In the backdrop of Sri Lanka moving up globally in the Ease of Doing Business index and the Global Human Development index, which means that the country is getting on the fast track of aggressive economic and business growth, as a nation we keep hurting brand Sri Lanka, making me wonder if it has to do with us being an island nation
The recent economic shocks hitting brand Sri Lanka are the $ 60 million oil hedging deal that we lost, impeachment motion against the Chief Justice, and the validity of the 13th amendment that the world was waiting for implementation. Whilst each of them may have some logic attached, the fact is that we are creating negative news on brand Sri Lanka and this is not what Sri Lanka requires now, especially with a competitor like Myanmar becoming a hot destination for global aid and investment in the next three years. On the aid front the numbers coming out is that Myanmar is to receive 10 billion dollars in aid by 2016.
Robert Swan OBE
Amidst these shocks hitting Sri Lanka, we had top corporate MAS Holdings staging one of the greatest human beings in the world, Sir Robert Swan OBE, at Galle Face Hotel. Championed by corporate personality Dian Gomes, together with the only Sri Lankan South Pole conqueror Imalka De Silva, the cream of corporate Sri Lanka was present to listen to the first person who has walked to both the South and North Poles.
The South Pole saga alone had taken Robert Swan on a 900-mile journey, where he came down in weight from 73kg to 33 kg, which gives us an indication of the challenge to his physical health.
Though we came to listen to the great works of this exceptional human being, what we ultimately took away was the single-minded message that climate change was the next atom bomb that was going to hit us and the only people who can stop it even to certain extent were the people in that room – the business community. Let me pick up the key ideas shared.
Lesson 1: Dreams make life
Apparently from the early years of Robert Swan’s life, he had the dream of conquering the Antarctica. Whilst his parents used to refer to him as a person requiring psychiatric help, Robert continued working on his dream and went on to make it happen.
In his words, “A man without a dream is not a man,” and he went on to say that he has seen many successful people who do not know why they are doing things. His advice to us was “do not rush through life so that you wake up one day and realise you are done with it. Always remember your dream. That’s what makes life interesting.”
I believe there is truth in this since when we pursue dreams, there is no end; the dream continues to grow within us. Swan is a living testimony to that fact.
Today his dream has grown and he is the UN Ambassador for Youth and he champions sustainable development globally by making youngsters experience an Antarctic expedition. The question is, do we yet have the fire of the dream that we once had? Have we allowed that dream to grow?
Lesson 2: Eccentric talent
I was quite surprised about Swan’s honesty, when he defined his team. As he said: “I had an eccentric team who were fanatic in their own area of expertise.” The beauty about Robert was that he accepted the team for their diversity and in his view, unless a team has diverse views, the team will never have the quality of thinking to achieve a challenge.
Though I have heard this line many times at business school, the perspective that Sir Robert Swan shared this insight gave a new meaning to many of us. After all, with no GPRS or satellite phones at that time, the only lifeline was the skill that each one had. One mistake and they would perish with no one even there to report their death. The question to us in business is, do we really like people who challenge us though we like to preach that we want diversity in our team?
Lesson 3: Experts must lead
It is said that a photograph tells us a thousand words. One picture that caught my attention was when Robert showed a picture of the team on route to the Antarctica and the comment he made was: “I allowed the experts to lead and I only supported the team.”
It was an interesting thought as many of want to always lead in our organisations, and that most of the time. But Robert’s thought was lead only when required; the rest of the time, allow the experts to lead. The question in reality to me was: Do we like to be actually led, especially if they are younger than us?
Lesson 4: Laughter binds
Once the five million odd pounds was collected to go on the Antarctica challenge, Robert wanted to have an impactful launch at the River Thames, which went absolutely wrong. The boat rammed the stage holding the key invitees and also damaged the tower bridge. When reporters asked Robert for a comment, he said: “That was sure an ice-breaker.” It got the audience to laugh and it also made it to the headlines the next day in the print media.
I guess it’s true what people say, laughter binds people together. The question is, do we take the time to use laughter to bind our teams or are we so focused on the end objective that we do not stop and enjoy the journey? Sir Robert Swan did and in fact he got us all laughing many times last Saturday.
Lesson 5: Do what you say
One of the conditions from a sponsor to Robert was that he makes sure that he cleans the Antarctica before he leaves it on the way back home. Sir Robert Swan wanted to honour this task and even though their boat had capsized on the way back, once he found himself back home he got himself together and tracked back to the Antarctica to honour his commitment.
As at today he has removed almost 1,500 tons of rubbish from Antarctica. In Robert’s words: “Do what you say and talk to people in person in an era of email and text messaging. The greatest impact is when you meet face to face. Just do it as often as possible.”
Lesson 6: Listen to environment
A point emphasised was that the recent issue on the weather – hurricane Sandy and the adverse weather in Sri Lanka last week. In Robert’s view, the environment was telling us something. But the question is, are we listening? In his judgment, it’s time that the business community listens and intertwines business strategies with the environment. “It is not two concepts but one linking to the other,” emphasised Sir Robert Swan.
A word that caught my attention was when the only Sri Lankan who has conquered the Antarctica, Imallka De Silva, commented: “You must brand the environment and link it to business.” It was a very powerful message to corporate Sri Lanka. Swan made the climate change challenge real last Saturday.
Lesson 7: Look for champions
I loved the words he mentioned and how he demonstrated about how today his real task is to find the champions who can share the message of caring for the climate. For instance, he has led multicultural teams to accompany him to the Antarctica and thereby take the message forward.
My mind went back to my workplace. Do we try to find champions and support them or are we so busy trying to achieve the hard tasks that we forget that it is people that make things happen? If we can find champions and power them with hope and resources, we can build them to strive for greater tasks. But this requires the maturity to make your subordinates better than you. The million dollar question is, do we want to make someone actually better than us at work? If we have this mindset, then we are practicing sustainable leadership.
Lesson 8: Do not lose the dream
Once Robert Swan had received recognition after becoming the first person to trek the South and North Poles, he was touring the world to share his story and spread the issues of climate change.
One of his journeys took him to the Middle East where some wealthy Sheiks called on him to inquire what help he required. His answer was simple: “Can you find a woman who can conquer the Antarctica from the Middle East?” This ultimately led to 25 women taking up the challenge, which included nine females from Saudi Arabia.
What was great about Sir Robert Swan to me was that he stayed focused on his dream without turning to life’s passion for money. He could have asked for funding instead of taking his cause to the people of Middle East. But he opted for the latter and I guess this is what makes some people world beaters.
Lesson 9: Change by experiencing
Today, at the age of 57, Robert’s only objective is to take youngsters to the Antarctica so that they can see how climate change is causing ice to head to extinction. So are the polar bears. As he said: “Let the youngsters experience the challenge so that they will take the word to the world.”
Last Saturday’s experience changed the ways in which we now look at climate change and was a key take for many of us. Now the question is, how can we integrate business to the environment and brand the environment like what Imalka voiced?
Lesson 10: Life of rivers
The last point shared by this exceptional man was how he met Sri Lankan conqueror Imallka De Silva and how this resulted in him finally agreeing to come to Sri Lanka. He added: “Life has its own ways in which rivers are created. The question is how we nurture them and link them to our dreams.”
It was strange but I went for the event because I received a call from Dian Gomes’ office to come for the event and a personal call from Imalka and I am glad I did. Climate change has impacted our day-to-day lives. Even hurricane Sandy was thousands of miles away. But Sir Robert Swan made it real and at arm’s length.
The only people who could solve it to some extent were in that room at the Galle Face Hotel – the business community. The million dollar question is, what actions will corporate Sri Lanka take this week or will this also be a just a book entry in the memory chip of our brain?