The secret tool great leaders use to stay sane

When Rachael Robertson was appointed as the second female to lead the Australian expedition to Davis Station, Antarctica for a year, she turned to the first female leader, Diane Patterson, for advice.

The best tip Rachael received was not one she’d expected.

Diane suggested she keep a journal as a way of looking after herself, but Rachael wasn’t convinced at first. She doubted she’d have time to do anything that seemed so indulgent when she’d be in charge of over 100 people in summer and 18 people in the depths of winter while they were all cut off from the rest of the world in such an unforgiving environment. However, Rachael decided that Diane had suggested it for a reason, so she acted on her advice.

In her interview on The Mentor List, Rachael revealed how keeping a journal was often the one thing that kept her sane. It gave her an outlet for all the thoughts and emotions that she was unable to express to anyone else at the station. She was the boss, law enforcer, HR consultant, and chief strategist all in one – much like the ships’ captains or expedition chiefs leading teams on journeys of discovery in days of old.

Rachael and Diane embraced a tool used by many great leaders - although it perhaps doesn’t get discussed as often as it deserves.

The Mentor List Podcast - Rachael Robertson - Australia POst

Benefits of journalling

Keeping a journal or diary has benefits for everyone, but it is especially useful for leaders in many ways.

Emotional release

Being the boss means that you are often under scrutiny, so you need to appear calm and unbiased at all times. Yet, you are still human. You can have opposing viewpoints or personality clashes with people in your team. You can become upset when things don’t go to plan or fearful of changes beyond your control.

Letting your emotions out is cathartic but talking to people around you can backfire and cause even bigger problems. If you allow them to simmer, you risk having them explode later, creating more damage. If you say things you’ll later regret, you can’t take them back. However, when you pour your thoughts and emotions into a journal, they are contained there and no one else ever needs to know.

Research has shown that writing about stressful events or situations helps us understand and cope with them better. This, in turn, helps reduce the likelihood of developing physical symptoms caused by stress.

Clarity of situations

When you are caught up in the middle of hectic or stressful situations, it’s easy to lose sight of your goals and perspective. Your thoughts become jumbled and little things become unnecessary priorities. Yet, when you write about the situations, your mind gradually starts to sort your thoughts into some sort of order, allowing you to see the big picture again.


Robertson says that journalling helped her develop a deep awareness, not only of her thought patterns but also of her leadership skills.

“I would say that self-awareness is the most important skill in a leader, you need to know what you are good at, what you need to work at and what sets you off. You can learn the strategic stuff, decision-making, risk-taking and assessment but self-awareness is key.”

When you learn to impartially reflect on your own thought and behaviour patterns, you can also see how these affect the people around you. Sometimes, this can be quite sobering or even depressing, however, you can also learn to tap into these reflections and use them to guide your future decisions in a better way.

How to get started

  • Set up a diary. A digital version is fine but writing by hand is even better as it makes full use of both the left and right sides of the brain. The left side helps you analyse things rationally, while the right side can help you find creative solutions and see things how others might see them.
  • Set aside a fixed time each day to write it. The end of the day works best for many people as clearing their head allows them to sleep better. If you are a morning person you can get up early and use that quiet time to get in a good mindset for the day. In either case, you’ll be giving yourself a healthy dose of quiet ‘me’ time.
  • Start small. If writing is not your thing, you might find it easier to start with just 5 minutes a day. Once you get into a routine, you can gradually increase your journalling time to 20 minutes a day or more. There are no rights or wrongs here. Simply find a routine that works for you.
  • Consider including things you are grateful for. It’s often easier to write about the negative things around you than about anything positive. You may even struggle to find any positives at all but, as with all things, balance is the key. Actively looking for 3 things to be grateful for and to note in your journal forces you to pay attention to things you may otherwise have overlooked. They don’t have to be monumental, they can simply be things like the delicious meal you had for dinner or the efficiency of a colleague on an urgent task.
  • Ask yourself specific questions to help get your thoughts flowing. These could include:
  • How did this situation make me feel? Why was that?
  • What did I do well and what would I do differently next time?
  • What factors influenced my values and those of the people around me?
  • Alternatively, you can record your thoughts as they arise in any order and impartially note your reactions to the thoughts that flow out. Later, you can look back and see if your reactions change over time.


 A final tip is to read the diaries of great leaders and learn from them. Not all leaders are great writers, and some journals were never intended to be published, so they may not be literary masterpieces. However, they can offer many pearls of wisdom amongst their pages. Captain James Cook, Harry Truman, and Queen Victoria were all noted for their diaries. Your greatest role models probably did to. This doesn’t mean you have to emulate them, though. Writing your own journal, though, will help you discover your own leadership style and reflect on things you can be truly proud of.

Call to action…

You can hear more leadership tips from Rachael Robertson by listening to her podcast interview on The Mentor List. Rachael tells how she landed the role of Davis Station leader by sheer chance and how she gradually developed her own unique leadership style while working in that extreme environment.

Since returning from Antarctica, Rachael has completed her MBA, written a best-selling book, ‘Leading on the Edge’, and has presented at over 1000 events around the world. So, if you want to learn about leadership from someone who has done the hard yards, make sure you tune in to Rachael’s interview.

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