Leadership lessons from the Aurora

Sales & Marketing
AuroraBorealis Henningsvaer

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional, and global life sciences communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. In this column, he draws lessons from chasing the northern lights that may help executives and business managers lead more effectively and successfully.

In case you‘ve been following my wintery travelogue from the Arctic Circle or this blog for a while, you may be aware of my long-standing ambition to hunt down the polar lights at some point in my life. I’m talking those colourful, dynamic patterns of brilliant natural light that may appear in any shape from curved lines to spirals, curtains, rays, or dynamic flickers, occurring in high-latitude regions around both poles. And I wanted to see them properly – not a faint hint in the distance, but covering the entire night sky.

To succeed in this elusive challenge, I pursued a variety of approaches over time. Nothing worked. In Alaska, I learned that the aurora borealis – named after the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the ancient god of the north wind, Boreas – won’t show up at all during the ‘wrong’ seasons of the year. 

Aurorae result from disturbances in the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by the solar wind. These disturbances alter the trajectories of charged particles, which precipitate into the upper layer of the atmosphere where it thins out and merges with outer space. The resulting ionisation and excitation of these particles emit light of varying colour and complexity. The form of the aurora also depends on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles.

That’s the theory. Now, on to reality.

Lessons from chasing the polar lights

So, off I went to hunt during the dark season. It all peaked last winter in the Norwegian city of Tromsø. Not only did I invest a fortune in “tailormade” multi-hour northern lights safaris taking my family deep into the night, and into Finland, too; we never got any closer to spotting the aurora. Instead, the tour guide gave me the coronavirus as a memory to hold on to. 

I had to go about it differently. Therefore, this winter, for weeks I’ve been renting a house on Norway’s Lofoten islands, a remote archipelago off the far northwest coast, known for its dramatic scenery and the absence of daylight around the winter solstice. 

And it’s working! While watching mesmerising displays of the phenomenon in my remote solitude, I can’t help drawing lessons from chasing the polar lights that also seem to apply in a leadership and general management context.

Know what to look for

First, whatever your passion, challenge, or opportunity: set a clear goal. It’s hard to achieve anything if you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re looking for and where. 

Next, immerse yourself in the topic. Do your research, know the ‘science’ behind it, consult experts, get familiar with relevant background. Once I took the time (and interest) to learn about all contributing factors that need to align for a perfect aurora sighting, it significantly changed the odds. Grounding myself in the science enabled me to focus the search and to stop dabbling around in the dark (forgive the pun!) when conditions were far from ideal.
Strategic partnering

To that end, make sure to partner with the expertise and capabilities relevant to reaching your target. For this, too, pursuing clear goals and knowing the subject matter is essential. In the absence of either, chances are that you may be taken advantage of and your naiveté exploited. A good partner is honest and adds value to the pursuit of your mission; they complement your own skills, neither duplicating nor competing.

The same goes for equipment: if you need to invest, make sure to spend on technology that gets you closer to target vs. just any fancy gadget. Even in perfect conditions, if your equipment lets you down – like inadequate clothes or a low-precision camera on a northern lights tour – you might as well not set out in the first place.

Focus and lead

To accomplish a critical mission, put unequivocal focus behind it. Focus your vision, knowhow, your energy, and resources. Get the right support – but don’t get distracted. 

Things might not fall into place immediately. In fact, they rarely do. It may take a while to succeed. Be resilient to failure, delays, and disappointment. Learn from the insights gained and adapt the plan. But do persist with the effort. When I came off my vain attempts in Tromsø a year ago, sick with COVID-19, giving up seemed a desirable choice. Tonight, watching those hypnotising, constantly changing patterns in the night sky around me -  I’m grateful I didn’t.

If your mission involves others, you may need to rally them behind a compelling vision. While my family wasn’t hard to persuade at first, morale dropped with every obstacle and failed attempt. It helped to set clear targets, engage them in the task, share details transparently, to keep encouraging yet not overpromising, give credits, and celebrate together in the end.

Be patient, yet know when to change tactics

Being patient helps, yourself and others. The aurora can be moody. Conditions may appear optimal at face value, while in reality you might be hovering in the wrong area at the wrong time, the geomagnetic storm may not be strong enough, particle acceleration too slow. It may be snowing, the night sky clouded or polluted with city glow or the waxing moon. For any number of reasons outside your control, your mission could be jeopardised. Be patient – keep at it!

However, it’s as important to realise when to not prolong a failing effort, giving yourself and your team a breather and not exhausting their energy and morale.

Experienced leaders know when it’s time to temporarily suspend an effort, as the resources invested outweigh the likelihood of success; they know when it’s better to consolidate the learning, adapt the plan, and prepare a superior, re-invigorated attempt at reaching the target.

Measure and celebrate 
While defining clear metrics and measuring results is something I often see applied well in the corporate world, celebrating critical outcomes is not. There’s typically little time to pause and thank contributors. It’s often assumed that people will go above and beyond anyway, encouraged by salary, bonus payments, their title, manager, the company’s mission, products, or ethics.

The latter is easy when suddenly spotting an impressive aurora: there’s simply no way you will not instantly stop whatever you’re doing to enjoy, admire, and celebrate this encounter with insane beauty.

  • Set clear goals
  • Immerse yourself in the topic
  • Partner with relevant expertise and capabilities
  • Leverage appropriate technologies
  • Put unequivocal focus on your mission
  • Don’t get distracted
  • Be persistent and patient
  • Build resilience
  • Inspire and lead others
  • Know when to change tactics
  • Realise when to not prolong a failing effort
  • Consolidate insights to prepare a superior approach
  • Keep at it
  • Define clear metrics and measure against these
  • Celebrate success

About the author

Oliver StohlmannOliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication. He currently works as an independent leadership coach, trainer, team-developer, and communications counsellor.