Former army officer and diplomat David Knoff expected a transformative experience when he signed on as an expedition leader at Davis Station – Australia’s most southerly Antarctic research outpost – in late 2019. But even he was unprepared for just how much it would stretch him. Knoff and his colleagues were scheduled for one year in the Antarctic but the pandemic prolonged the trip, which turned into a 537-day marathon – a true test of mental strength, resilience and leadership under pressure.
“After being stuck in Antarctica for a year and a half, you certainly get a lot of feedback,” says Knoff, who wrote a book about the experience, 537 Days of Winter. He adjusted the way he led his team to meet the unique circumstances. “You have to take your ego out of it, even if you think the feedback’s a bit harsh or misdirected. Mostly it wasn’t for me – it was about being stuck there and not knowing when we were getting home. As leader, I had to look at their point of view.”
Knoff joined the panel at Qantas magazine’s Think. event to discuss what makes a leader truly memorable, held at SK Steak & Oyster in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley and hosted in association with LSH Auto Australia.
The testing Antarctic expedition’s final twist occurred when Knoff and his team thought they were finally on their way home only to have the ship returning them to mainland Australia catch alight.
“We were in the middle of the Southern Ocean in six-metre waves with 15-metre swells bearing down on us and the ship was on fire. Thankfully, by the time we were on the ship, I wasn’t in charge. I was just a passenger getting a ride home.”
Or so he thought.
The ship’s captain was up on the bridge assessing the situation, while down in the living quarters Knoff realised his own team needed him to step up once more. “The nearest land was Heard Island and we were planning on getting lifeboats and abandoning ship.”
“There were about 100 people and it was a case of providing directions in terms of putting on life jackets, but also understanding who was across the situation and who was struggling. I realised that my job wasn’t to lead from the front and tell people what to do, but rather go around and engage them, to make sure we found those who were confused or really worried to buddy them up with someone.”
Experience gained from that long winter helped Knoff navigate the drama on the high seas. “If I had been in that scenario at the start of my Antarctic expedition, my responses would have been different. I learnt that as a leader it’s really important to lead the situation that you’re in and adapt your leadership to that moment, because it'll be different every time.”
Fortunately, the blaze was extinguished and the passengers were able to stay onboard. But in the meantime the expedition members had assembled at their muster points with immersion suits and survival packs. “It comes back to leading the situation you’ve got – there’s no time for democracy in an emergency.”
Think. is a thought-leadership event and content series, presented by Qantas magazine and in association with LSH Auto Australia – the country’s leading Mercedes-Benz dealer group. Find out more about LSH Auto Australia.