ep. 11 - Matt McFadyen: Record Breaking Polar Adventurer, Sailor, & Speaker on Leading Positive Change
Very few people have the ability to combine the adventure world and the business world quite like Matt McFadyen. For over a decade Matt has worked with organizations all over the world to align leaders, energize culture and build winning teams.
Matt is a world-class speaker and facilitator who addresses, leadership, building high performing teams, motivation and inspiration. From dragging heavy sleds to the North Pole to sailing small yachts through some of the world’s deadliest oceans, adventurer Matt McFadyen has pushed himself and others to the ends of the earth, testing the limits of human potential.
He has been a leader of teams in some of the toughest conditions on the planet. This includes three record-breaking expeditions to the North Pole & two long-haul sailing trips to Antarctica & in 2013 Matt rowed, sailed & dragged a small boat 2000 miles across the North West Passage. Matt’s presentations not only inspire and motivate the audience but more importantly challenge them to think and act differently both personally and professionally.
ep. 11 - Matt McFadyen: Record Breaking Polar Adventurer, Sailor, & Speaker on Leading Positive Change
Today's special guest is a remarkable man with a remarkable story, adventure Matt McFadyen has spent the last decade being part of and leading teams to some of the most extreme, remote and dangerous places on the planet. Including Antarctica and the North Pole and the most dangerous oceans. Matt works with leaders of fortune five hundred companies all over the world to align, engage and inspire teams and to help them build their own leadership bench strength. We're delighted to have Matt with us here today to share his remarkable story and learn more about him. So g'day Matt.
Matt: G'day everybody. Well done, well done.
Kyle: Well, we strive for authenticity here. So, just before we started recording, we got kind of a quick glance into your background, into your story and how you got started into this adventure kind of lifestyle. If you could, take the listeners kind of on that journey as well. It was rather fascinating.
Matt: Sure, and again, thank you for having me. It's great to be chatting. It's an interesting story and often when I reflect on it, I don't think, well I know for a fact, when I was growing up I was never speaking to the guidance counselor and they said, there's a career out there to be an adventurer. I kind of wish they had. But, it was never top of mind, but it's something that sort of organically happens throughout my life. So, I was born and raised, you can probably tell from my accent, in the land down under. So, born and raised in Sydney, Australia in the western suburbs of Sydney. A very blue collar, working class part of Sydney. And, I grew up being raised by my mum. My mum and my dad separated when I was five and I've had little to no contact with my father every since. So I was raised by a very amazing and very strong woman, who raised both my brother, my older brother, and I.
And, really I look back and reflect on it now that she was probably the one that really encouraged me to become an adventurer in some way, to see the world. She was very passionate about travel. In her own right, I always say that she was really the adventurer in the family. At the age of 21, in the 60s, she jumped on a ship in Australia and worked her way across to London, where she then backpacked and traveled around Europe with a group of people that she'd met. She always encouraged my brother and I to see the world, that there was a lot more out of the sphere in which we lived in.
And, so I remember when I left school and decided to postpone my studies for a bit and get into the workforce, my mom said to me, if you're going to work, I encourage you, why don't you save some money and travel. At 21, I backpacked around the world on my own, for a little over nine months. That really gave me that wow, there's a big planet out there with plenty to see and lots of people to meet. And it was around ...
A little earlier I had watched a documentary about a young Australian by the name of Jesse Martin who had sailed around the world, solo, nonstop, and unassisted. I grew nowhere near the harbor, nowhere near the ocean and I didn't know a sailing boat from a spaceship. And I fell in love with this concept of sailing by watching this documentary. And this idea that this young, 16 year old boy could take on the amazing challenge and really go against the naysayers, the people who said, it can't be done. You're too young and you're not experienced enough.
That combined with the idea of sailing, which to this day still, in my mid 30s, I'm deeply passionate about, that mother nature, that the wind can push you around the world. And the concept of sailing really ... Although the design of boats and materials has changed dramatically, but the concept has really not changed in centuries. That if the wind is blowing in one direction and you want to go the other, that you put your sail in another direction. Columbus, and Cook, and all these early explorers ... And that is what got me into sailing.
And I remember, the first day that I ever went on a sailboat, I went out and we hoisted the sail ... I had a learn to sail class that my mum had bought me ... And there was not a breath of wind. And I remember thinking, this is not exactly what I thought. But, I went back the following week and it was the complete opposite, we had huge winds. And I remember the boat keeling over and taking off and I was hooked. And so sort of fast forward, I pursued sailing competitively and always had a dream of going bigger and bolder and getting sort of off shore.
And again, I was following the big adventurers, particularly Australians, and I met another sail around the world yachtsman by the name of Tony Mowbray who really took me under his wing and really mentored me. And I think he took on kind of a father figure for me. He put this question to me when I was 20, he said I've always dreamt about sailing my boat to Antarctica and I need a team to do it, would you be interested. I was 20 years of age and invincible and I said absolutely. And it all took off from there.
Kyle: That's awesome. Now, when you went out to Antarctica you had kind of an interesting scenario, I guess happened. Could you fill the listeners in as to what happened to you while you were out to sea? And how long it took you to get out there and everything else?
Yeah, well the whole process itself, the expedition from start to finish was 54 days in length. But, the whole expedition, in my eyes, was two years. From the idea to building the right team, preparing ourselves both mentally and physically, and the boat, and finding the right sponsors who were supporting us, was a two year process before we actually got to the starting line. And was really an adventure in itself where I learned so much about what it takes to actually pursue these huge goals.
And then we set sail, and it all went to plan on the way down. It was stunning. It was everything I'd dreamt of. We sailed, we had the most amazing icebergs that we sailed through, we had the remoteness of the Southern Ocean, which is, for the listeners, it's your best friend and your worst nightmare in the blink of an eye. But I saw it's beauty, perpetual daylight. We made land fall in a very remote part of Antarctica, called Commonwealth Bay, after 27 days. I spent four days on land, as we had limited food, and more importantly fresh water.
And I remember getting back on the boat and thinking to myself that I was just a bit, this feeling that I had was indescribable, it was the most emotional, the most amazing feeling that I, at 22 years of age, I'd set foot on this continent. I had fulfilled this dream that I'd had for so many years. And I remember thinking, nothing out there could change this feeling, even though I have to go back across this big, scary ocean, there was nothing that could change this feeling. Unfortunately, like in life, I would be wrong with that statement.
On the way home, pretty much as far remote as we could be, as far away land, we were engulfed by a hurricane strength storm. Our boat was only 43 feet in length, so a very small boat. The waves and the ocean grew to about 50 feet high. For three days, for 72 hours, we were basically fighting for our lives. On the fifth day of January around two in the morning, I was on deck steering when a wave flipped the boat upside down and washed me into the ocean. For a period of time, I was being thrown around. Luckily enough, I was harnessed onto the boat, but waiting for to basically right itself, I would drown. Obviously I'm speaking to you, but the boat did turn itself back up.
But, that really was the catalyst for what I call that fight for survival. As the storm intensified in the early hours of that morning and throughout the day, it got to a point where we said our goodbyes to one another. We were 100 percent certain that this would be the day that our lives would end. And that was, as you can imagine, a pretty horrific thing to experience. But, as the hours rolled on and the waves continued to hit the boat and the boat continued to withstand it, there was something that changed.
And I remember it clearly in myself and I saw it in the rest of my team. This idea that we need to do something, we need to get up and do something. We can't just sit there, in the middle of this bleak ocean, and wait for the waves to take our lives, that we have to get up and fight. And that's all we had left in us was that fight. We got back on deck and we continued to steer the boat and we continued to support one another throughout the hours. I always say, just like in life, and eventually we saw glimpses of the sun and that hope that potentially this storm would end. And it did. And I was very lucky, 11 days later, to arrive back to Australia and to arrive back on solid land. I arrived back a completely different person, with a very different outlook on life, and a very different perspective. Much more focused and determined and driven in what I wanted to do with my time here.
First of all, I'm really glad you're okay. I'm curious ... You and I were chatting a little bit before we started recording, and you made reference to the fact that you knew Nando Parrado, and you were very familiar with his story. So I have to ask you, were you familiar with it before this happened to you or is it something you learned of afterwards?
Matt: Something after. Yeah, it's definitely something that I've looked at others who have been in similar situations. And it's very interesting because having read books or listened to podcasts or heard people or spoken to people, in not just people who have made names for themselves for this, but people who have had similar experiences. There are a lot of similarities that people go through, particularly from that emotional state. More so when you sort of double click in my area. I've spoken to a number of people who have almost lost their lives at sea or almost drowned. And it's quite eerie to hear the similarities that people go through in their mental state. From complete despair to this almost funny things that happen to them that they remember.
I remember when we were going up. Each of us would go up for an hour at a time to steer the boat. And they were the worst moments, it was bad enough to be down below and listening and feeling the movement. But to see the waves was something so terrible. Every time one of the other team members or myself would come down, the very first question you'd get from the crew would be, is it getting any better up there? We had this rule, and sailors are very superstitious, we made a rule that you would never speak ill of the weather. So for those three days, that person or myself that would come down, no matter how bad it had got up there, you'd always say, yeah I think it is. And you knew people were lying, but there was that little hope that maybe they weren't. And that's something, something like that that rallied us. That little bit of humor that continually got us through.
So those similarities I think that people have in these experiences are very, very amazing to see and listen that others have been through it as well.
Gail: [00:13:30] I agree. I'd like to go back to something you said earlier about the importance of building the right team. You've been through alot with teams and what take away can you provide for people who haven't been through such extreme situations, but the common characteristics or things that you think make the right team.
Absolutely. And, I think this trip for me, being so young, was the real eye opener and it's really formulated how I've gone on to build the teams that I've actually gone on led. And not just led in these extreme environments. I think there's a really nice crossover into the teams that I've led professionally and the teams that I work with on a professional basis. And really it's, first and foremost, it's about being aligned behind that compelling goal. That people need that clarity of saying, this is where we're going and this is what we're trying to achieve. I often see that first step really overlooked, that only a handle of people are really clear and aligned on that's the direction. Once that alignment in place, it's really important to talk to people from an individual perspective about purpose. About why they're there.
And this for me was a real eye opener on the sailing trip when I remember the captain of our boat, the leader of our team, and there were five of us in total. When he said to all of us, one day, once the team was selected, he said, you know we're all together, and he said why are you here? Why are you part of this team? And you know, I always say the naïve 20 year old in me was thinking, well that's a silly question because I know why we're all here. We're all here for the adventure of a lifetime. But, when each and every person answered that question honestly, I realized that was why I was there. And I heard five very different answers to that one really, what'd you say a simple question. And it really gave me a different perspective on the effort that I was putting in. Was actually having a major affect on other people's purpose in life.
And I say it a lot with the teams I work for, when people get to the level of honesty, and at times vulnerability, why we get up and do what we do every single day, why we put the effort in. And often at the sacrifice of the most important things in our life, our relationships, our families. When people start to understand that, that's when you start to build that high performing team. Then people and their discretionary effort goes up and goes through the roof. Because they're not only having an impact on what their purpose is, but they realize that what they do, the effort they put in, has an effect on others. So having that clarity around purpose.
And then the last piece of the puzzle then is saying great, now we've got this big goal that we know, we've got this alignment, we understand each other's purpose and why they're here, then we need to understand, what are the behaviors that are going to drive us to success. And really, I always say, in both personally and professionally, behavior trumps process. It's the human behaviors and the actions that we do, that go a long way to converting that dream, or that goal into reality. And they're really the building blocks and the foundation that I've said that I've used to build the teams that I've led in the extreme parts of the world, but also the teams that I've been part of and I work with around the globe in the business setting.
Working kind of that on that... Let's do this real quick. I know that you've done a number of other expeditions and different things like that since your first trip to Antarctica and you've done a number of things, and I would like you to talk about those. Kind of, in doing so, can you kind of keep in mind the two other things that you brought in was not only building a team, but prep and planning. What does that look like either when you're soloing or when you're doing it as a team effort? And how does that go on into other things that you've done as well?
Yeah, it's a really great question. And again, I think it's ... I'll give you an example, when I got back from Antarctica after almost losing my life at sea, I vowed never to go back to the ocean. It was really something that was difficult because it was such a passion in my life. But, I was so frightened of the waves. And after several months of sort of getting over what had happened and starting to reevaluate, the realization that I only had one chance at this, this gift, and I honestly believe that life is the most amazing gift that we've been given. I thought, well I want to pursue the passions that I have, I do want to go back out to sea, but my ...
I was saying earlier, I think my brain is sort of a wire that's not connected or in a different way. Because I started to think, well why don't I walk to the North Pole? And the geographical North Pole sits in the middle of the frozen Arctic Ocean, so my justification for that was, I'll technically still be out at sea, but I won't see the waves, because the ocean's frozen. And 18 months after getting home, I found myself exiting an ex-Russian military helicopter in the middle of the Arctic Ocean and dragging a 220 sled for several weeks and getting to the Pole. But, in that expedition, and also in my first trip, the idea of preparation ...
Because those environments that I operate in for long periods of time, there's no real room for error. And I learnt this essence of planning and preparation from the leaders that have helped me both in Antarctica and in my first expedition to the Pole. I remember the gentleman who was the lead guide on this expedition, there were three of us on that trip, a very experienced polar adventurer from Australia named Eric Phillips.
Eric taught me this beautiful saying, he called it the what if. And I remember we used to lay out all of the equipment, the clothing, the stoves, the sleeping bags, the tents, we'd lay it out in the warmth of home. In the safety and the comfort, before we'd head out there. And we'd literally go through every single piece of equipment and say, what if this happened? What if this broke, or this screw came off, or this toggle broke, or this froze? And it's painstaking when you've got hundreds of tiny little things that could go wrong. And I remember saying to him at one point after hours of doing this, I said to him, what are we doing this for? All of this is not going to go wrong. And he said to me, but one thing will. He said it's so much easier now to have ticked that box off of knowing how to overcome that, then when it's a life and death situation, or it's 50 below zero, or you've got to be moving away from a polar bear, or whatever it may be.
So having ticked those boxes, and for me that preparation, that detail of planning, just allows things to more effective and efficient and there will always be things that will go wrong that are sort of out of our control. But, I try to get to the point, prior to leaving, where I know how to solve pretty much everything that will go wrong, before it does.
I think that's an interesting way of thinking about how you move forward in life. Because I have a lot of friends of mine who are in the military, right? Before they go out on a mission or they go out and do any plan, they do a gear check and they check everything that they have and they make sure that it's all clean and everything else. And it's almost in a different way another what if kind of situation. You know, what happens if I run out of bullets or my gun doesn't work? I have to do this, I have to do that. Or what happens if we get lost and now I have to navigate? It's a good exercise to always plan for that worst case scenario and plan redundancies and to always think about that as you move forward.
And for me, particularly in the Polar regions, it's not always the extreme things that go wrong. But, one of the things I learned on my three trips in the Arctic, it's the simple things in life that you take for granted become incredibly difficult. Not to get too graphic here, but when you realize quickly, how do you go to the restroom when it's 40 below zero. That's a challenge. So you have to plan that in advance and do those little things that you take for granted. Or how are you going to find water in the high Arctic when you don't have a source of it. So, it's those little things that we take for granted that often become the biggest challenges. And not the huge things that could go wrong and end your life. But, really it's about having that knowledge prior to it that really helps you be successful and be effective and efficient when we're out there.
You mentioned earlier that because you were young and on your first expedition to Antarctica that being naïve had helped. In that you didn't know what to expect and you kind went in there with, you know, I could do whatever, I could anything, right? How do you compare that now, especially when you see a lot of young business owners, they don't know what to expect, they just say hey I can do it, and jump into it. There's a little bit naivete that helps them, whereas if someone's a little bit older, they're more reserved or more cautious and it cripples them. And then vice versa, how does experience now help you moving forward?
It's a great question and I think for me, I always joke around, and I don't think it's a joke, but I was, I was the naïve 20 year old when I started this. But, I was surrounded by very experienced and very knowledgeable people. So, I think that was the benefit there. Yes, I was naïve in that I was very willing to try anything and take those risks. But, I also had the leader of my team, one of the most amazing sailors and adventurers in the world who was able to, when I did sort of go out a little too far, be able to reign me in a little bit and give me that good advice. So I think, a young entrepreneur, going into ... And that idea of risk and risk taking, obviously in my life, I think it's fantastic.
But I also think it's about surrounding yourself with the right people that have had the experience that can give you the advice. But also too, I think, allow you to fail. And I look back on the leaders that I've had that have really shaped me as a leader, in the adventure world, and I think the crossover into my business is very similar. That they've allowed me to fail at times, because I think, you know, there's a beauty in failure. Obviously there's a beauty in failure around the lessons that we learn, the success that we've had up until then. So I think that's critically important.
And I also think, as I'm getting older and more experienced, I kind of know what's out there and often it scares me or I don't want the discomfort, so I kind of love the energy and the enthusiasm of youth. So, being able to get that different perspective. And I think in the business world ... I often talk to my clients about that spectrum, of people in an organization or a team that have been there, the lifers, their great. Their the people you go to to get through the roadblocks and the hang ups and the challenges and how to navigate often a complex ecosystem that they work in. But, equally important are the people at the other end of that line, that spectrum, that are new, that have that fresh ideas, that have a different perspective on the world. And when you can combine those, that's when you start to see real innovation, real great thinking that comes out and ideas. So I think that combination of both, I always say, an and conversation. It's not one or the other, it's one and the other.
Oh, I love that. Any other leadership traits that you've identified, I know you do a lot of work with leaders. You mentioned allowing people the space to fail, I love that. Can you think of any other ...
Kyle: And kind of on that, in the start up world, they have, where I come from ... You live in San Francisco and now you live in New York, so you've probably heard this before, to fail fast ...
Kyle: It's a funny one.
Yeah, I think, definitely the idea of failure. I think the idea of calculated risk taking is definitely something that I see there. And I think that often, when ... The thing that I see a lot at the moment, that I'm talking a lot with my clients about, is this idea that, you know, at the other end of that is saying that knowing when to stop. Is a really important thing that I think that often, people don't do or they're not empowered to do. And I see it in the ...
I'll give you an example, the last expedition that I went on, we attempted to cross the Northwest Passage, which is a very famous stretch of water in the Canadian Arctic that links the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. And for centuries, it's been looked upon as this amazing trade route that would open up the Orient. But it's always been full of ice, due to it's being, it's extreme height in the world. And up until about five or six years ago, it started to open up and it started to be accessible by boat.
Myself and a friend of my, three summers ago, we took a 17 and a half foot rowboat and we attempted to cross it, rowing, and with a small sail on it. Which was, again in hindsight, a little bit out of our depth and not really possible. But it was interesting, we got, the plan was to go and travel roughly 4,000 miles. And at the two and a half thousand mile mark, we were at the only exit that we had up until the next exit which was 2,000 miles further on and we realized, we weren't going to make it in time. We'd set ourself 90 days and we were at day 42 at this point, the conditions were worsening and we had to say, stop.
And that's hard, and that is a really hard thing to do. And it was difficult for both of us because it was years of planning and preparation, we'd invested huge amounts of money, we had a number of key corporate sponsors that had helped us get there that were expecting things on the back end of it. So to be able to actually say no, and stop, was probably the hardest thing that I've ever had to do.
But, having the courage to do that, I think is incredibly important. Particularly when we're talking about organizations that often invest huge amounts of money in whatever the new direction or the strategy or the technology is, and they get to the point where people can see the writing on the wall. But, they fear that they've already invested so much they need to continue. So that idea of being able to say no, and stop, I think is something that is incredibly important.
And then what comes with that too, when you do have those moments of failure, or that beauty of failure as I like to call it, is the idea of recognition. Really recognizing, what have we achieved? Because often we look too much at the start and the endpoint, and the finish line or the number or the target or whatever it may be. And we don't recognize the progress that we've made, or the development that we've made in other people, or the lessons that we've learned. So when we're able to stop, pause, and recognize not only along the way but in post, whatever that journey is, I think it gives them a different perspectives and allows them to move onto the next project, the next expedition, the next thing with confidence and more skill and ability.
I think the ability to recognize kind of what's going on and to use another point of jargon from the start up world, learning when to pivot, it helps a lot. When somebody invests a lot of time, effort, energy, money, sweat, and everything else into something, it's their baby and they don't want to switch. This is your goal to row and sail across the Northwest Passage, at some point though, you have to, like you've said, recognize how far along you've come and what's possible and figure out another solution. Whether it's, let's take out the Northwest Passage, but then pivoting it into something else and taking the best of what it was and making something great out of it.
I speak a lot about that idea of pivoting, because I think, I talk about having that big, clear, compelling goal. But, let's face it, in the environment that we live in at the moment, this constantly dynamic, changing environment, that clear, compelling goal is often not very clear and it often shifts dramatically. And it shifts quickly. I often talk about behaviors and I list off the behaviors that our team and these behaviors that we set ourselves and I really use them a lot, if not in all of my expeditions.
But, the two that come always, to the top of the mound, is really this idea of having open and honest communication with each other and instilling a culture of open and honest communication and not just top down, but bottom up and peer to peer. You're allowing people to feel free that they can communicate, that they can really recognize, like I said. But also have those challenging conversations when needed and people aren't feeling that it's vindictive or it's spiteful. But it's there for the benefit of the team, the benefit of the organization.
And the second one is really, as I said, is having that idea and that clear, compelling goal and when it does shift and people knowing their roles very clearly. So that when it does, people can pivot very quickly, we understand the communication lines that we have, we understand who plays in that team and what people's skills are. And going back to what I said earlier, that purpose. I'll ask people to shift very quickly and still move very efficiently in that new direction.
Oh, the beauty of the pivot. It is my favorite thing. I think too often people get hung up on something and to admit failure is to admit defeat, or to admit defeat is to admit failure, some form of that, right? And I think too often people don't realize, like you said, how far along they've come and what are the good things and what they can take away from and just to pivot it into a new direction. Because you may be running a marathon, but you don't know that there's a hill at the end of it, you know. So, it's figuring out what is the best course to plot for yourself to set up for success and not to willingly put yourself in a vulnerable situation.
And I think the words ... Obviously failure, we all, it brings up such negative connotations with it and I think we surround it with all these negative words too. But, as I said earlier and I've said numerous times, I call it the beauty of failure. And obviously, there's a line, if you've got people continually failing and failing at the same thing over and over and over again, there's obviously something going wrong there. But to look at failure and to look at it through a different lens, I think is something people don't do enough, to be honest.
You know what I kind of like is, you know in the work out world, in the work out community, you do reps till failure. You keep going, and the reason you do it is because your body only grows until it tears itself down. And you keep going and going and going until you tear every muscle fiber that you possibly can and you can't lift that last lift anymore, or lift that last rep, and that's how you grow. I think more people really need to think about the beauty, like you said, of the failure and the beauty of the pivot is that if you do it and execute it right, you always come out the back end looking like the smart person.
Matt: Yeah, exactly.
Gail: And that sounds like a good place to end. I think that's perfect. That's inspiration for everybody, for sure.
Yes. Well, hey Matt. It was really great talking with you and if you have any questions, I guess, for Matt, feel free to reach out to GDA Speakers. You can do so by calling 214-420-1999 or by visiting gdaspeakers.com. If you'd like to read the transcript from this podcast, you can go to gdapodcast.com where it will be uploaded as well as blog post and other podcasts that you can listen to as well. With that being said, thanks Matt.
Gail: Thank you, Matt.
Matt: Thanks Gail, thanks Kyle, I really appreciate it.