Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Follow the leader

What makes a great leader? Is it vision, personality, intelligence, charisma? Do they have to be loud, articulate, bombastic, domineering? Are they quick thinking or thoughtful?

I've been wrestling with such thoughts ever since meeting two of the most inspirational people in the world - Mark Inglis and Sam Johnson.

Let me tell you about Mark. He was a search and rescue mountaineer who lost both his legs to frostbite, amputated below the knee, after he found himself trapped near the top of Mount Cook for 13 days. It was only through sheer strength of character that he and his companion survived (his fellow climber also suffered a double amputation of the legs). They sheltered in a small hollow, too small to lie down in, too shallow to stand up straight in, and watched their feet slowly freeze and die, whilst a violent storm raged around them. As he said, it was like crouching in a chest freezer, unable to move because their one biscuit-a-day rations did not provide enough calories for movement as well as staying alive!

The will to live was strong and when the storm eventually blew itself out, they were carried down to the relative safety of the operating theatre. But Mark's story doesn't stop there. He was a high achiever and refused to let his injury hold him back. In the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, after months of gruelling training, Mark won the silver medal in the 1km cycling time trial. Yet this still wasn't enough for him, and the mountains continued to call.

And so it was that, on 15th May 2006, and after climbing for 40 days on specially made artificial limbs, Mark reached the top of Mount Everest, a remarkable climb. He explained this to us whilst boinging round the room, never still for a moment and full of a zest for life that few of us will match.

He now splits his time between motivational speaking and raising money for his charity,

The thrust of his message was unavoidable: when things are looking tough, get some attitude. As he said, only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go!

Now, whilst Mark's message was incredible in its own right, Sam's story was even more amazing.

Sam Johnson is a 22 year old student living in Christchurch, New Zealand. When the earthquake struck the city on 22nd February 2011, leaving hundreds dead and injured and many more without homes, Sam was just another person, a law student at the University of Canterbury. And, like many, Sam was keen to help his fellow countrymen. The difference is that Sam succeeded.

He set up a facebook page and emailed all his friends, asking for volunteers to help with the cleanup. Within days, he had over 500 students at his disposal. To organise them, he set up a management team again made up of volunteers. Team leaders on the ground oversaw individual groups' activities. He set up a call centre which was vital in coordinating the many teams on the ground. He organised transport to ship the volunteers from job to job. He also organised a sophisticated web management system that allowed Christchurch residents to report a problem. The call centre would discuss the problem in detail, then by text would notify the nearest team to the resident's address to go there as their next job, thus little time was wasted in travel and standing around. He organised wheelbarrows, shovels, brooms and other tools to allow the students to carry out the cleanup. He fed and watered them all. Importantly, he motivated them and they kept coming back, day after day, for no pay but a for a feeling of true camaraderie.

The 22 year old Sam Johnson had a vision. He asked himself what he could do to help the situation, then he got up and he made it happen.

Now that is true leadership.

Meeting the family and opening doors

It was a chance discussion with a Nuffield Scholar that meant I finally applied for a Nuffield Farming Scholarship. Despite my protestations, he told me, in no uncertain terms, that there is never a good time to do a Nuffield. All applicants have either young family, a new business, a burgeoning career, elderly parents, no money, no time, a mortgage, an irascible boss or a mix of these. His advice: Just get on with it!

Suitably humbled, I mulled over his words, thinking about farming and what I could investigate, and when....

The eureka moment came when reading a post on a farming forum about mob grazing. It transpired that the person making the post was also a Nuffield Scholar, Will Scale, and he had come across mob grazing in America.

My appetite whetted, I started looking it up on the internet. I was blown away. Farmers across the globe were learning how to manage cattle using high density, short duration grazing periods and were achieving the holy grail: excellent liveweight gains, healthy cattle, rapidly increasing levels of soil organic matter, extended grazing in spring and autumn, more drought resistant grasses, more diversity in the sward, resistance to poaching, better nutrient recycling, it seemed to have it all, and I wanted to know more.

A Nuffield Farming Scholarship seemed the obvious answer so an application, mock interview, a real 20-minute interview and a nervous wait soon followed. The result: I've just spent the most inspiring two weeks in London and New Zealand with my new family - 50-odd other Nuffield scholars from nine different countries, and am about to embark on a further eight weeks of study in far off places around the world.

The two weeks were a whirlwind of activity. The briefing session in London, for the 19 UK (and one French) scholars, saw us meeting MP's, Baronesses, Professors, and the heads of DEFRA, NFU & the Farmers Club. We were given access to some of the most powerful and influential people in UK agriculture and politics.

A long plane flight - well three actually - to New Zealand saw us arrive in Wellington for more of the same. Briefings from global agriculturalists, an audience with NZ's Agriculture Minister and a Maori welcome were all included in the itinerary. The next stop, Hanmer Springs continued the theme with presentations from very succesful local farmers and businessmen.

A vigorous GM debate was held one morning and a whole day was dedicated to Global Leadership. Who could fail but to realise that, being part of the Nuffield organisation, means we are expected to step up to the mark and become the leaders and advocates of farming in the future. No pressure then!

The most inspiring part was mixing with fellow farmers from around the globe. Debates started spontaneously: One that sticks in my mind took place in a bar, at 1am with Andrew, an Aussie, and two Dutch guys, as we argued the finer points of sustainable farming. At issue was the definition of 'sustainable' and we each spent a long time arguing to and fro about what it means. Fortunately there was an amicable outcome, and we celebrated with another round of drinks....

I've now arrived home and am starting planning my trip in earnest. Argentina's definitely on the cards, a trip to China is also a possibility and I'm almost certainly going back to Australia & New Zealand. Exciting times.

I should make mention of Helen, my wife. She has been unbelievably supportive of the whole project and has encouraged me at all times. The fact that she holds down a full-time, high pressure job in the City and looks after our two children, Will & Imogen whilst I'm away fills me with awe and I'm incredibly grateful to her.

There is never a good time to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship. Conversely, there has never been a better time. There's a whole world of adventure out there, waiting to be discovered. Just get on with it!