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.

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