In 1991 I was a member of a 7 weeks expedition to South Georgia. Now is not the time to retell the story but if I had been possessed of foresight, then I doubt that I would have believed myself capable of what I did on that expedition. It drew on my physical, mental and emotional reserves in a way that nothing before or since has. By way of illustration, let me take just one aspect; the physical. I ran my first marathon at 14. At 17 I sculled the 31 mile Lincoln to Boston rowing marathon. In other words I was accustomed to physical endurance challenges. The Army had also pushed me in much the same way. South Georgia added a new and significant aspect; there was no certainty of when or how the course would end and no alternative to completion. Physically it was far harder than the marathons but it also required something else. The expedition and the group that I spent most time in were utterly alone. No safety vehicle, no outside help short of a major rescue mounted from the Falklands Islands, and even then probably no outside intervention for at least 5 days. We stood alone utterly reliant on each other. I’d recognised the role of mental resilience in physical challenges but this was more than just bloody minded will power, this was accepting total responsibility for every aspect of the expedition. I have faced greater single challenges but by a margin the combination of physical, mental and emotional stamina required by that expedition was quite simply the hardest thing of my life. It was a pivotal experience which continues to have a profound influence on me and I continue to reflect on the experience. On return I became a “South Georgia bore”; within 5 minutes of any conversation I had engineered an “I like me” account of my exploits. Rather less embarrassingly I also started to analyse the experience and its impact on me. I recognised that I had grown in stature and that it had profoundly changed and shaped my attitude and confidence to my own capability. I even went as far as articulating some of them in strap line maxims. “little steps make big steps” was one. On a lecture tour of schools I suggested that this applied as much to learning French vocab as hauling a pulk. Today I still reference that experience on South Georgia.
At about the same time I became aware of the philosophies of Kurt Hahn. By complete chance I was introduced to Ali Hahn and I also listened to the experiences of Richard Clements who had been at Gordonstoun, the school founded by Hahn after his escape from Germany. This brief dalliance got subsumed in the pace of life but never totally left me. My next foray in this area was not for several years when I came across part of Steven Covey’s book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. A part had been placed on the intranet at MOD Abbey Wood were I was working (I use the word loosely) on the Bowman radio programme. “The habits” made sense and I couldn’t help but observe how at odds they were with what I observed going on around me. I bought the book and read it avidly. As well as interesting me, it seemed more profitable than the nugatory work that was expected of me and I could make a slight case that it was in fact work related. In fact I stayed at Abbey Wood for 3 years and the work remained nugatory, so I threw myself wholeheartedly into organising an Antarctic Expedition. At least it seemed like a project in which I could make a difference. That expedition did come fruition and much to my surprised spurned a further two.
Each of these Antarctic expeditions had its own ambiance, significance and outcomes. During the first I forged a strong friendship with the yacht skipper, Andy Bristow. I helped sail the yacht back from the Falkland Islands with Andy and that 3 months was another pivotal experience. Not only did my seamanship improve dramatically under his tutorage but his methodology and approach made an impact that extended way beyond sailing. Andy sailed through Lerwick last week on his way north to Svalbard.
The third of the Antarctic expeditions incorporated another symbiotic expedition called “Leadership Through The Atlantic” (LTTA). The concept was to sail a circuit of The Atlantic including both Antarctica and The Arctic with novice crews. It gave young soldiers (most had been in the Army for less than 6 month and were aged 18-20) an opportunity for a highly beneficial experience at the start of their service. I never viewed it as a sail training expedition but as a personal development exercise for life and of course leadership. Hahn, I later discovered had typically trod this path and put it very succinctly, noting the difference between “training for the sea” and “training through the sea”. My ambition for the later put me on a collision course with the Services sailing community. We rubbed along because we had to (which in itself is not a bad lesson or akin to getting on with shipmates) but were probably both relieved when the expedition finished. I am pleased to say that today we enjoy a much more open and comfortable relationship. (last week one of their yachts sailed into Lerwick.)
LTTA was certainly not plain sailing. As well as the professional challenge, I faced two concurrent personal challenges, two people very close to me died that year within a few months of each other. Both had faced lingering deaths with great courage and fortitude. Their individual journeys had been eased by the way their own primary carers had responded with physical and emotional love and support. Each had taken on more than could ever be reasonably asked of them and they had done so at great personal cost. Just like South Georgia, there was no certainty of how the course would run or when it would end. I stood (and stand) in ore of how all four of them faced that journey. I tried to support all four but in truth probably failed to do so.
My day to day boss was the chief of Staff of the Army’s recruiting and training organisation. The post holder changed during the expedition but both Philip Astell and Charlie Knags were equally supportive and very tolerant of my sometimes unconventional approach and manner. I know that I tried the patience of both. My small expedition was a blip on their radar; they were running what was at the time (and might still be) the largest training organisation in Europe. Amongst the big issues of the day was implementing the recommendations and reaction to The Blake Report, the independent report into the deaths of young soldiers at Blackdown camp. What started off as identifying a need to better prepare instructors in the pastoral and welfare support of young teenager trainee soldiers rapidly expanded to include not only how best to communicate with them over welfare issues but also in their approach to learning and developing. Charlie Knags suggested that I might usefully attend, a new pilot course designed to look at the role and benefits of transformational leadership as opposed to the more traditional transactional approach. The course chimed with much of what I had observed and reflected on during Leadership Through The Atlantic. I struck up an immediate rapport with the instructor, Mark Woodhouse. Mark is also a former soldier who now runs a niche personal development company called Performance People. Since that initial pilot course I have attend several others with him. They include coaching and mentoring as well as a couple of NLP courses. All this learning also rekindled my interest in Kurt Hahn and I started to read more about his philosophies.
Another of the big issues of the day was the Army’s response to the Iraqi prisoner abuse episode. British Army Doctrine is concerned with how the army delivers something called “fighting power” In essence fighting power is the combination of three components; the physical (what we fight with, tanks guns, men etc) the doctrinal (how they interact and are employed) and finally the moral (why we fight and keep fighting. It emphasises the intangibles encompassed by and dependant on moral courage). It was this last one that appeared to have gone wrong and there was an immediate effort to reinvigorate something that we had perhaps taken for granted. Our core values were restated and emphasised at every level and opportunity. Values based leadership chimed with the transformational Leadership model and the pre-eminence of the moral component was unashamedly and unambiguously trumpeted. Some years earlier my own interest had been heightened by a dissertation I wrote for my Master’s degree entitled “A changing Society, Military Ethos and the Moral Component”
Throughout LTTA I had sought to build inclusive partnerships wherever possible. In the short term and for relatively little effort and investment these had maximised and created opportunity for the benefit of participants. One such contact was with the British Schools Exploring Society and these bore longer term benefit when it became a launch pad for a group of Army bursars (FE collages students who had decided to join the Army and were being support by the Army) and junior soldiers at the Army Apprentice College joined an expedition to Greenland. I was lucky enough to join them as chief boatman. The expedition leader, Pete Allison, is at the forefront of developing outdoor education philosophies and practices as well as being one of the foremost authorities on Kurt Hahn. I learnt a huge amount during that expedition and on return continued to develop my own ideas based on these influences.
One final ingredient came from a very unexpected and unwelcome series of events. In 2010 whilst serving in Iraq, a number of allegations were levelled against me by the Brigadier I worked for. These were dismissed at a hearing in front of a more senior general but the experience rocked me to the core but not as hard as the Army’s lack of response to the dismissal of the allegations. My professional, domestic and personal world collapsed. It’s a more complex story than time allows but often it is when life is at its toughest that our character is not only most tested but also that we learn most. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and a number of people, whose debit I am in and who I hold in the highest esteem, helped put me back together but it took 2 years and was a painful and exhausting process. (This experience was perhaps tougher than South Georgia but I exclude it because mental illness attacks the very essence of who we are and when our brain and rational no longer function in the way that defines us individually then we cease to be the person we are.) I would not wish it on my worst enemy but in the process of recovery forced me to take a long hard look at myself. I digress but want to make an aside. Mental health remains a taboo, perhaps not unlike cancer 30 years ago. It’s spoken about in hushed tones and there exists still a stigma that hinders diagnosis and recovery. Mine was probably at the lower end of the spectrum and still crippled me. One in four people will suffer during their life time, its more common than breaking a leg and it destroys the very essence of self. If you are lucky enough to be one of the 3 in 4 please support the other and if you are one of the 1 in 4 then please know you are not alone and do not suffer alone.
The recovery process introduced me to CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and as I started to recover I started to draw strength and meaning from some of the previous experiences and learnings I have referred to here. But above all I remain an unremarkable and very ordinary person who has had the good fortune to enjoy some extraordinary experiences.