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Life's journey has been varied. As a 30 year career soldier its been geographically, emotionally and intellectually nomadic, at times exciting, sometimes frustrating, its had highs and lows and it has challenged me, sometimes beyond what I thought possible. On the whole I have been lucky. I've developed a reputation for being unconventional, even unorthodox. I've made mistakes, plenty of them. Success and failure have left their marks. I've been able to develop my passions and interests. From the office to the trench, from ocean sailing to Antarctic exploration, from the philosophies of Kurt Hahn to the lyrics of Tom Lewis, and much more besides and between. Now I want to share them.

I am trying to bring meaning and sense to these experiences, learning from the past so as to signpost the future, not just mine but anyone else who might benefit vicariously. This blog, set in Shetland sailing aboard "Swan", a 100 year old ex herring drifter delivering youth development and sail training opportunities for young people, is a living reflection on that journey.

To share it read on . . . .

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Reflections on Norway


These reflections have been written over time and indeed the very essence of reflection is that it changes over time as things take on new meaning or a different perspective.  However a consistent theme is that Norway was not what I expected and on balance a disappointing trip.  But before latching on to that disappointment it requires clarification and expectation.

First off is that I had anticipated that it would be the highlight of the season for me.  I have over time and experience developed ideas about youth development and sail training, indeed I have already blogged about some of those influences.  I have also recognised that “my” model is different from many of those used by other organisations.  I have to face an unpalatable truth; my model didn’t appear to deliver in the way that I had hoped or anticipated.  So much of the reflection is trying to understand why and more importantly how to use that analysis to build and develop future models.

Before doing so its really important to reiterate that the trip had its high points, for example the entering and leaving of Skudeshaven are two obvious but not unique examples.  So a word that keeps reappearing in my thinking is “inconsistent”.  Its also very important to recognise that might apply to me as much as I might want it to apply to others.   That brings me to a second point.  I wonder if you have ever listened to a politician being interviewed after an unsuccessful by-election campaign?  So often instead of acknowledging just how badly they have done, they attempt to portray the result as being the result of “mid term” or unique local factors.  In doing so not only do they lose credibility but until one can be honest with oneself then remedies are even harder to find.  So however tempting, I don’t want to rely on a belief that my model is correct but local factors meant it didn’t work well on this occasion.  I think I need some more fundamental honesty in the balance of analysis.  There were though two points of learning that also need to be weighed in context, both of which were I believe unhelpful.  Firstly during the crossing to Norway many of the trainees were very seasick and the watch system broke down and the afterguard finished up standing the watches; did this create an impression that trainee participation was either voluntary or at least not essential?  Secondly in previous years the sail train Shetland charter has taken part in either “Nordic Sail” or a tall ships race, both of which have strong youth emphasis.  This year the programme was different and included two “sea festivals”; neither had youth participation as a focus and were arguably a distraction from sail training and establishing a more conducive routine for the trainees.

Field Marshall Slim (of 14th Army and Burma fame) said (I Paraphrase) that there are no bad soldiers only bad officers.  I don’t think it’s an unquestionable truth but it is a reminder of several points; firstly that leaders set both direction and tone and secondly that they are accountable and responsible for success and failure.  (You might remember one of my mantra’s from LTTA was “take responsibility for your actions and I must live by my own rules.  So what could I have done differently?

An interesting start point might be the result of a feedback exercise I played.  You ask every member of the crew to list a positive feature about their ship mates, these are then merged and each crew member gets a list of their positive qualities as seen by 14 other people, often this is great for people with low self esteem or self image.  An extension of this is to ask them to list an area for improvement.  These are collated and a common thread identified and then these are presented positively to those who ask to see them and can then be used to set a SMART goal.  The common theme for me was to relax more.  Faced with this information there are two responses, firstly to deny it and either attribute it to their inadequacies causing the stress that leds to not being relaxed or to write it off as a not unexpected view of any teenager talking about any adult in authority and the second is to roll with the punch and recognise that it’s a valid opinion based on how (in this case) I come across and how I could change for the better. 

So I hold these thoughts as important in any analysis.

One trend that I noticed was that trainees tend to place their own interest above the collective interest.  It manifested in many guises, from helping themselves to a second helping before establishing who else might want seconds or offering to serve others, reluctance to proactively engage with chores such as cooking let alone washing up.  Most people were ill disciplined in keeping their kit tidy and put away.  (now this might have those who know me shouting pot kettle black but others will know that on a boat I tend to the opposite extreme, “a place for everything and everything in its place”  not only is this essential for harmonious communal living but its also a major contribution to safety.)  On deck a not uncommon reaction to be asked to take the wheel was that they had already done half an hour.  Arguments between port and starboard watch members as to work sharing were regular occurrences.

Another trend was that of the afterguard including myself and that’s the tendency to take over.  So if for example a watch is reluctant to engage in cooking, what should the reaction be?  My instinct is to say “ok we go hungry”, but there are practical considerations to this response!!  It is a moot point as to how an adult steps in but my observation would be that we are too ready to step in and take over.  At times I found myself being silently critical of others doing this but then recognised it in myself with the attempted justification that “being on their back” would be detrimental.

Perhaps there is a further consideration here.  My majority previous experience had been in Greenland with BSES (as was) and with LTTA.  Both these shared the attribute of being longer expeditions of circa 6 weeks (in the case of LTTA 6 week legs) and the greater isolation and need for self-reliance in each case was a significant factor.  Another that makes me uncomfortable is the civilian versus soldier comparator.  For a long time I have held the view that typically we make more of the differences than we do of the similarities.   I am therefore reluctant to say that participants in LTTA stepped up to the mark more readily because they were soldiers (of broadly the same age group) but I am beginning to think that this might be relevant and if it is then it suggests two things, firstly military training does do more than impart hard skills but also reinforces soft skills such as collective behaviours and proactive engagement and secondly that my trying to bench mark against what I know is achievable within the military community is not a level playing field and sets an unrealistically and therefore unhelpful aspiration as to what is achievable.  This is just as uncomfortable because it implies a glass ceiling and is at odds with what I actually believe.

I also note that in both Greenland with BSES and LTTA there was a far greater incentive for active participation and standing by was simply not an option.  Necessity is a great driver but it is also a stick rather than a carrot and away from motivation is typically less successful than towards motivation.  I can’t believe that youth development relies on stick more than carrot – although it has its place it is not I hope the predominant one. 

And yet there is for me an unaccountable positive.  Two parents have told me how much their children enjoyed and benefitted from the experience and I have met 3 trainees walking in Lerwick, none of whom have run from me and all of whom have chatted positively about the experience.  Perhaps there is some truth in the notion that different people benefit differently and in different ways and in different time scales.  I hope its not me clutching at straws to make a comfort blanket.

So I am left in something of a conundrum and although I could write more I think I’ll stop here.  I have no doubt that I will need to think about this some more and if you have any thoughts then please do share them with me.

In the meantime it’s off to Orkney . .

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