The selection process starts with 400 applicants and ends with just seven.

First there are interviews, assessments and background checks. Then, candidates are thrown in with people from all types of backgrounds for 24 hours to assess their ‘personal qualities’ – how flexible they are in their thinking, how they organise others into tasks, whether they're community-minded or not.

Then if they get through that, a group of about 18 is sent to a camp on the outskirts of Hobart where they stay for almost four days, constantly monitored by psychologists and other experts to see how they cope with changing circumstances, fatigue, small group dynamics and isolation.

On day four, one group is told they’ve made it and head back to base for a final interview. The others are put on a bus to the airport.

Recruitment for a reality TV show? It’s actually the selection process for station leaders at Australia’s Antarctic stations.

‘What we’re looking for is progressive leadership’

“It’s an all-consuming process and the feedback you get from everyone is it’s a pressure cooker,” Rory O’Connor, the Australian Antarctic Division’s station and field operations manager, said.

“The aim is to see how you work as a group and in a community and how you do mundane tasks and organise yourselves to do specific things.

“But it’s also about what it’s not.

"It’s not about leading the charge and I think that’s where a lot of people trip up. Our station leaders are enablers, they enable station operations and they deliver on projects we send down. “

That kind of leadership, he said, tended to be empathetic and consultative, rather than autocratic.

“Part of the emotional intelligence and smarts we’re looking for is progressive leadership.

“We’re looking to see if they’re community minded and can work through a challenge coherently, because that’s what station life is like.

Gender split now more even

Historically, station leaders were overwhelmingly men. For the last few years the gender split has been much more even – on several occasions all the leaders have been women. This year, three leaders are female and two are male.

Justine Thompson, a former NSW police officer, made it through the latest selection process and will lead the Macquarie Island station over summer.

“It’s exhausting, they give you enough information that you know that it’s for four days but that’s pretty much it,” Ms Thompson said.

“You knew you were being assessed for the entire time, but you also had to be comfortable without knowing anything that was going to happen, hour to hour.

“You had to be natural and authentic with how you engaged with people because you don’t want to be selected if you don’t have the qualities they need.

“I was one of the fortunate ones who was told ‘yes’ but there was a large group that got ‘no’ and that would be quite confronting.”

‘People get tired and stressed … so their true colours come out’

Rebecca Jeffcoat spent 30 years in the navy, at one time as commanding officer of HMAS Kuttabul in Sydney, and will lead Macquarie Island for a year from April 2024.

She has been station leader twice before – once at Casey and once at Mawson – and remembers the ‘brutal’ selection process well.

“They try and take the competition out of it because going in with a lot of alpha-type personalities, if we were all competing against each other not everyone would have their voice heard,” she said.

“You know you have to put your best self forward.

“It’s really interesting, you go in and everyone’s on their best behaviour and you see people and think, oh you’d be a great leader, or, I’d like to spend a year in Antarctica with you, and then it all changes.

“People get tired and stressed and worried about how they’re performing, potentially, so their true colours come out.”

They get snappy? “More authoritarian,” she said.

“It’s a really good system because it really draws those qualities out of people.”

Ms Jeffcoat started her professional life as a meteorologist in the navy but had “wanted the [station leader] job for 20 years so there’s a lot of pressure to get through.”

‘The people who are in the room with you … are remarkable people’

Dave Buller, who also has a military background, will head to Casey station as leader this summer for the third time.

“You do feel a bit overwhelmed,” he said, of the assessment ‘camp’ process.

“One, you’re being scrutinised, two, you want to impress but three, it’s about how you work with others so it’s not just leading from the front, it’s also about how you do that from behind as well.

“Then there are peer assessments, so it’s quite confronting when you’re asked, could you work with this person for 12 months and you have to say no. “

The candidates who make it through to the final 18 or 20 are high-achieving types.

Justine Thompson said that, in itself, was intimidating.

“I was never like ‘yes I’ve got this,” she said.

“The people who are in the room going through the process with you are remarkable people, they’ve done remarkable things with their lives so no, it was never a foregone conclusion.

“I’m still pinching myself.”

Successful candidates from varied backgrounds

Robb Clifton is chair of the AAD’s station leader selection panel and said the process was gruelling for a reason.

“At the end of the day it’s about true leadership – not management and not administration although that’s part of what you actually do,” he said.

“We want to find the kind of people who will lead and others will follow.”

The other station leaders this year are Ali Dean, a former geologist who is heading back to Antarctica for the eighth time to lead Mawson, and Brett Barlee, who is a first-time station leader at Davis.

With a background in adventure and cultural tourism in Tasmania, Nepal and WA’s Kimberley region, he is familiar with the challenges of managing small groups, far from home.

“I think fundamentally the most important skill set to have is to lead a community and that means setting the tone and tempo so it’s a harmonious and productive place to live and work,” he said.

“I realise there are stresses and strains with working with same group of people day in and day out but I think there’s also a real kernel of magic that can occur if it’s correctly managed and you have the right group of people.”