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Covid-19

An adventurer’s advice? Don’t stress over things beyond your control

21 June 2021 in Magazine

Bertrand Piccard believes the COVID-19 crisis could be a chance to reset our priorities, leading to a more efficient, cleaner and fairer world. Interview by Alyson Meister ...

Aeronaut, environmentalist and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard believes the COVID-19 crisis could be a chance to reset our priorities, leading to a more efficient, cleaner and fairer world. Interview by Alyson Meister   

 

Bertrand Piccard comes from one of the world’s foremost dynasties of adventurers: his grandfather Auguste invented the pressurized capsule to become the first man to reach the stratosphere and inspired the character of Professor Calculus in Tintin. His great uncle, Jean Felix, who built the first American stratospheric balloon was the inspiration for the Star Trek character Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the fictional starship Enterprise. 

His father accomplished the deepest dive ever, reaching the bottom of the Marianna Trench, 11 kilometers below the surface. As a teen, Bertrand dreamed of one day boldly going where no one had gone before. Yet his ambitions were, for a time, grounded by a fear of heights that belied his ancestry. “I faced a big paradox,” he says. “I was dreaming of being an incredibly curious explorer, and on the other hand, I was afraid to even climb trees.”  

His remedy for acrophobia is not for the faint of heart: Piccard faced his fear by hang gliding, a high-adrenaline sport. For those who don’t know, pilots take flight in a foot-launched glider, fashioned from an aluminum or composite frame, topped with sailcloth for a wing. “It cured me completely,” Piccard says, explaining that it forced him to “be in the present moment” rather than projecting the fear of plunging to his death. “I was two or three thousand meters high in the sky, and I was feeling good,” he says, adding: “The only limitations you have are the ones you give yourself.”  

Now aged 63, the Swiss explorer, environmentalist and psychiatrist, who specializes in hypnosis, has notched up an impressive array of feats and learned lessons in leadership that will interest any business executive searching for a purpose beyond profit. Emulating his forebears, after hang-gliding the young Piccard took on ballooning (flying in a lighter-than-air fabric envelope, uplifted by buoyant gas) and, in March 1999, he circumnavigated the globe in 20 days non-stop with co-pilot Brian Jones.  

The historic balloon flight, a world first, inspired Bertrand to initiate in 2002 the solar-powered airplane project called Solar Impulse. He and his colleague André Borschberg took turns in the single-seater cockpit to complete the first circumnavigation flight powered by renewable energy in July 2016. The 43,041km voyage took off from Abu Dhabi in March 2015. The journey, made up of 17 stages with various stops, took 16 months in total, enduring nearly 500 hours of flight time.   

But Piccard was loving it. “I never felt as well in my life as when I was alone in the cockpit of Solar Impulse in the middle of the night, thousands of kilometers from any possible rescue,” he says, explaining that “this is a moment you discover that all the skills you need are inside of yourself.” 

The flight has wider implications: Solar Impulse was hailed as a significant achievement for renewable energy that could transform the future of our world. “This airplane was the symbol of how we could behave without fossil fuel, how we could be more efficient, how we could be cleaner,” says Piccard, who has predicted that electric-powered flights could be available to the public as soon as 2026.  

Speaking after his groundbreaking flight, he also highlighted the gains in efficiency and weight-saving made in recent years by clean technologies. Solar Impulse is powered by 17,000 solar cells that are built into the enormous wings, spanning 72 meters, larger than a Boeing 747’s. The plane weighs only 2,300kg. During daylight, the cells charge the lithium batteries that drive the propellers at night. 

Piccard uses his career of being an explorer as a platform to promote his environmentalism. Four years ago, his Solar Impulse Foundation launched a goal to identify 1,000 clean and profitable solutions to the climate crisis. The aim is to reconcile ecology and economy”, Piccard says, for the developed as well as the developing world. A lot of these solutions allow the creation of local wealth, more social stability and peace,” he says. “Wealth is something you have to grow, and not steal from others.”  

The 1,000 target has already been exceeded, and Piccard wants to present the solutions to world leaders and encourage governments to adopt more ambitious environmental goals. He reflects on concerns that politicians — and business leaders — are not matching their climate rhetoric with action. “It’s very nice to say they want to be carbon neutral in 2050,” he says, “but how do they do that? They don’t know. It took us four years to identify these solutions and now my goal is to offer them to decision makers.”  

In particular, he stresses the need to introduce regulation that boosts adoption of new clean tech, not only as solar and wind farms but also all the solutions to become more resource efficient. “Today the regulations still allow us to live in the past with wasting and polluting devices,” he says, with feeling. “It’s legal to pollute.”  

Such concerns have come into sharper focus during the COVID-19 outbreak, which he says forced people to reflect on society’s worst ills, including climate change, inequality and poverty. “I think we really deserve to be more humble because we have destroyed a big part of life on this planet.”  

Yet the explorer sees the pandemic as a chance to drive positive change. “We have a window of opportunity that is absolutely unique today,” he says, noting that governments were pledging vast sums to recovery packages that could shape the future of economies and societies.   

“We can use these trillions of dollars to … invest in clean mobility, on carbon-neutral buildings, on renewable energies and new industrial processes and ecological business opportunities,” he says. “And then the crisis will have been really useful. We will end up being a modern, clean and efficient society.”  

Businesses will not be let off the hook; the commercial sector is a significant contributor to climate change, while government policy directed at specific sectors could force companies to take action, both to mitigate the risks of climate change and to grasp the business opportunities being created.   

Piccard urges the next generation of leaders to create social, environmental and financial value. “What you do has to be useful for others,” he says. “The goal should be to reduce the suffering and the inequalities in this world. Not only because they are morally inacceptable but also because they are dangerous for the economy and the security of our society.” 

At a time when companies are facing pressure to do more than just generate profits for shareholders, many chief executives are trying to unearth their wider purpose. Where did Piccard find his? “When I was a child, the people I met had the purpose to explore, to discover, to go beyond the obvious, to do things that nobody had done before, and who accepted the risk of failure in order maybe to succeed.”  

Piccard, right, and Solar Impulse CEO Andre Borschberg

He met the American aviator Charles Lindbergh and many of the astronauts from the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury space programs because his father Jacques, a renowned oceanographer, had a collaboration with NASA.  

His upbringing distilled three values that have guided him through his dizzying career. “The first is curiosity because without it you try nothing new,” he says. “The second is perseverance, without which you don’t succeed in the new things you try. The third is respect because, if you don’t have that, your success will serve nothing.”   

Yet Piccard actually started out as a psychiatrist focused on hypnosis. So he is keenly aware of the effects of coronavirus not just on environmental concerns, but on mental health around the globe. He says mankind tends to think we are “more powerful than nature” but the pandemic has exposed our fragility.  

A 2020 survey of 1,500 people from 46 countries found that overall, 85% of respondents thought their wellbeing had declined during the pandemic. Around four in 10 adults in the US reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from one in 10 before COVID-19 struck. In Switzerland, instances of stress and depression have increased sharply too. 

Piccard says that stress is often caused by us when desperately trying to change things that are out of our control; acceptance is therefore important. He also advocates for reframing crises as opportunities for learning and growth, not threats. “If we understand that, maybe it’s a challenge to teach us to be a better person, to learn something, to find new ways of thinking, then there’s no reason for stress,” he says. “Then you’re in the process of learning. You’re in the process of exploration of life.”  

 

In companies today, there is often a tension between raising performance yet still taking care of the wellbeing of employees. Piccard says leaders need to consider whether they’re asking too much of their staff. Both coronavirus and arduous work hours are taking their toll on the world’s workforce. “We work as if there was no death, as if we were perpetual,” he points out. “But for what? We earn money but don’t learn what life has to teach us.” 

Purpose can be an important source of fuel; leaders need to give their staff a wider meaning to rally behind, he asserts. “What is clearly unacceptable today in our world is when you have to work like hell just for others … for the company, for the profit of the shareholders or the CEO. It’s a complete disbalance.”  

Piccard calls the “superficiality” of work “a disease”, and calls for far greater compassion for colleagues, wider society and the planet. He highlights purpose as a strong unifying force that will help teams overcome adversity. Indeed, he credits purpose with the success of Solar Impulse. “This is why the team was so dedicated and so enthusiastic,” says Piccard, adding that they truly believed “they were changing the world”.  

Wealth is something you have to grow, and not steal from others
Bertrand Piccard

He also rubbishes the notion that purpose comes at the expense of prosperity: “It is proven that if you show kindness to your employees, to your suppliers, to your customers, you will make more profit,” Piccard says. “If you are a really good human being, working with good human beings, you can be much more successful.”  

The secret to being happy, in his view, is simply to do what makes us fulfilled, rather than what makes us rich. “What will make people feel good and well in their life, [not] bad and depressed, is this feeling of belonging to something bigger [than themselves],” he says, adding: “If we don’t put our life in a bigger context, we’re just working for nothing.” 

Expert

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is a Professor specializing in the development of globally-oriented, adaptive and inclusive organizations, she has worked with thousands of executives, teams, and organizations spanning professional services through to industrial goods and technology. She was recognized as a Thinkers50 Radar thought leader in 2021.

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