By Louise Chaplin. Published on 26 July 2016
It was probably at the halfway point, as I lay in my sleeping bag in the early hours watching the storm clouds gather and feeling the first raindrops land on my face, that I started thinking about the similarities between my circumstances and the challenges facing leaders in today’s turbulent world.
My husband and I were taking part in the Graeme Warrack Memorial Event, an endurance event that tests the mettle of new recruits in the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, part of the Dutch military. Participants travel around 100km, mostly fast marching but a little by old ‘grandpa’ bikes, in six stages over the course of 36 hours. With little sleep, food deprivation and integrated exercises it’s a real test of mental resilience and personal resolve with by no means all recruits managing to complete the exercise.
The event is named after my grandfather, the eponymous Colonel Graeme Warrack, and traces his escape route across Holland as he evaded the Nazis towards the end of World War II. So that’s how we ended up yomping through the Dutch countryside with 24 army recruits aged between 17 and 23.
Why did I connect this extraordinary adventure with the challenges that presently face leaders? As I tried to catch a few hours’ sleep in an exposed field in the Dutch countryside, four similarities sprang to mind:
1. Advancing into the unknown
One of the key characteristics of the event is the unknown nature of the challenge ahead. One enters into it knowing that the overall distance travelled will be around 100km. But at each stage recruits are only told the location of the next stage and the time available to complete it. The distance to be covered at each stage, additional tasks and challenges are all undisclosed. Participants need to decide for themselves how fast to go and whether or not to remain part of a group or to strive out on their own. Speed is obviously important so as not to be eliminated on a time basis, but going too fast can lead to making mistakes or tiring too quickly and potentially being unable to complete the whole exercise.
It strikes me that many businesses, and indeed nations, are currently looking to take decisions and plan for the future in an environment of great uncertainty. Quick and decisive decision-making is necessary to build confidence and momentum but moving too quickly without enough information can be very risky too. Balance and skilful leadership is key.
2. Making the most of limited resources
It’s no exaggeration to say that food and sleep deprivation played a big part in this challenge. Once each day, about 7pm on day 1 and 2pm on day 2, we were given about an inch of soup in the bottom of a military issue metal mug. The first day’s march finished around midnight and we slept on the ground in a sleeping bag in the rain – a far cry from my comfy king sized bed at home.
Nearly every leader faces resource limitations and in times of austerity and uncertainty less needs to go much further. In many ways, we often need far fewer resources than we might imagine with limitations forcing difficult decisions to be taken, people stepping up their efforts and creativity and resilience coming to the fore. For me, I soon realised that I needed far less food than I had imagined during an event like this, not to say I didn’t appreciate a big meal at the end!
That inch of soup was meagre, but was greatly appreciated each time it was issued. Of course, maybe we just had more reserves than the much younger and fitter recruits we had joined!
3. Teamwork matters in any language
Although the event is fundamentally an individual challenge to test personal fortitude and resilience, the reality is those who formed a close bond and worked together in groups or teams through the event maintained a far greater sense of camaraderie, positivity and focus.
In fact, during the event there were quite a large number who didn’t finish, but we noticed that those that did, were not only working better in teams and built up great team spirit, but actually ended up finishing the event in the fastest ever time.
In my husband’s and my effort to stay up with the frontrunners it was great to see how each time a person flagged or sustained an injury, others immediately helped them to keep going.
It was fortunate that many of the young recruits spoke good English, but we still had to revert to the occasional bit of mime and pointing to understand each other and overcome the language barrier. Team cooperation often involves compromise, understanding the world from others’ perspectives and most importantly of all a clearly understood and motivating shared goal.
4. Resilience comes from experience and training
I knew the challenge would be physically tough, but seven years as an officer in the British Army and six months’ training meant I was ready for that. I was, however, surprised at how emotionally and mentally challenging it was.
Again, I am sure my time in the Army was a great help; I understand the mentality needed to face such a challenge. And I certainly wasn’t going to let my grandfather down.
Whilst the recruits were much younger and had just completed their basic military training, my own experience, training and general determination gained over the years were just as important. So, whilst my husband and I are… well, a little older, we were able to keep up and play an equal role alongside the recruits. We both received our completion medals from the commanding officer as part of a moving closing ceremony.
My thanks of course goes to the Marechaussee for inviting us, their kind support during the event and all the efforts they have made over the 72 years since my grandfather’s escape to keep the memory alive.
Speaking for myself, I’m extremely proud that I’ve done it and grateful for what I learned. I look forward to the time when my two sons can follow the family tradition in the steps of their Great Grandfather. But I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again anytime soon!