On expedition in Sweden with my son last year, something that I thought would never happen.
Over the last couple of days I have been reading a lot of the comments about George Kay, former husband of Kerry Katona (90’s girl band star).
George had been fighting to get access to his 5 year old daughter, and whilst also dealing with mental health issues and drug problems, he died tragically from an overdose at the weekend.
There has been a level of backlash on this from various sources, and although none of us know the reasons or the actual details of this case or what George and Kerry were going through, it has highlighted once again issues around children, fathers, relationship breakdowns and the family courts system in the UK.
I penned this article a while ago as a way of expressing my experiences of the Family Court system over the last 15 years, and I am publishing it now so that readers can hear a view of this, from someone who was embroiled in it and has experienced the system, the emotions, the highs and lows, who was broken by it, and have come through it, stronger and with a really key relationship with at least one of my Sons.
For me this is about one emotion- Pain!
Don’t get me wrong I know and am not too fazed by physical pain- I have been beasted on tough military physical training sessions, fallen 50ft in a climbing accident landing hard and breaking bones, been stamped on by a couple of bouncers after a nightclub fight rendering me unconscious with serious head injuries (not the best decision I have made!), I have suffered a serious burn of my inner thigh caused by scalding water from a defective boiler in a rented flat which has probably been some of the worst physical pain I have ever experienced, I have been through days without sleep on long mountain climbs, one of which resulted in frost nip in one of my toes, which took a year to heal!!, I have crashed cars, fallen of motor and mountain bikes, been bitten by dogs, and even stubbed my toe on the table leg a few times!!
But the worst pain I have ever felt was in 2004 when I drove away from the house I had lived in, leaving behind my 2 young sons.
When relationships breakdown, hurt and pain come hand in hand, the arguments, the fights, the recriminations, the separation impact on all involved. At the time when you’re in the trenches, the fog of self-preservation and confusion, It drags you down into a deep, dark hole, but you can climb back out, you can inch your way back, come back transformed by the experience, a better person, a better man for it!
The death of a relationship sends you spinning, the world you created and gave you identity crashes down around you, your comfort blanket that has kept you grounded is pulled away.
Coming home from work, from all corners of the world or just from the office to spend time with my children has always inspired me as I journey home, it warms me on the inside and allows my brain to calm, to help forget about the work I’ve been doing, it makes life purposeful and worth living. When that collapses around you it is like a death and you feel utterly useless.
The pain seers through your mind, you can’t concentrate or focus clearly, your brain moves into panic mode, it struggles to comprehend what has happened. What is this gaping hole that has opened in your life? Your emotions bounce from high to the lowest of lows.
It’s an emotional chasm that enters your life and the pain finds ways of welling up inside you from time to time, until it pours over the sides and manifests as raging anger or just rolling tears.
I remember one occasion sitting in a bar having a pint on my own, when suddenly this pain just erupted from deep inside me and tears began pouring down my face. I couldn’t stop them, the bar staff had no idea what to do and I just sat there until I was able to control them and return to my beer! You try to cope with this, to push these feelings down, you try to grip it each time it appears, and you try not to think about it. For me the hardest part was the inability to predict when this pain and loss would well up inside.
Initially I thought I was mourning the loss of the relationship, but over time I came to realise that it was the loss of being a father that was causing this pain. In the whole debacle it was being around my children that I missed. I was stuck, I was still a father, a dad, but I wasn’t because I wasn’t with them every day, I was a single bloke who every other weekend became a father again. It was this loss of identity that actually was the root of my confusion and pain.
Realising this was eye opening, it meant that I had to re process my role, what I was and how that would look in the future. Re-establish a new identity. A bit like when you mourn the death of a loved one, you shout and scream, you cry, you deny what’s happening, but over time the pain becomes more manageable, you recognise what sets you off, you start to visualise where you want to be, the fog clears and the sky appears, you have control and you are able very slowly to deal with it.
Whilst on expedition in 2008, 4 years after I left, sitting in a fishing village in Northern Venezuela, I read these lines by boxing legend Mohammad Ali –
“You never lose when you fight for what you want, you only lose when you fail to fight for what you care about!”
This quote resonated with me, it deeply resonated at a time when I was embroiled in some of the hardest parts of the break up.
Following our separation my ex-partner took an incredibly negative path, and used the children as a weapon in both our divorce and our interactions, so I was kept out of large part of my children’s lives, and refused access. Ali’s quote echoed in everything I did.
I become embroiled in the UK family court system, which was a demoralising experience in its own right, a system that sees fathers as negative influences in their children’s lives. The court system is crippled by its own political correctness and a deep bias, which can be used to justify decisions that protect themselves from being seen as bias, though actually continues to perpetuate their bias!
The Family Court system and a ridiculous organisation called CAFCAS (Children And Family Court Advisory Service) are institutionally geared against men, a mother only has to claim “abuse” of any sort against a father and this organisation totally and utterly work to conspire with them to keep fathers out of their children’s lives. A mother has to provide no evidence or corroboration, just an allegation, and the system works fundamentally to remove men from their children’s lives, this is the 21st Century!!
I decided to fight! It is draining mentally and emotionally, but all the time I focused on what I cared about, and I believed that by doing this I would always win, whether I succeeded or not. Fighting to stay in my children’s life was important, if I gave up I would have been cut out of my children’s life, and never seen them again, if I lost my fight I would have at least used every fibre and resource available to try and be included, and I would have had to get back up again, but I would not have lost, as I had fought for what I cared about.
I attended court appearances, was interviewed like a criminal, had home inspections, had to constantly provide evidence that I was a “suitable” father, all the time while my ex partner just laid on further “ allegations”, weaponised the children and worked consistently to turn my children against me and over the 15 years of this I had to fund the cases myself.
Constantly over these years I was the one treated as the villain, even though I had brought the actions so that I could see my children!! It’s almost like they think that by bringing the case I was a “nasty and Manipulative man “, how dare I? or maybe even that only a nasty piece of work would endeavor to bully their ex-partner to see their kids (CAFCAS actually suggested this in their reports!!)
Looking back at those years, I am so glad that I fought through, I faced that emotional and mental pain of separation and identity loss, and came through it.
I never knew that I could be so resilient, it’s sometimes the case that you don’t know what’s in you till you’re in the crucible of fire and emotion. It was definitely the case that I didn’t realise that I could keep moving forwards and keep focused and be that resilient.
Whatever the physical pain I have experienced or might experience in the future, it will be nothing like the emotional pain I have experienced. I know that facing forwards when in deep emotional pain, realising what it is that I care about, what it means to me, and knowing that it will end, means that I can fight for what I care about, and know that I will never really lose.
So if you are in this mess, you never lose when you fight for what you care about, you only lose when you allow it to get the better of you or if you give up,its about finding a way through the storm, finding your hidden resilience and driving forwards. It is horrendous that the system is abused and doesn’t have the rights or interests of the children at its heart, which allows some mothers to be supported in denying fathers and children a chance to have a relationship. The fact that George Kay was one of many men involved in custody battles that felt so low and demorolised that they felt they had no other course of action other than take their own lives, is an indictment of this system. It has been proposed that up to 10 men a day commit suicide, and that separation from children and family is a leading cause of this (https://www.fatherly.com/health-science/psychological-effects-divorce-fathers-men-suicide/ ).
I feel that this system needs a complete re shift in its focus, operations and powers, it needs to place children at the heart of its operations and treat mothers and fathers equally, with the concept that children have a right to have both parents in their lives, and if either parent tries to restrict the others access then proof must be provided and punishments for obstruction must be upheld.
Leadership as a concept is HUGE!
I have experienced leadership throughout my life, good and bad, sometimes great and sometimes atrocious,and in a range of environments from schooling, business, military, sport and expeditions.
As a leader it is important to recognise that leadership grows, it is not necessarily something that you are born with, you may have some great qualities and DNA but actual leadership is developed, either through training, life situations or a culmination of experiences.
“….leaders are neither born nor made- they grow.” Mary Cox.
So when developing as a leader what are the elements we need to look at and work on, either from a personal perspective or from a leadership development/ coaches point of view.
I get asked a lot about what I think are the elements of leadership, and as I have just spent a weekend discussing leadership with future expedition leaders and I’m now relaxing with a beer or 2, I thought I would suggest a starter for 10 list (though this is just a snipit of this massive subject!)
- On the Tools- this is a saying used in the construction industry, and is all about building a body of experience! Work in all environments, experience others leadership, take on progressively harder and more challenging tasks. Make mistakes, fail and learn, just like an apprentice.
- Elvis- Elvis once said that “Values are like fingerprints, nobody’s are the same, but you leave them all over everything you do”. Values are important for leaders, having a strong set of personal values helps direct their behaviours and actions, these values lead them to develop strong relationships and to make their decisions based on ethical standpoints.
- Evolve!- be flexible, adapt and evolve. Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested that evolution is not about the strongest or fastest, it is about the species who adapts the quickest, and evolves to their situation. Leaders have to do the same, and do it quick, they have to respond fast and sometimes be able to learn and adapt as they go, to an ever changing environment and pressures.
- Tomato- There is a great pro-paradoxyism, which says “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit- Wisdom is not putting in a fruit salad!” Leaders need to build a body of knowledge, usually based in experience that can help influence their performance. This develops Professional Judgement or wisdom that helps them understand the landscape they operate in and to base their actions on a clear thinking process, even when the environment gets hectic and unsure.
- Making your mind up!- Not a Bucks Fizz song, but the concept that leaders need to make clear and good decisions. Good decision making is core to a leaders ability to gain the trust of those around them, weigh up the options and create clarity and direction. Decision Making is based on professional judgement, a leaders values and in the development of relationships with others. In the future, leaders will have to also consider the ethical concerns they are faced with in their practice and environments.
- Rocky- Resilience is key to a leaders performance, keeping themselves fit and agile, mentally and physically ensures that they can bounce back, re-plan, keep moving towards the vision or goal, finding a route through confusion and multiple distractions. Rocky (the film boxer) once told his son that ” But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
- Its Emotional- If you look at great leaders, particularly ones that you respect, you might notice that these people understood others, could motivate and inspire people, make crucial decisions and keep teams on track. This was down to high levels of Emotional Intelligence or EQ. Some of these leaders developed high levels of empathy and emotional awareness early in their lives, others grew their emotional capacity, either way it enables leaders to understand people!
- Aristotle- Leaders need their own take on leadership, they need to develop their own philosophy, based on knowledge, theory, experience and practice. Being a student of leadership they gather up the theories, the lessons and the little gems related to leadership and forge them into their own personal philosopy. They use this as the armour to base their style, practice and interactions on, it helps them make decisions and to set out a clear vision.
- Coach!- Be a coach, learn about coaching and use it in your leadership. remember all leadership is about people. People respond best to being coached. The Chinese philosophy Lao Tzu said it best in my mind and I aspire to live up to this in my own leadership practice –“A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and proclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honour people, they fail to honour you. But of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done,his aim fulﬁlled, they will all say, we did this ourselves”.
lao tzu (c. 450 bc).
- Back on the Tools- Do the hard work. Work on yourself, learn your craft, continuously improve, learn the technical skills related to your field, work on your leadership, and work on learning more about who you are. Great leaders understand themselves, who they are and what they are about. But they are always learning, reflecting on their actions and ensuring that they are consistant to their values, and ensuring that they put their people first, ensuring that they develop others, with one eye always on the task, and with consideration to the future. In New Zealand, the All Black rugby team have a mantra, that they don’t own the shirt, they have inherited it from those before, and their only obligation is to leave it in a better state, and never dishonour it. The same applies to leadership, you have to honour where you came from and leave in your legacy in a better place!
In this article I have tried to encapsulate some small gems of how I try to lead,as well as the lessons I have learnt from studying leadership.
As with all things everyone will differ, this may be due to opinions or experiences, and that’s great, it would be good to hear what people think. If you want to be a good leader you need to become a student of leadership, to pick through the theories and the chaff, to find what works for you, how it works in the settings you use it, adapt it if necessary and continually review how it works, and if necessary, change it again!!
Hope you found this useful, let me know your thoughts!
A bit of a departure for this months blog.
Earlier this month I chaired the Tropical Forests planning panel at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual Explore Conference.
Explore is a great event for anyone interested in, or involved in expeditions, scientific research or exploration, it is a chance to access information, advice, guidance and resources for planning your own expedition or adventures.
My panel, made up of a team of field scientists,researchers, logistics specialists, safety experts and a doctor, with many years of combined experience operating in all types of jungle and tropical forests across the globe, gave presentations and answered participants questions about anti venom’s, best clothing, research techniques, safety in the Democratic Republic of Congo (by the way…its not safe.. don’t go!!), looking after your feet and what to do if you encounter a snake in Africa!
The seminar seemed to go by so quickly and left me thinking about what it is that people planning jungle expeditions need to know, to help them plan?
Jungles are brutally beautiful places the world closes in on you as soon as you enter the jungle, you only see 10-15 meters into the undergrowth, the impending sense that everything around can see you way before you can see it creeps its way from the pit of your stomach up to your rational brain! You have to fight the heat, the sweat, the dehydration, mud, tangled, thorny plants, and a myriad of biting insects, all of which require you to face your fears and push down that urge to run as fast as possible to the nearest open space, so you can see the sky!
Once you become accustomed to the environment it feels less daunting and stomach gripping, you learn to work with it, to open your peripheral vision, get your personal equipment and administration sorted and become tuned in to the noise, the heat, the constant hum of insects and the gloom of the canopy. You become able to survive and thrive, your eyes lift from the fear of things hiding in the leaf litter and you begin to look around and see the most amazing of all environments, not just the big ticket wildlife like the mammals, but the smallest creatures of all, full of amazing adaptions to live in this environments, the constant battle between the creatures that prey or parasite each other, the flora trying constantly to reach the tiny amounts of light that filters through the canopy, everything has to fight to survive in the jungle, and everything has to co exist. The jungle is one of the only environments along with the oceans where you can see all the strata of existence on a daily basis,and become part of it.
If you are thinking about a jungle expedition, you will need some key bits of equipment to ensure that you can create a shelter, move around easily and to find direction, making your life easier and enabling you to explore and enjoy this environment.
- A Hammock- there is no better way to sleep in the jungle than in a hammock, swinging between the trees you can actually become part of the jungle! my personal recommendation is a Hennessy Hammock https://hennessyhammock.com/. This inovative hammock is an integrated system with hammock, tarp and mosi net all built in, this makes them easy to rig, a nice easy system and big enough to turn around in (I am a bit of a wriggler at night!). Though some people still like to have the 3 elements separate and build their own system.
- Machete- the best tool to use for clearing paths, campsites, making things, and keeping the nasties at arms length!! A machete is key kit, all the locals use them for every job, so why shouldn’t we! To keep it working for you at its best it needs to be kept sharp, so carrying a sharpening stone is important as most machetes you buy locally are of poor steel and need to be cleaned and sharpened regularly. It is also important that you carry a First Aid Kit with you whenever you are using a machete.. just in case (where there’s a blade, there’s a first aid kit!)
- Compass- Maps are either poor or no existent in jungle areas, and if they do exist then they are hard to use in heavily canopied areas, you can’t see very far, so you have to use the contours and landscape features, along with rivers and other permanent features. A good compass will enable you to keep direction, help map routes and keep you orientated. I always attach my compass to my shirt, so it is attached to me at all times rather than in a pocket, where it can fall out or a bag that can get lost.
- Boots- Wellies or Jungle boots? This is a regular question I get from participants, both have merits, wellies are cheap and can be bought easily in country usually, they are waterproof, high legged and can protect against most snake bites, but they can be sweaty if in them for a long time. Though I have used them on multi day treks, you have to ensure that you properly dry your feet every night and let to boots dry out overnight. I also use a set of cheap inner soles from Sports Direct or Decathalon, cut to shape in the bottom of the boots to make the trekking easier, again letting them dry over night. Specially made Jungle Boots such as the Altburg ones are great, purposely designed to be quick drying while wearing, they are comfortable and very protective, though can be expensive and need to be looked after, polished and cleaned regularly so that they continue to work well. On big trips which have base camps or if i’m working out of a field research base I use wellies, but for long trips with treks and fly camps I prefer to use boots. Dont go for cheap jungle boots though as they do not offer the same protection or last as long as the more expensive ones!
These 4 items are in my mind key bits of kit, along side these I would recommend lots of dry bags, both commercial ones for expensive bits of kit that needs protecting, along with Ziplock style ones for books, diaries and other items, to keep them protected and safe in your kit. I feel that a head torch is crucial in all environments, but in the jungle it is needed so that you can keep safe when the sun goes down early, and darkness sets in under the canopy, you can find your way about and work on tasks easily and they are also really useful to find and view wildlife at night!
I mentioned the importance of foot care earlier, this is crucial to ensure that you can keep going in jungle environments. Time spent in the evenings inspecting, cleaning and drying your feet properly will ensure that they keep working for you, bacteria can’t get in and cause infections and the wet environment cannot cause fungal or painful problems that ruin your experience. I use Dactarin, antibacterial foot powder, and keep it in a large drawstring bag, either a pillowcase with a drawstring fitted or I personally use a drawstring sports style bag that I got my Mum to amend for me!!
I hope this blog is useful if your thinking about planning a trip to tropical forests or jungle environments, let me know what you think!
If you want to learn more about jungle skills and gain confidence in operating and exploring tropical forests, I am running a Jungle Skills course in the Amazon jungle of Southern Peru in October 2019, so email me to find out more about this exciting course. https://www.james-dyer.org/expedition-opportunities/
On many management or leadership courses I run with all sorts of client groups our discussions usually end up revolving around the subject of what makes a great leader?
Inevitably we discuss the character traits of famous or infamous leaders and try to identify what made them great, this way we compare or try to learn from them.
This is a great way of recognizing successful, and not so successful characteristics that we can either take on and use for ourselves, or to avoid at all costs!
Subjects in this ID parade of past leaders usually seem include Jesus, Emily Pankhurst, Mandela, Churchill, Margret Thatcher, Hitler, Sir Francis Drake, and Richard Branson to name but a few. So why is it that we turn to these leaders to seek advice and guidance on how WE can become better leaders ourselves?
I admit that there are common traits or situations both individually or collectively that these people possess, or have been through that we can use to help us learn to do things differently or better.
But do we believe that leaders are great because of birth, psychological predetermination, or accident of their position or situation?
Is there a great leader inside all of us just waiting to get out?
All of the leaders we usually discuss in these workshops have done amazing things and most will go down in history for their achievements and success, but in the end they were only human…. Just like you and me!
And just like you and me they had their flaws.
I think that alongside looking at the positive or perceived positives about their characters or their actions, we should also look at these flaws in the same way, finding out what they may have struggled with in their personalities , actions or performances to give us a clearer picture of what leaders do.
Lets take Sir Frances Drake for instance, he was a man with a vision, he wanted to protect his country, push his boundaries and explore the world.
He carried out extreme acts of piracy, killing hundreds of innocent people, many who had placed their trust in him, and along the way profiting hugely from his state sponsored acts, that we would now probably call terrorism.
But he was undoubtedly a great leader, men followed him time and again off to blank areas on the world map, he led them on huge exploits, through great battles and on one of the earliest circumnavigations of the world.
It is said that he could inspire men in their worst moments and bring them through some of the hardest parts of their expeditions.
Imagine being in a storm, miles from land, in huge rolling seas, floating in a small 16th century wooden boat being tossed in massive waves… Scary?
Well it was in times like this that Drake was known to be on deck, with his men, stripped to the waist, hauling ropes and shouting encouragement and defying them to work as hard as him. On other times he would lead religious services on board, promoting his protestant beliefs alongside defining the purpose of their task, therefore building morale, and helping to define his leadership and vision.
What a mix?
He was obviously a deeply flawed, selfish man, motivated by greed and his need for power, but at the same time endowed with courage, vision, ability to inspire, to relate to his followers and to come to the front in times of real need and lead from the front!
We are all like this, we all have flaws and attributes that like Drake can be used to define how we operate as leaders in many situations.
If we could identify and recognize our flaws as much as our more positive abilities and if we can understand these we could learn to work more holistically as leaders, and improve the way that we understand our teams.
Sometimes we are scared to identify our flaws, thinking that these are areas of weakness, but by doing so we create a full understanding of ourselves but also how we operate in team working situations. By understanding the flaws of our co-workers or staff we have a greater chance of achieving the aims of the team or task, because we will know how to work with people, as well as our own methods and therefore delegate or take on tasks that are most appropriate to abilities.
A good leader who understands themselves and their teams fully becomes a great leader who knows when to push, when to inspire, when to step back or when, like Drake to get their shirt off and get stuck in!!
The taxi pulled up at 2am and a bleary eye bunch of expeditioners piled in.
The journey to Gatwick was quiet, a strange silence almost tinged with trepidation, we had already lost 1 of our number to a family emergency, so the remaining 4 set out to complete the planned expedition.
We were heading to Northern Sweden to canoe a section of the River Harkan, we didn’t know what to expect, the pre expedition nerves seemed to punctuate the silence of that short taxi ride.
For me the trepidation was exaggerated as one of the party was my 15 year old son, Robert, heading of with us on his first overseas expedition.
What was he feeling, what thoughts and excitement was running through his mind as he awaited this experience, were his nerves anything like mine?
I have never been one to force my life and career choices onto my children, the option has always been there and at this point this growing young adult wanted to be part of this expedition. He is an experienced canoeist with an easy but level headed persona, someone who is calm and inquisitive, yet knowledgeable for his age. A product of his time, but starting to take those bigger steps as he develops into an adult, pushing his physical and mental boundaries.
I work a lot with young people and I love being part of educational and developmental expeditions, but this was going to be a little different, Robert is part of this team, he has worked his apprenticeship, learnt how to navigate, and canoe, completed his Duke of Edinburgh Award, roughed it in tents and developed his Camp craft, he will have to fit in and earn his place on this team. Already, as we make out way North through Sweden he has shown how he can make decisions, share the load and join the conversations of those older and more experienced than him.
This summer I have had the opportunity to take all my children off on overseas trips, my youngest had spent two weeks travelling with my wife and I through France, learning about the Normandy landings, even camping on the cliffs above Omaha Beach, then on to the Bayeux Tapestry, before heading South to enjoy the sun and rest on the beaches and by the pools of an amazing little island called Ill de Re, just off the coast of La Rochelle. We finished our French sojourn in Paris, introducing them to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph!
Watching my children exploring the world has really opened my eyes this year, I have seen them attempt to speak in another language, look in awe at an osprey catching a fish, enjoy French crepes, Swedish meatballs and the infamous Orangina! They grew in confidence, made new friends, visited unique places and challenged themselves outside their comfort zones!!
After all these years travelling and exploring, introducing hundreds of others to the world, truly believing that outdoor learning, expeditions and travel can make life changing impressions on people, I have finally started my own children’s journey.