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Leadership lessons from the ends of the Earth

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As job descriptions go, it didn’t sound much fun: “Men wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful.” But legend has it that these words attracted five thousand applicants for the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. 

The man placing the ad was Ernest Shackleton. He planned to sail his ship, Endurance, to Argentina. He would then head for Antarctica, and walk across the continent. It would be a brutal challenge for even today’s explorers. But this was 1914. There were no radios or satellite phones. No weather updates, snowmobiles or Gore-tex gloves – they were 70 years away. It’s a story of hardship and resilience, with lessons in leadership for everyone who’s heard the story. 

Just imagine the isolation and the deprivation. On a good day, the crew might get some ‘hoosh’ – a soup of seal meat, fat, and snow, plus a few crushed biscuits. If they could sleep, they were plagued by dreams of home-cooked food. One day they killed a leopard seal, and ate the undigested fish in its stomach. Inside their tents in the evenings, drinking-water often froze over. 

The diet was a hardship they expected, but around them things got worse. Five months after setting off, they left the island of South Georgia. It was the last time they touched land for nearly five hundred days. Despite Shackleton’s caution, their ship was trapped and eventually crushed in the ice. They were forced to camp on the ice floes and drifted for months. After an epic journey on sledges over pack ice, their three small boats eventually reached Elephant Island. 

With no hope of being saved, they were on the edge of disaster. Shackleton decided to set out with five others on a small lifeboat, across the roughest ocean in the world. To seal the boat’s timber and canvas they relied on wick from lamps and oil paint. Rolling and pitching, and without modern navigation aids, they plotted their way using the position of the sun. 

After 800 terrifying miles, they somehow made it to South Georgia. But the whaling station they were heading for was on the other side of the island. With nails hammered through their boots for grip, Shackleton and two others set off across the mountainous terrain. Walking day and night, they made it through the icy wilderness to organise a rescue effort. The tough Norwegian sailors they met could barely believe their eyes.

Against all the odds, not a single member of Shackleton’s 28-man team died during the time they were stranded. He hadn’t lived his dream of trekking across the continent. But he proved that failing doesn’t make someone a failure. It’s just a setback. 

More than a hundred years on, what can we learn from his approach? Here are five leadership lessons from the Endurance story and the man they called ‘The Boss’:

  • Plan for setbacks and be flexible: Shackleton was good at adjusting to circumstances. When new information or problems emerged, he changed tack. He knew not to get too fond of any plan, no matter how much time and effort it had cost. His dream ended when Endurance sank. But he said, “It looks as though we shan’t cross the Antarctic Continent after all. It’s a pity, but that cannot be helped. It is the men that we have to think about.” He focused on what he could do, not on things that weren’t under his control.
  • Cultivate the habit of optimism. Shackleton described optimism as “true moral courage.” He took responsibility for setting the tone, because he understood its impact on those around him. His positive outlook was contagious, and he encouraged games and fun. When choosing men for the journey, he asked about their practical skills. But he also wanted to know if they could sing. The crew would face hardships that defy belief, but he’d built a team spirit that let them bounce back from disappointment. 
  • Develop a clear purpose. At every stage, every man on the expedition knew what they were trying to achieve. And time and again, this clarity appears as the prime factor behind a winning team. It’s true for individuals too, as our most rewarding emotions get behind us when we’re heading for a meaningful goal. I wrote about this in another blog about goal setting – there’s a link at the bottom.
  • Build the right team around you. Shackleton was good at choosing his crews. If you have some goals for your fitness and wellbeing, who do you want in your team? Who are your cheerleaders? Belief in ourselves often shines through when we’re with other people. So find the right ones. That could be friends with whom you share weight-loss goals, or the running group at work. If you’re on your own, you’ll make success much harder.
  • Make the tough decisions. In Argentina, Shackleton fired a cook for bad behaviour, knowing the harm that this posed to morale. His focus on clear goals and the wellbeing of his team allowed him to make the right call. In our personal lives, we often put up with things to avoid short-term upset or conflict. Perhaps a friend is bringing you down, or you’re putting up with a job when your heart’s not in it. Have a word with them, or brush up the CV. You’ll be glad you took control.   

Shackleton was an iconic explorer and a model leader. Yet like all of us, he had his own personal fears and weaknesses. He told us that without willpower he would “make a first-class drunkard.” So he developed a rock-solid mentality that overcame every difficulty nature could throw at him. To finish with another quote from this great man: “Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going.”

Let’s go!

Find out more:

Book: Endurance – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic

Video: Survival! The Shackleton Story

Blog: How goals can change your life

Where to find everyday courage

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If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a challenge in mind. Perhaps you want to lose a few pounds, or play with your kids without getting breathless. Perhaps you said ‘yes’ to a long walk for charity, or told your partner you’d get fitter. Underneath it all, you’re trying to be the best version of yourself. 

Together, we can work out the steps you’ll need to follow. It’s going to mean hard work in building the right habits. But it also means being brave, finding the courage to face up to physical and mental obstacles. Luckily, you’re not alone. There’s inspiration all around us.

When I think about courage, I remember my deployment to Helmand, Afghanistan during 2009. I also remember meeting a cheerful young soldier called John, who chipped in to help us with some work one hot day. At this point, you might be expecting a story about a fierce male warrior on the battlefield. But you’d be wrong. This hero has never been more than 5ft tall, and she believed her courage came from a simple promise. 

Back then, Chief Petty Officer Kate Nesbitt was just 21 years old. “I promised my friends and comrades I’d be their medic,” she said. “I promised I’d be there if they ever needed me. They needed me that day – so when the call came, that’s just what I did.”

What she did on that day was remarkable. During a patrol that was ambushed by Taliban fighters, Lance Corporal John List was shot in the neck. The wound was serious and would quickly choke him to death. Learning of the casualty by radio, Kate dashed 70 yards across open ground. With rockets and bullets for company, she made a temporary airway for John and stemmed the blood he was losing. They were pinned down for nearly an hour. 

In the chaos of a gun battle miles from home, John List was lucky to meet the right person that afternoon. He was airlifted to hospital and recovered. Kate Nesbitt became only the second woman to be awarded the Military Cross, one of Britain’s highest military medals for gallantry. She had kept her promise, with a superhuman display of personal leadership.

Nesbitt and List were reunited back in the UK several months later at a medals parade. It was the first time he was able to speak and thank her. Her citation read:

“Nesbitt’s actions …. were exemplary; under fire and under pressure her commitment and courage were inspirational and made the difference between life and death. She performed in the highest traditions of her service.”

On the battlefield, Kate Nesbitt’s courage was clear to all her colleagues. It was at the extreme limit of what’s humanly possible. But courage isn’t always so obvious that it leads to a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Bravery comes in many forms, as everybody’s life brings different challenges, tragedies and difficulties.

If you’re about to embark on a journey to improve your wellbeing, you’ll need some courage too. You’ll have to make some promises to yourself, finding the personal leadership to replace old habits with better ones. You may need to face down some personal demons – like the school bully or the bossy PE teacher who put you off exercise all those years ago. 

Closer to home, you may have to deal with friends and family. They may be sceptical, or not understand that you’ll be sacrificing time and effort to reach your goals. And there’s always peer pressure to grab another beer or sugary doughnut. Some days you’ll doubt yourself, and it will take courage to continue on the path you’ve chosen.

Take a deep breath and listen to these fears about starting the journey. Write them down. Not because they’ll magically disappear. But because they’re all signs that your goal is going to be worth it. Like Kate Nesbitt, you’ll learn that making a promise and keeping it might be the best thing you’ve ever done.

Let’s go

14 tips for a good night’s sleep

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Feeling tired and grumpy some days? You’re probably sleep-deprived, and you’re not alone. One in three of us suffer – and it’s no good for our health. Sleeping badly can mean poor eating habits, putting on weight, even forgetting where you left the car keys. It also weakens your immune system, and makes you more prone to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and poor mental health.

But there’s some good news. Assuming you don’t have a sleep disorder, there’s lots you can do to get the six to nine hours you need. At bedtime, try to line up these things. Your body needs a cooler temperature, a lower heart rate and more oxygen. It also needs help from the sleep hormone melatonin, and a healthy batch of sleepiness built up during the day.

Here are the best ways to make it happen:

  1. Stick to a schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends. This trains your brain and body clock to get used to a healthy routine. Don’t try to catch up on sleep after a bad night, as this habit disrupts your routine.
  2. Try power naps. If work and family mean you can’t keep a schedule, short naps can help. Keep them under 20 minutes though, to avoid feeling groggy when you wake up.
  3. Exercise most days, but not too late. Regular exercise helps you sleep. But it’s best to get your workout done at least two hours before you hit the sack. That’s because you want your core temperature to be low when your head hits the pillow. 
  4. De-caffeinate your drinks. If that’s a big ask, then at least keep your coffee habit to mornings. Caffeine hangs around in your body for many hours. So even a cappuccino after lunch can keep you restless that night.
  5. Try alcohol-free beer and wine. Booze is bad before bed, as it disturbs your sleep – without you even realising. Because boozy sleep is not continuous, it’s not restoring mind and body. This is why your brain doesn’t work very well the following day.
  6. Don’t eat too late. Steer clear of large meals, sugary snacks and drinks late at night. If you’re really peckish, choose a snack with protein, fibre and good fats.
  7. Let your tiredness build up. If you’re a poor sleeper, avoid naps. Our bodies build up a natural tiredness during the day, and we need this to get to sleep. So don’t get in its way. Daylight plays a big part in your daily sleep patterns, so try to get thirty minutes of natural sunlight every day. 
  8. Take 20 minutes to unwind.  A relaxing activity before bedtime should be part of your routine. That might mean reading or listening to music, to help your mind calm down. Some people like to use meditation or breathing exercises to bring down their heart rate.
  9. Take a hot bath. When you get out of a bath, heat goes from your core to your skin. You’ll look flushed but your body temperature actually goes down. That’s a recipe for a good night’s sleep – especially if the bath is part of your relaxing routine.
  10. Embrace the darkness. Plan your bedroom to make sure the light stays outside. This will help you get to sleep and stay that way. Thick curtains are useful, especially if they keep out external noise. Say goodbye to powerful overhead lights, and use lowered, dim light where you spend your evening hours. 
  11. Stay cool. Central heating and a good night’s sleep don’t go well together. Keep your bedroom slightly chilly at night – for any geeks out there, sleep experts recommend 18.3 degrees. 
  12. Protect sleep and intimacy. Your bedroom should be a haven and sanctuary. Try to keep it that way, uncluttered, to escape the stresses of your waking life. People who sleep well build a strong link in their minds between sleep and their bedroom. They don’t weaken that link by adding a TV, gadgets or a poor mattress.
  13. Banish your smartphone. A hormone called melatonin is held back by the blue screen light of our gadgets. That’s not good because we need melatonin to sleep. One study showed that using an iPad suppressed it by over 50% during the night (compared to reading a paperback). You could invest in software that cuts down harmful blue light as evening goes on. 
  14. Don’t lie awake for long. It’s better to get up and do something quiet until the urge to sleep returns. Remember the importance of association – the bedroom isn’t the place to lie down and worry. If you’re a clock-watcher, hide that clock!

Find out more:

NHS sleepstation website

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

A modern-day fable

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Do you remember the old story about the race between the tortoise and the hare? The hare expects to win easily, so he stops for a nap halfway. The tortoise plods on and finally prevails. It teaches us the lesson that you can succeed by doing things slowly and surely. But it also reminds me that whatever you want to achieve, taking the first step is the most important. 

This ancient fable was repeated in the 1980s, and it’s a story I like to share with my clients. Its hero was a humble potato-farmer called Cliff Young, who became a legendary long-distance runner. He’d never been coached but he had a secret weapon. From boyhood, he’d herded sheep by foot on the family farm, often running for days with little sleep.

Now 61, Cliff turned up to a running race in Sydney, decked out in his overalls and work boots. Most folk thought he was there to watch. But he picked up his race number and joined the other competitors. He tried on his first-ever pair of running shoes, and cut holes in his trousers for ventilation. He also removed his dentures, as they rattled when he ran.

You need to know that this was no ordinary event. It was the very first Westfield Sydney to Melbourne race, an ‘ultra-’. That’s the name for events longer than a marathon. And this was much, much longer, at nearly 550 miles. Even the professionals would take five days to finish this gruelling challenge, and they had trained especially for it. People worried about Cliff’s safety, and no wonder. How was this old man going to cope?

As expected, Cliff trailed by a large margin at the end of the first day. The pros had quickly left him behind. But as the race went on, something unexpected happened. The Aussies were glued to the TV news as Cliff took the lead with a slow, shuffling running style. Like the tortoise, his pace was slower than everybody else’s. But he wasn’t sleeping six hours a day like the hares. So they had a lot of catching up to do. 

He ran almost non-stop, with only short breaks. Cliff didn’t know that you were supposed to run for eighteen hours a day and sleep the rest. He later told reporters that he imagined running after sheep, trying to outrun a storm. It worked, as he eventually won the race by ten hours. His time had cut the record for the distance by over two days. Famously, he then split the prize money among his fellow runners. According to Cliff, the A$10,000 prize would, “buy a lot of potatoes.” 

From nowhere, this out-of-the bush runner was now an Australian icon. The Cliff Young Shuffle soon became famous in the running world, copied by long-distance runners everywhere. Through courage and determination he showed us that small steps chained together become something powerful.

Cliff came to prominence again aged 76, when he raised money for homeless children on a 16,000km run around Australia. He got halfway, pulling out only because his crew member became ill. Exercising as he got older was natural for him, even with some arthritis in his joints: “It is like rust that gets into a vehicle. I reckon you have to keep your joints moving. No matter what you do, you have to keep moving. If you don’t wear out, you rust out, and you rust out quicker than you wear out.” He finally rusted out in 2003.

As long as you run, you’re a runner. It doesn’t matter if you feel slow, clumsy, or have a few pounds to shed. It doesn’t matter if you come last at parkrun. Keep at it. Inspired by people like Cliff Young, you’re still lapping the people on the sofa.

Remember that in life results take time. It’s truly a marathon not a sprint, as Cliff Young shows. Be patient, consistent and trust yourself. But know that if you change nothing, nothing will change.

How goals can change your life

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Why do my clients first get in touch with me? Because they have a challenge, or a problem to solve. This can be anything from wanting to lose a bit of weight to running their first marathon. I have the expertise to help. But I know that if someone wants to achieve things, they must understand and channel their motivation. 

In this article, I look into the importance of setting goals. There are some practical tips for making them work for you, and we dig into the psychology. I offer a framework for setting and defining good goals, showing how you can use them to make progress.

What do we mean by a ‘goal’? It’s something you hope to achieve. But the word implies that to get there, you’ll need to commit time and effort. You’ll have to make sacrifices. That won’t be easy, so you’d better make sure your motivation is strong, and backed up with a good plan.

Where positive emotions come from

Psychologists tell us that we get positive emotions when we’re moving towards a goal. These are feelings like joy, gratitude, hope and confidence. One of the reasons we love them is that they fend off negative emotions such as anxiety and fear. Improve your goal setting, and you’ll feel less pain, frustration and discomfort.

I think we all know this deep down. To have positive meaning in your life, you need a goal that you actually value and will keep working towards. And if you don’t give your mind something to chase, it will find things to fret about. Think of goal-setting as a tool we can use to become our own best friend. 

Two different kinds of goals

I help my clients think about both outcome and process goals. An outcome goal is ambitious. For example, you may want to complete a half-marathon after years of inactivity. Or convert your fast-food loving kids to your tasty, healthy weekday meals. 

Outcome goals won’t usually work on their own. They’re too distant, so don’t give you the goal-directed drive you’re looking for. We fill this gap with process goals, small steps on the journey. Every single step gets you closer to the bigger outcome goal. And every single one will give you a bit of dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical.

Let’s take the half-marathon example. The outcome goal must be achievable, otherwise you’re setting yourself up to fail. So perhaps we’d identify an event that’s nine months away. We’d then work back and fill the weeks with regular process goals. At first, they might be as simple as buying some running gear. Then one month in, getting up early to volunteer at a parkrun. Three months in, lining up on the start line yourself. Six months in, fast walking or running 20 miles in a week.

A framework for goal-setting

If you want to improve your goal-setting, try the following five-step approach. 

1. Write down your outcome goal

Use the SMART approach when you’re doing this – it’s old but gold. It gives us a way of judging how well thought-out your goal really is:

  • Specific – Is your end point clear? ‘Get fitter’ or ‘lose weight’ are too vague. It’s best to target one particular area for improvement. 
  • Measurable – Try to attach numbers to the goal. Here’s a good example, “I’d like to run 5k in under thirty minutes before my 50th birthday.”
  • Achievable – Based on experience and research, is it do-able? If you’re not sure, this is something I can help with. Our bodies will adapt over time, but it’s foolish to be over-ambitious.
  • Realistic – Thinking about family, work and other commitments, how much time and energy can you bring to your goal? It may be better to start smaller. 
  • Time-bound Have you said when the results will be achieved? At what point will you look back and judge? Your goals won’t work without a deadline. 

2. Your motivation

Add a paragraph or two on your motivation. Here are some things to cover:

  • Why do you want to achieve this goal?
  • If you don’t attempt it now, how will you feel?
  • If you don’t attempt it now, how will you feel in five years’ time?
  • Who else wants to see you reach this goal, and why?
  • How will they feel when you succeed?
  • How will you feel when you succeed?

3. Making things better

Now write down how achieving this goal will change things for you and your loved ones. Think about the following:

  • Would achieving this goal change your view of yourself? Why?
  • How would it change the way that your partner, family and friends see you?
  • How would achieving this goal help or inspire other people? 

4. Write down your process goals

Remember that it may take some time before you reap rewards from your hard work. So this is where you convert your outcome goal into digestible chunks. You’ll use them to track how you’re getting on, giving you a sense of accomplishment. 

  • Break the goal down into action steps – ideally one for each day
  • Put them in your calendar, and protect them from other commitments
  • Try to pick out a weekly milestone – achieving this will fuel another wave of motivation.

5. Prepare for obstacles

Life has a habit of getting in the way of your process goals. So predict at least five common obstacles. Use your imagination to solve them right now, like this:

  • Obstacle – Early evening is the best time for my run, but I get distracted as soon as I’m home 
  • Solution – Get your running kit ready as part of your morning routine. Change into it as soon as you get through the door. 

By starting, you have already made a big step forward. Don’t panic if it’s not working for you straightaway. Things might need a little adjusting. If your obstacles are proving hard to overcome, ask for advice from others who have achieved similar goals.

Becoming unstoppable

You can revise your process goals as they’re bound to need adjusting. That’s OK. Their role is to provide urgency and keep you close to your milestones. Every little step is just an increment better, and that’s a great thing. It compounds, driving the kind of progress that’s unstoppable. On the way, it will deliver the positive emotions and meaning that makes a life worth living.