How do you lead in a crisis: a disaster on Mount Everest, an oil spill, a collapse trapping 33 Chilean miners underground, or, in my case, going blind and then having an accident which left me paralysed?
Last year, I joined the World Economic Forum’s group of Young Global Leaders for a course on leadership in extreme situations, led by Dutch Leonard. We learned about successes and failures, including Ernest Shackleton’s thwarted but ultimately heroic Arctic expedition of 1914-1916. Though his ship was crushed by pack ice, Shackleton kept all his stranded men alive and escaped on a small boat to raise a rescue mission.
In 2009, 10 years after going blind and one year before I broke my back, I followed in Shackleton’s tracks across the Antarctic ice, becoming the first blind man in the world to race to the South Pole. This was not the only parallel with the explorer: Dutch’s research into how Shackleton and others solved unpredictable problems was an epiphany for me. It legitimized the tool kit and informal teams I created when I went blind. My acknowledgement of this was the flag that our three-person team carried and planted at the South Pole. It was a flag of faces, 500 photos of the friends and family, training buddies, financial sponsors and experienced explores who gave their time and advice to us – they were the ones who got us there.
Dutch used case studies to demonstrate how, in most situations, a hierarchical structure is effective: you recognize the problem and you are set up to solve it. But in unpredictable situations like Shackleton’s, where knowledge is imperfect and results uncertain, this structure often fails. However, collaborative structures created from people and their skills, and a working culture where you can fail before you succeed, are more likely to achieve results.
These ideas fuelled my efforts to create a solution for my unpredictable problem – a cure for paralysis. I am doing this by finding and connecting people worldwide to fast-track a cure for paralysis. When people think about what a cure might look like, they almost always think about the obvious lack of movement and feeling. But spinal cord injury strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human; an evolutionary amputation completed in a moment, turning us from our standing upright, running forms into seated compromises of our former selves. It results in a loss of sexual function and the ability to have a family without IVF. We lose normal bladder and bowel function and have to live and work with the constant management of this on our minds. We lose connections to the brain which interfere with the things that keep us alive and we die before our time. Paralysis took Christopher Reeve’s life way too early. The kidney infections I am prone to may take my life. These are the things that exhaust even the most determined.
The formal medical system makes it possible for people like me to survive a 25-foot (7.62-metre) fall from a window, to transition from the hospital bed into a wheelchair and back to living independent lives. Without the formal medical system I would be dead. Without my wheelchair, I couldn’t get around. But I don’t want to stay in my wheelchair and I don’t want to die young and I don’t think I or anyone else paralysed should have to anymore. I think we can create the cure. How we will do it cannot be predicted and so I know this needs a new, flat, collaborative approach, rather than conventional, hierarchical leadership.
I’m really excited that there’s an emerging legitimacy for doers; that “doing” is gaining the same respect that “thinking” and “talking about” have so long had. Because the unpredictable has no rulebook, no best practices in place. We have to be agile, to pull the resources we need from the network and to create; we have to “do”. And I want to create a space for those who do. I want to pull them from the established hierarchies in government, science, art and business into my unpredictable world that is filled in equal measure with possibilities and problems.
The World Economic Forum’s group of Young Global Leaders is made up of doers from all disciplines and from every corner of the world. I too have started to “do” again. I am as physically fit as a paralysed person can be. I have become the leading test pilot for pioneering robotic legs from Ekso Bionics. I roll to the gym every day in my wheelchair and I strap my paralysed limbs into robotic legs and I walk miles and miles of steps. When I shift my weight, it activates sensors in the robotic legs, which then initiate the steps, helped by battery-powered motors.
I have walked more than anyone else, more than 400,000 steps in my robot. Although there is no proof yet that walking in the robot will restore function to my damaged spinal cord, doing it has put me in a position to work with those who were starting to understand how to do so.
Through the YGL community, I was introduced to the Reeve Foundation leadership and in turn through that foundation, I met the UCLA scientist, Dr Reggie Edgerton, and we worked together on an experiment to walk my paralysed legs using a combination of of my Ekso robotic legs, a drug and electrical stimulation of my spinal cord. I tell you this to show you that simply being part of that group opened a new network of people ambitious on my behalf and on behalf of paralysed people around the world. In turn, I offered my paralysed body and my robotic exoskeleton to Reggie and his team in UCLA for research.
We then pulled finance, expertise and bodies from the network – a San Franciscan robot, a Russian electrical stimulator from the Pavlov Institute, American expertise from NeuroRecovery Technologies, Indian, American and Finnish scientists gathered in UCLA, my support from the Mark Pollock Trust and my broken Northern Irish body. The study is the first of its kind. As I walked for extended periods in my robotic exoskeleton their team of scientists tracked what is going on, if anything, in my paralysed legs. Their primary objective was to determine whether they could improve posture and stepping using two novel ways to neuromodulate (excite and affect) the spinal cord.
Although the data is still being analysed and the scientists will have to review the data to let me know if they see what I feel, I can tell you that I felt the impact of the interventions.
Paralysed people explore the extremes of human experience on a daily basis. We need hierarchy and structure for life’s predictable problems. But we need the glorious chaos of global collaborations and a fanatical, fantastical desire to solve the things the human brain can’t yet comprehend. In my case, it is the regeneration or rehabilitation of the damaged spinal cord.
Finding a cure for spinal cord injury is not a predictable problem. It is a human crisis and it requires collaboration across geographical, organizational and intellectual boundaries. And I have hope and I need you, you the explorers, the creatives, the technologists, the financiers, adventurers of all kinds. I extend an open invitation to you to join me to fast track a cure for paralysis.
Image: A still from this video of Mark Pollock trying out Ekso Bionics’ “wearable robot” to walk again