Afghan Heat to the Antarctic Chill | Leadership, Motivation and Teamwork with Kate Philp
Joining the Army after graduating from Oxford University, Kate Philp was deployed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. During this time, her leadership, decision-making, technical skill and adaptability were tested to their limits in the fast-paced environment of front-line operations.
Kate's tour of Afghanistan came to an abrupt end when injuries caused by an IED resulted in her electing to have her leg amputated below the knee, making her the first British female to lose a limb in combat. During her intense rehabilitation she recognised that she required a new goal to re-focus, and with this, Kate joined to team and trekked to the South Pole as part of an expedition organised by Walking With The Wounded.
An incredible journey packed with many lessons, naturally we had many questions for Kate, and she was kind enough to answer a few.
Leading up to the life-changing incident in Afghanistan, can you tell us a bit about your journey and what it was like leading a troop of soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan?
Leading soldiers is a huge privilege. I’d been through a year of training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and then a further 6 months with the Royal Artillery (the Regiment I commissioned into), during which time I learned a lot about the theory of leadership; but it’s not until you get to “play with real soldiers” that you properly get to put that training into practice. Taking over your first command is daunting, you’ve got to put a lot of time into getting to know your soldiers, recognising that they all have more practical experience than you, and have the humility to recognise that you still have a lot to learn, whilst at the same time assuming responsibility for them straightaway.
For me, the prospect of that first command came with even more apprehension as I took over my first Troop on operations in Iraq. But as so often happens when you’re presented with a difficult situation, it also presented me with an unparalleled opportunity, because on operations you’re living and working with your soldiers 24/7, meaning you can get to know them much more quickly than if you’re back in barracks in the UK. The Sandhurst motto is “Serve to Lead” and understanding my soldiers and what they needed from me meant that I could serve them much more effectively.
My second tour of Iraq, 3 years later, was a very different one, partly because the situation in country had changed quite dramatically from it being fairly benign to close to civil war, but also because my role was very different - this time I was working in the Brigade Headquarters rather than being out on the ground, and without any soldiers to command it was just me and the team I was part of, not leading. You still feel a sense of responsibility but without your soldiers as your focus it's easy to spend more time in your own head - and that’s not always easy!
Afghanistan was different again; whilst I probably had fewer pre-tour nerves because I’d deployed a couple of times already and therefore was familiar with the pre-deployment training, the long separation and being in a hostile environment, I was definitely nervous about the more combative nature of my role and commanding a small team away from my Regiment, attached as we were to an infantry company. I was the only female amongst about 120 men (not an issue for me, I’d been a woman for 30 years by then!), which some of the infantry soldiers found difficult at first because they were not as used to working with females; but what I hadn’t anticipated was that one of my own team openly told me he had a problem working for a female boss.
I’m grateful now that he felt he could be honest (he had joined our team late, only about a month before we deployed, and I had worked hard to integrate him but time was against us), I just wish we’d had that conversation in the peaceful surroundings of Salisbury Plain, not on the front line in Afghanistan! I could have asked for him to be transferred to another team but I knew in my heart of hearts that that wasn’t the right thing to do, it would feel like a cop out and my gut told me I had to deal with it. It was a bit “sticky” for a while but we worked through our difficulties together; I wouldn’t say it was ever the easiest working relationship but I’m glad I made the decision I did and it reinforced to me the importance of integrity - doing the right thing even if it’s tough.
What were some of the lessons you learnt leading your unit? How are they adaptable to businesses?
As I said earlier, my first tour of Iraq was daunting, but I learned a huge amount - about how to command and interact with different levels of officers and soldiers, to trust your training but also your gut instinct, and to ask for help when necessary - I relied a lot on my peers in particular during this time.
On my second tour, again I learned a lot about building relationships with people at different levels and understanding the most appropriate ways to communicate, particularly when it came to the level of detail that different people required - I’m a detail person so it was good for me to learn brevity and prioritisation of information! My role had changed only about a month before deployment so I had to adapt quickly, learning new responsibilities and integrating into a new team whilst also ensuring my old team were settled into their new roles (we were all split up so it was difficult to keep track of people) and then learning to let go of them - not easy when you’ve trained together for 5 months and have a strong sense of responsibility for them. Of course they were fine but I don’t mind admitting I could feel a bit like a mother hen sometimes!
In Afghanistan my main challenges were people ones. I learned a lot about resilience and pace i.e. understanding that you will form trust with some people more quickly and easily than others, therefore to accept some knock backs without going into meltdown that you are fundamentally a bad leader, and persevere in finding ways to build those relationships that are more tricky. It’s also worth remembering to make use of positive information i.e. what you know rather than what you assume and not drive yourself crazy with endless “what ifs” and trying to mindread others.
So my key takeaways for business would be: reframe difficulties as opportunities, whether this be accepting a higher level of risk or allowing your people to “fail” and learn from their mistakes; trust your gut instinct, especially as a leader, but remain humble and always willing to learn, don’t think you always have to have the answers; take time to get to know your people, at all levels, and how best to communicate with each of them - understand their needs and how you can best serve them; be prepared for change, get comfortable with being uncomfortable so that you focus your energy on how to move forward not waste it worrying about feeling stuck in the moment.
Making the decision to amputate your leg after the IED exploded in Afghanistan must have provided its own challenges. How did you overcome these challenges and motivate yourself when times were tough?
Firstly I think that being able to make the decision, rather than waking up from an operation without a leg, helped - it gave me a sense of ownership and control. Secondly the decision came early, only 3 days after I was injured, and I felt I had a good amount of information (about the nature of my injury, my prospects if I chose to keep my leg, and the rehab available) to make it a confident rather than courageous decision.
One of the early challenges after my amputation was that I wouldn’t be able to wear a prosthetic for 4 months, and only then for a limited time every day and using crutches because fractures in my residual limb meant I couldn’t weight bear fully for 6 months. I had to be a patient patient and anyone who knows me will tell you that patience is not one of my strengths! What kept me motivated during those early months was wanting to achieve the best outcome possible. It also helped that my mum was a physio and I had heard countless tales over the years of patients who didn’t listen and ended up taking much longer to recover and maybe with not such good function as if they’d followed the advice they were given. So I listened, I was patient and I worked hard in the gym.
Being in Headley Court (our former defence rehabilitation centre), rehabilitating with like-minded people who’d sustained similar injuries, was also incredibly motivating - not only is morale high and the banter fierce, you are surrounded by competitive people who want to beat each other in whatever horrible physical challenge the instructor has set! It is also easy to maintain perspective, something I would call my biggest gift from this whole experience - when you’re in a gym or at mealtimes with a guy who has lost both arms and a leg, it’s not hard to feel very lucky; and if I ever need reminding of that, I recall my nickname from that time - Captain Paper Cut, because I was just a single below-knee amputee!!
You signed up for the expedition with Walking with the Wounded to the South Pole. What training was involved both mentally and physically to get you to the point when you felt confident enough to complete it?
Well, at the point I applied for the expedition I had just had some revision surgery so my initial physical training was limited! Thankfully we had about 15 months before we embarked to Antarctica so I was able to build up my rehab / training at an appropriate pace. I was still serving in the army at the time and planned my strength work in the gym with one of the army rehab instructors in my local unit. This was designed on a 6 week cycle which meant I could monitor regularly how I was progressing; it was also flexible in terms of being able to do my training wherever was most convenient (to fit in with work and expedition commitments) but I still had accountability by checking in with him every 6 weeks.
The polar guide for our team gave us lots of advice about the sort of preparation we should be doing and the level we were eventually aiming for i.e. we needed to be able to be on our legs for 9 hours a day by the time we deployed. His recommendation was to do two long walks a week, carrying some weight, and increase the duration of these walks by one hour every month until we were at 9 hours. Needless to say this is pretty difficult to fit in around a full-time job so I was fortunate that my request for a sabbatical from work was supported and from the May I was training full-time until we left in the November. We did a couple of training trips to Iceland and one to Norway (where our ski training was hampered by a lack of snow), which were as much about being together as a team and practising living in expedition mode (putting up tents, lighting stoves, melting snow to get water, cooking, finding a comfortable way to sleep), as they were about the physical training.
We had all been assessed by a psychologist during selection but mental preparation was difficult because the main challenge of Antarctica is the psychological drain of traversing the same landscape, day in, day out, with no physical features to make for a varied view, no visual or auditory stimuli to distract you from the monotony of putting one ski in front of the other. The best I could come up with was to do the majority of my training on my own and never to listen to music so that at least the addition of an iPod on the expedition might seem like a treat - assuming I could keep it warm enough to function!
The best part of the training for me was our final medical in the October when we repeated physical tests that we’d undertaken in the January. My results had improved by 25% - not only was I delighted with this as proof of my hard work but our expedition doctor said he’d have been pleased with a 10% improvement! The other reason this was a good day was because Dr Dan told us he needed us all to put on some weight as he wanted us to burn fat not muscle (we’d only be able to consume 5000-6000 calories a day, the maximum the human body can take on board in a 24 hour period, but we’d be burning 7000-8000 - even I can do the maths for that!); I remember asking whether there was a healthy way of doing this: “No,” replied Dr Dan, “ice cream late at night should do it!” Thereafter followed a glorious month when I would meet friends for a cup of tea and taunt them with the huge slab of cake that I was fully justified in ordering, and I have to admit the profits of Haagen Dazs must have rocketed!
It must have been an honour and incredibly inspirational to be a part of this expedition and seeing the resilience of some of the soldiers you walked with. How did you maintain a positive mindset during a time where you were pushing boundaries and relying so heavily on your team?
It really was an honour to be part of such an adventurous expedition to a place that not many people have the privilege of visiting. I will be the first to admit that I didn’t enjoy it (!) but I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to go to such a special and remote place. Why didn’t I enjoy it? How long have you got?!! It is the single experience of my life that has pushed me such that I met my physical, mental and emotional limits.
I realised at the time that I was struggling physically, but it is through reflection in the years since that I have understood just how hard I found it mentally and emotionally too. I mentioned earlier how it can be difficult being part of a team rather than leading it - that was outside of my comfort zone, particularly when you are in a place, as I described, that offers you no stimuli to distract and relieve you from your thoughts, you are truly “in your head” for most of the day, every day.
One of the members of the US team was a particular inspiration as he is blind so was facing all of the same difficulties but with his eyes shut; he offered the perspective I placed such importance on earlier. Motivation also came from thinking about all of the generous people who’d donated to my fundraising efforts, many of whom I didn’t know first-hand; and from those who would have loved to be able to take part in an expedition like this but couldn’t due to the severity of their injuries; ultimately, when the going got really tough, I would remember the soldier who died in the incident I was injured in - I was lucky, I had survived that and I would survive this.
If there was one message that you would want an audience to take away from your speech, what would it be?
Do something - when you’re faced with a challenging situation, face up to it and take action, even if that means moving sideways or even backwards before eventually moving forwards.
Finally Kate, what’s next for you?
Well, apart from the perpetual challenge of trying to train two springer spaniels (they’re not nearly as obedient as soldiers!), I’m developing two coaching programmes with colleagues, which I’m really excited about. I’m also continuing with my speaking work (very excited to be joining Speakers Corner) and the trustee and ambassadorial roles I have with two charities. And then because I like a bit of variety to keep me on my (5!) toes, I work one day a week for a local firm who do land and estate management - I’m doing a business development role which I’m really enjoying. I love being part of a team again as I’ve discovered working for yourself is great for the flexibility and independence it offers but it can get rather lonely, and learning about something new - the land-based sector attracts ex-military because we tend to enjoy being outside and have a strong affiliation with the environment, it having been our “office” for years - so this area is something I’m naturally interested in and the role is very much about building relationships, something I’ve got plenty of experience in. I rather grandly call all of this my “portfolio” approach to work!
Thank you for talking to us Kate, you have so much going on at the moment. We can’t wait to get an update in the future!
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