'We’re not inspired by data; we’re inspired by stories' Q&A with Ben Saunders ahead of The AHC Reimagined

Ben Saunders

Ahead of his keynote at The AHC Reimagined, polar explorer and TED speaker Ben Saunders shares his thoughts on leadership, the importance of self-belief, and how 2020 is not that different from Antarctica.

If you were to describe your life in one story, what would it be?

My proudest achievement was making the first return journey to the South Pole on foot, a 1,800-mile trek that started in October 2013 and finished in February 2014, and setting the record for the longest ever polar journey on foot. I genuinely raised the bar in the field that I’ve been passionate about for years, but beyond that it was the attainment of a goal (and a dream) that many people – and many experts – had considered impossible. It taught me that the world ‘impossible’ is almost always just someone else’s opinion, and that with enough self-belief and perseverance, anything is possible, no matter how steep the odds might appear.

You’re used to the great outdoors, what has been your experience of lockdown?

One of the paradoxes of my biggest expeditions is that despite travelling through some of the largest wildernesses on earth, I’m often spending weeks or months at a time sharing a tent with one other teammate, so I’ve had some very relevant experience when it comes to being trapped in the same space for a while! Beyond that, while it’s been a challenging and frustrating time on many levels, it’s also been an opportunity to reflect, and to enjoy being at home for perhaps the longest period since I was a teenager.

What have your experiences of polar expeditions taught you about leadership and performance?

My expeditions have taught me that the best leaders lead by example (and therefore need to be able to motivate themselves when times are hard before they can genuinely motivate the people that look to them for guidance). I’ve also learnt about the importance of storytelling in leadership – humans are narrative beings – we’re not inspired by data; we’re inspired by stories. On the performance front they have taught me that we all have enormous potential (that so few of us come close to fully exploring or exploiting) and that self-belief is the most important ingredient in success. Disciplined, consistent, and persistent action is the key to bringing any vision to reality, but your ability to persevere is ultimately a measure of how much you believe in yourself. I view self-belief as a combination of courage and confidence, but it is important to note that confidence only ever follows the courage to first take action without certainty.

Your job takes you around the world; what makes a great hotel experience for you?

My life has taken me to some literal and metaphorical extremes – not only have I spent hundreds of nights in a tent in the coldest places on the planet, but I’ve also been lucky enough to stay at some of the most incredible hotels in the world. Service is the thing for me that stands out above all else. I remember staying at the Hong Kong Island Shangri-La and returning from a run one morning drenched in sweat. One of their staff saw me walking up to the front door and came outside to meet me with a chilled bottle of water, and a chilled damp towel. This was nearly a decade ago, but the thoughtfulness in that simple exchange was unforgettable.

What main idea are you looking forward to sharing with The AHC Reimagined audience? 

I’m looking forward to expanding on what I’ve outlined above about the role that self-belief (both individually and collectively as businesses and organisations) plays in success, and to passing on my best advice on how we can all become more tenacious and resilient, especially when the chips are down. I’m also looking forward to sharing what I’ve learnt about staying focussed and motivated in unpredictable, fast-changing and hostile climates. 2020 and Antarctica have an awful lot in common in many respects!

Ben Saunders will be giving the closing keynote at The AHC Reimagined on Thusday 8th October. To hear more from Ben and other speakers about leadership and seizing opportunities in the UK hotel market, register to The AHC Reimagined here.