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Antarctica becomes platform for sustainability leadership

A boat in Antarctica

Darren McGann ’94, however, sees the desolate tundra of Antarctica as land worth preserving. (Photo by Jack Robert-Tissot)

Freezing temperatures and enormous glaciers characterize Antarctica for most people. Given it is 99 percent permanent icecap, has no permanent human residents, and is the coldest place on Earth—with the record low of -128 degrees Fahrenheit—the assessment may be accurate.

Darren McGann ’94, however, sees the desolate tundra as land worth preserving.

“Antarctica is the only place on Earth owned by no country, rather it has been set aside for science and peaceful purposes—however many countries would like to own parts of it,” said McGann, who is a biological sciences alumnus. Although not endangered at the moment, in 2041 the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty expires, potentially allowing nations to exploit the continent for drilling of minerals and extracting oil and gas.

This future threat makes Antarctica an idyllic location for imparting lessons in leadership and sustainability, which is exactly what McGann does as a national manager of sustainability at KPMG.

A world leader in audit, tax, and advisory services, KPMG also offers industry insight to its international clients to ensure their growth and prosperity well into the future. It is consequently beneficial for the company to have McGann, who is a global leader on sustainability.

“The perspective I have is not textbook knowledge,” McGann said. “It is knowledge based in business, sustainability, and scientific understanding.”

His expertise has taken him to Antarctica twice for the Leadership on the Edge program, first as a participant and then as a speaker. The 16-day program brings international citizens together to test and grow their leadership abilities, while also providing the perfect backdrop for discussions on worldwide climate change and the preservation of Antarctica. The expeditions are led by Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles.

The landscape and wildlife found in Antarctica inspire Darren McGann, shown standing left with an ISU banner. Expedition leader Robert Swan, right, helps McGann display his Redbird pride.

“It is such a phenomenal opportunity. The real challenge is doing something with that once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said McGann, who worked with corporate heads from around the world. “Most left that trip as different people from when they started.”

Though journeying to the end of the Earth may sound romantic, it is far from a pleasure cruise. The expedition began with participants gathering in Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the southernmost city in the world. After a couple of days of orientation, the group set sail on the two-day journey to Antarctica.

The ship traveled through the turbulent Drake Passage, some of the world’s most dangerous waters. Most on board were seasick for the entire crossing—even those not normally prone. McGann was knocked out of his bed multiple times, with bruises and scrapes to show for it.

But the passengers did not have time to dwell on the hardships. Lectures on leadership principles and business sustainability took place throughout the voyage, with the sharing of knowledge encouraged.

“We are all focused on global challenges and how we can drive sustainability without sacrificing economic growth,” McGann said. “We also get to know other cultures and help each other to understand the environmental impact of our industry and the risks.”

Upon arriving in Antarctica, the daily group lectures continued, with many taking place on the ice.

“There is no weather forecast in Antarctica beyond cold, chance of wind and snow,” McGann said. “Every morning the captain and expedition leader would make a decision of the day’s activities based on weather. The head guide might announce to us that we are going out on the Zodiac boats in 30 minutes, so everyone would run up to their cabins and quickly put on layers to stay warm.”

Expeditions lasted between three and four hours and took place on a glacier, beach, highland, or anything else that makes up Antarctica’s diverse topography. Other activities included a hike to the rim of a volcano, a visit to Swan’s E-Base, and a polar plunge in the Southern Ocean. Along the way McGann and the other participants were awed by the animals of the region, from Minke whales to Leopard seals.

“One colony of Gentoo penguins that we encountered had several thousand preparing to take to the ocean in search of food,” McGann said. “Every moment was unique. We were fortunate one day to be in a zodiac surrounded by Humpback whales. One Humpback surfaced next to our zodiac, blew some air, then swam underneath us.”

Strict rules were in place about interaction with the environment and animals. Guides frequently scouted ahead and placed flags along routes the group was to stay on. When the group had to cross a penguin highway—paths frequented by penguin colonies—the birds were given the right of way.

“If a penguin comes up to you and wants to have an encounter, that’s okay,” McGann said. “But you can’t just run down a penguin and start touching it. It is an amazing moment when a penguin walks over and looks up at you.”

The same “leave-no-trace” approach was also enforced during the group’s overnight camping trip. Meals were taken aboard the ship before it departed for the night, leaving participants to sleep under the stars in bivvy sacks. Even the traditional campfire was replaced with a glow stick. A portable latrine was carried along ensuring that absolutely no changes were made to the environment—a mandate that speaks to the larger purpose of the expedition.

The journey helps focus attention on the fact that the 2041 change is looming, which is why McGann is committed to educating young leaders on the value of preserving the continent. He does his part to make sure not only Antarctica remains untouched wilderness, but that businesses realize sustainability is important to their own models regardless of location. For that reason, he welcomed the challenges of his second trip to Antarctica in an instructor’s role.

“With foresight and planning, leaders can turn risks into new opportunities and take actions to prepare for an uncertain future,” McGann said. “One of the themes I taught about was the 10 global sustainability megaforces, which will impact every business over the next two decades.”

The list includes climate change, energy and fuel, material resource scarcity, water scarcity, population growth, food security, ecosystem decline, and deforestation. Each can have a major affect on a company’s bottom line, yet may not be factored into long-term planning.

It is important for leaders to understand the system of forces, assess the implications for their organizations, and develop strategies for risk and opportunities,” McGann said.

To share this message with an even greater audience, he arranged for the first TEDx broadcast from Antarctica.

“We did the TEDx event on 100 percent solar power,” McGann said. “That included camera equipment, the iPads in the audience, and the P.A. system. If we can do it in Antarctica, it can be done in the real world.”

Though happy to return to civilization and especially his wife, Susanne Tyler McGann ’94, McGann is eager to visit Antarctica a third time. Until then he is sharing the lessons from his journey with anyone he can, even arranging a Skype lecture with Illinois State students on sustainability from a business perspective.

“I am glad I went to Illinois State because I had teachers who were really passionate about what they were teaching and inspired me. Professors Charles Thompson, Angelo Capparella, and Saad El-Zanati were major influences on my professional development and a large part of my going to Antarctica,” McGann said.

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This story would make a great documentary!