required leadership skills — which in my view non of them had! Conversely, I also had the privilege of working with a group of Army Officers who were planning an expedition up the Amazon river using hovercrafts. They all had the necessary leadership skills but non of them had time to fulfill the leader's role either. The role of the expedition leader is a full time job. It is possible that the expedition leader possesses skills that are a valuable contribution to the expedition and can be "hands on" where needed, but not to the detriment of his or her main task, which is to manage the expedition.

An expedition leader is charged with the task of achieving the overall goals of the expedition with regard to the safety of all involved, however, others may naturally have to take charge temporarily for specific reasons, in which case the leader has to take a secondary role. Examples of this may be in the case of a medical emergency; someone with more expertise advising on a different course of action; someone with linguistic skills handling a negotiation, etc. Leadership, and sometimes the need to re–establish overall command, necessitate a high level of interpersonal skills, a total grasp of the situation, the ability to solve problems (often quickly), a high degree of flexibility and overview. In the commercial world a leader is often only regarded as being as good as his or her last good decisions, too many wrong decisions quickly leads to replacement. In the Army a leader's wrong decisions can lead to unnecessary loss of life resulting in more punitive accountability. On an expedition, a leader is not easily replaced, but challenges to leadership can occur and resistance to a leader's decisions may surface. So an expedition leader has to not only earn and maintain the respect of the team and be a team player, the leader's job has to been seen as a crucial and effective role, often a diplomat, but must be capable of taking tough and sometimes unpopular decisions and having the personality and character to maintain his or her position as "the Boss." There are many facets and requirements to the expedition leader's role!

What makes an effective expedition leader?"
The effective expedition leader will have realistically placed self– confidence, relevant experience and high degree of maturity. The leader also has to have a specific range of skills in order to lead effectively:
  • A good understanding of individual and group psychology.
  • Above average communication skills.
  • A thorough understanding of the goals of the expedition and all that entails.
  • Relevant technical skills related to needs of the expedition.
  • Knowledge of human physiology and the skill to access the physical abilities of the team members.
  • Knowledge of the environment/terrain in which the expedition will take place.
  • Ability to understand and stick to a budget. Some basic accountancy knowledge is good.
  • Knowledge of the legal and insurance aspects surrounding the expedition.
  • A thorough understanding of safety methods, expedition planning and administration.
  • Advanced problem–solving abilities.
  • Also: good judgement, perception, creativity and charisma.

Leadership style
A lot is written about leadership style, much of it spilling out of the commercial management world. In a nutshell, leadership style is simply the distinctive way in which a person operates and often this is related to a person's personality and degree of psychological balance versus psychological distortion. Leadership style can also be regarded as rigid or flexible. A person with a rigid leadership style tends to be more autocratic and a person with a flexible leadership style tends to display more the ability to deal with a diverse range of circumstances by adapting his or her approach accordingly without appearing to be overall inconsistent. All these considerations means that a really good expedition leader is not so easy to find, and it is unlikely, but not improbable, that the person won't be found in the initial team and must be recruited from "the outside". Much also depends on the personalities in the team and how they respond to authority. It is essential that the team elect or hire the expedition leader, are all in agreement and happy with their choice, and the team has to have a consensus on what leadership style they best respond to and agree that the leader has to be allowed to lead without reasonable dissent. The individual team members also have to be flexible with regard to their personal wishes in the best interests of the goals of the expedition and the other team members.

Stepping up and stepping down
An expedition is organic and goes through several stages in it's life–cycle. For example: Those with the initial concept will lead events until the idea becomes fully–formed and fully defined. Leadership may then hand over to the person charged with finding funding and promoting the expedition concept. At which stage the leader may be the person in charge of procurement, logistics and making sure that all the expedition members are fit and ready. Once the expedition starts, the person leading will probably be someone else who is charged with managing the expedition in the field. This expedition leader will need someone back home to handle support and this person may, for example, also be in charge of handling media and publicity; this person may also be the one to launch and oversee a rescue mission should the expedition get into trouble. All the persons involved in the administration, logistics, funding, publicity and other relevant areas will usually form the management team, but once the expedition is underway the expedition leader in the field is the person in control and he or she should ideally have been involved during all the preparatory stages and have a good overview of the whole venture.

Depending on the nature of the expedition, the leader may have to step down temporarily and let another lead, for example, climbing a mountain peak: a more experienced climber may lead the ascent to the summit. In such a scenario it is also possible that the expedition leader never joins the summiting party but selects those who will make the attempt and oversees events from base camp. So the expedition leader's role may not be to "lead from the front," it may be to manage things from the rear ensuring the success of others. However, in the climbing scenario, the person leading the ascent will be in total control as the leader of the summiting party.

The expedition leadership's responsibilities to the team

Role of the expedition leader
The expedition leader has to create a command structure beneath him or her that will provide the most satisfactory means of running the expedition safely and successfully.

The priority of this leadership team at all times is to ensure the safety of each and every member of the expedition. At all levels, the expedition hierarchy has to work towards maintaining a sensible balance between calculated risk and achieving the expedition's goals in order to obtain a fulfilling and successful outcome for all taking part. It is also the leader's responsibility to make sure that communication and incident logs are kept up to date. An incident log should also document "near misses" and any minor medical treatment that has to be given in the field.

Role of the deputy expedition leader
The expedition leader should appoint a deputy from the outset of the venture. The role of the deputy expedition leader is to cover for the expedition leader if, for whatever reason, the expedition leader has to leave the expedition. For this reason, the deputy expedition leader must be involved from the outset and have access to all expedition plans and be able to deputize for the leader even during the initial and planning stages of the expedition. The expedition may delegate specific roles and duties to the deputy expedition leader, for example, taking care of logistics or keeping an accurate written record of the expedition and possibly photographs and films that can be used later in publicity (unless the expedition has a dedicated press officer with them). The deputy expedition leader may have other duties within the leadership team e.g. meteorologist, mountaineer, managing the base camp or could be the expedition's doctor.

Leadership code of conduct
Members of the Leadership Team hold positions of responsibility and trust towards the expedition members. It is important to draw up a code of conduct for the leadership and also for the expedition members. This is sometimes time consuming but will ensure that everyone knows how they are expected to behave both individually and towards each other. Codes of conduct can become somewhat pretentious and they should be specific and clear. An example may be that all expedition members have to agree that sexual relationships are expressly forbidden on the expedition. Another example may be that tasks will be handed out according to merit and not by favouritism. A further example could be that the leaders have a duty of care towards the expedition members and are responsible for counselling and encouraging them. Overall, the code for leaders should be to encourage initiative while putting the accent on the teamwork, safety and the responsibility needed to achieve the goals of the expedition.

Risk assessment
It is the responsibility of the expedition leader to ensure that an adequate risk assessment has been made and that it is regularly reviewed and revised.

Risk assessment should be a written document which details the finding of the assessment and includes relevant revisions. This document should be made available all members of the expedition leadership who should have an input to the document.

Assessing risks:
  • Identify the potential hazards by considering all the activities the expedition will include and decide what could put expedition members in harm's way and jeopardize the success of the expedition.
  • Evaluate which expedition members are at the greatest risk of harm and detail how this may happen and what can be done to minimize risk.
  • Evaluate the level of risk by assigning a high, moderate or low risk rating to each activity.
  • Consider how to reduce risk by, for example, choosing a different route or mode of transport, giving extra training, using different equipment, etc.

The aim of the risk assessment is to reduce the risk, not to eliminate the element of challenge from the activity. Once you have assessed the risks, you must ensure that the risk assessment is kept up to date and remember that expedition sponsors and insurers will certainly want to see the risk assessment and have their concerns relating to risk satisfied. All expedition members should be made aware of the potential risk to themselves and the team and sign a legal disclaimer where valid.

Essential initial tasks for the expedition leadership
(12 to 18 months ahead)
  • Agree duties, projects and scope of expedition.
  • Seek permission from countries to be visited.
  • Make preliminary contact.
  • Produce an outline budget.
  • Produce information sheet on the area.
  • Establish membership.
  • Draw up preliminary food list.
  • Open expedition account.
  • Apply for sponsorship and or support.
  • Start fund raising.
(10 to 12 months ahead)
  • Pay deposits.
  • All members should pass any medical examinations required.
  • Hold first expedition meeting.
  • Finalise details of projects.
  • Finalise dates of expedition.
  • Agree dates of any training sessions.
Meeting of expedition members. PHASE THREE
(8 to 10 months ahead)
  • Continue collecting information on expedition area.
  • Finalise equipment list.
  • Draw up personal equipment list.
  • Make up specialist teams of expedition members.
  • Arrange insurance (medical, personal, third party indemnity etc.).
  • Appoint home contact.
  • Draw up outline menu and food requirements.
  • Book any ferry crossings, air flights, rail tickets, camp sites or hotels
(4 months ahead)
  • Start any vaccination programme required.
  • Finalise food and menus.
  • Start to receive stores and equipment.
  • Finalise expedition programme.
  • Meeting of members.
(1 month ahead)
  • Obtain any visas required.
  • Obtain any tickets required.
  • Pack all non–perishable food.
  • Receive, check and pack all equipment.
  • Check and make ready any vehicles you will be using.
  • Send any freight ahead.
  • Order money and travellers cheques from bank.
(1 week ahead)
  • Complete all vaccination requirements.
  • Check all equipment and food lists.
  • Check all passports and other travel documentation.
  • Go through the complete plan with home contact.
  • Collect money and travellers cheques.

The purpose of this article on expedition leadership is to draw to the attention of would be expedition organizers that it is quite easy in the initial excitement surrounding the development of the idea for an expedition to over look the considerable thought and detailed attention that has go into the role of the expedition leader and the leadership team. From concept to conclusion an expedition is organic and the leadership role may change considerably from the planning stage to the role of the expedition leader in the field. It is important that the expedition leader's responsibilities and the expectations placed on the expedition leader are documented, agreed and are clear. The same applies to each member of the leadership team. It is essential that the expedition leader knows each expedition member and has a clear understanding of the role of each of them and what is expected from them. The expedition leader is responsible for making sure that each expedition member has the opportunity and resources necessary to fulfil their individual goals. The expedition leader has the power to change plans in the field and has to be aware of how any changes are communicated and is sensitive to the timing of announcing these changes. The role of the expedition leader is very challenging and requires a person of stature, experience and good interpersonal skills and people management skills.

expedition leader
Expeditions in Savannah