Resilience: Moving Forward When Life Puts You Back

Kate Philp knows a thing or two about resilience. As a former British Artillery officer, Kate had her left leg amputated below the knee after her vehicle was involved in an explosion with a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008. Five years later Kate raced to the South Pole on skis as part of the Walking With The Wounded team, alongside HRH Prince Harry and three international teams of injured service personnel. 

Joining us at Congress London this month, Kate talked us through her career journey and the lessons she’s learned along the way - including how she responds to challenges in her personal and professional life, and tools we can all use to move forward when we feel stuck. 

“When you face a setback, sometimes you can’t move forward straight away. We can all beat ourselves up when we think we’re not progressing, but I believe becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable - being a little bit stuck and maybe even having to move sideways before you move forward - is a useful concept to get to grips with. 

When I was in the Army I had a life-changing injury. Although this could sound negative, I’ve learned that difficult experiences can sometimes present you with amazing opportunities. Over the last few years since being injured and embracing the challenge of racing to the South Pole, I have thought a lot about resilience. To me it’s not about indomitable strength; it’s about flexibility and having the ability to bounce back. It’s accepting that we all get knocked to the ground sometimes and not ignoring that fact, or stubbornly pretending things don’t affect us. If you think about resilience only as pure strength, it implies you’re not allowed to be weak – but we’re all humans and we all have our frailties. 

Physical, mental and emotional resilience

To me resilience is three types of strength: physical, mental and emotional. I think we all find one of these strengths easier to comprehend. Physical resilience is the one I’m most comfortable with. Having come from a military background, being strong and physically fit has always been important to me and easy for me to put into practice. Equally mental strength is something I find straight-forward: creating mental processes and solving problems. The area where I struggle the most is emotional resilience. Growing up with brothers I was always a bit of a tough girl, so when I joined the Army it probably exacerbated my propensity to suppress emotions like sadness and fear. Since joining ‘civvy street’, I’ve had to really work on this area and I can now say I’m reaping the benefits and feeling more balanced. These days, when I face tough times, I’m better able to identify the emotions that accompany the mental process and what I’m physically feeling, which helps me to deal with issues with greater clarity. 

When I’m faced with a challenge that I have no idea how to overcome, I return to my values or guiding principles – the things that are fundamentally important to me. When I feel stuck, trusting my gut instinct and letting my values guide me always helps me to make better decisions. Having a great team around me is so important too. My friends, family and colleagues are the team that has helped me get through the last few years and the support is very much mutual. 

My story: joining the Army

As a child I was a tomboy - always outside and into playing team sports. I knew from a young age I wanted a career that would challenge me mentally and physically, and where I could be part of a team. As a young adult I joined the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, a recognised centre of excellence for leadership, and went through my training with a platoon of girls. This is where I really began to understand the meaning and importance of teamwork. I discovered that when you focus on a common goal, you all pull in the same direction - regardless of your personal differences. 

During my 12 years in the Royal Artillery, I moved around a lot. I deployed within the UK and Germany as well as to Belize, Iraq and Afghanistan. I got to reap the benefits of variety. At the age of 25, I took responsibility for about 40 soldiers who ranged in age from 18 to 38 years old and, with a good deal of apprehension, I was posted straight out of my training to Iraq on operational tour.

My injury

At the age of 30, after another tour in Iraq, I deployed to Afghanistan. This time I had a specialist team of five attached to an infantry company. It was the first and only time in my career that I faced prejudice. I was the only woman among 120 men and one of my own team openly told me he had a problem working for a female boss. Three months into the tour, my vehicle was involved in an explosion with an IED – a roadside bomb that killed one soldier, and injured four of us. I was left with an injury to my left leg. Having been flown back to the UK, the doctor described the state of my heel, foot and ankle as a ‘jigsaw of fractures’. Although the doctor said he could ‘fuse’ my ankle back together, the likelihood was I’d have to walk with a stick and be in pain on a daily basis - the only other option was amputation. I asked whether I’d be able to run, play tennis and ski if they took my leg. The doctor said yes and that helped me to decide to have my lower leg amputated. I knew I wanted to live an active life and at the time this was more important to me than any cosmetic concern. Although it was a big decision to have the surgery, to a certain extent it felt straightforward and I was glad I had the choice. 

Going to the South Pole

Following the surgery, I rehabilitated for 16 months and had revision surgery several times. I served in the Army again, but became frustrated at my level of activity which wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Coming home from hospital one day, I received an email from Walking With The Wounded asking if I’d like to apply to take part in an expedition to ski to the South Pole. Although it sounded like a mammoth challenge, I knew I needed something extreme to get me out of the office and back in training. It would also mean competing, because the challenge was designed as a race between three teams of injured service personnel from the UK, US and the Commonwealth (Australia and Canada). I was attracted by the idea of raising money for a charity that would help injured service personnel like me get back to work, and the thought of having a team to train for and with really spurred me on. So I signed up to the challenge and soon found myself en route to Antarctica via Cape Town. Each of the teams in the race consisted of four injured service personnel, a mentor, an experienced polar guide and a VIP. In our team we had Prince Harry, who really helped to raise the public profile of the challenge and attract media interest. 

The race

We began the race on 1 December 2013. Every day would start the same way - waking up at 6am, packing your sleeping bag, and then spending nearly three hours melting snow to create water. Although ostensibly we were surrounded by water, melting what we needed so we could drink enough and eat our dehydrated food rations was a long and laborious process. We’d ski for nine hours every day, breaking every two hours for 10-15 minutes. Despite ‘only’ being at an altitude of 3,000m, the oxygen is much thinner on the plateau than in other parts of the world at that height, so we battled with headaches and altitude sickness. The cold was a huge challenge - many of us developed mild frostbite. As the coldest place on earth, the average daily temperature during our race was minus 35 degrees and our coldest days were more like minus 45. The altitude and the cold combined with the extreme fatigue and exhaustion from pulling your own body weight made for a tough physical experience. Mentally it was arduous too. We skied in single file as that was the most efficient way, but it was extremely antisocial - it meant you were in your own head for nine hours a day looking at an almost identical vista. People talk about the Arctic being physically more challenging as the ice ridges are much bigger, but Antarctica is a tougher mental challenge - there is no reference point or stimuli so it’s very psychologically draining. 

We made it to the South Pole on Friday 13 December, a lucky day for us! Although we eventually celebrated, I can’t say the challenge was something I enjoyed. It took me a long time not to see the race as a failure that had pushed me to my mental and physical limits - especially as I’d had to take a few days out of the race due to issues with breathing because of the lack of oxygen. But eventually I’ve come to see things differently. I’ve had to work hard to reframe the experience of the race and redefine my sense of success in light of what my original aim was - to be strong and fit again. 

My take-homes:

From my experience of the Army, being injured and racing to the South Pole against adversity, I really believe that a flexible attitude can go a long way to helping us deal with life’s challenges. Here are my top tips for resilience: 

  • Get out of your comfort zone and explore your discomfort zone: everyone’s comfort zone is individual. It’s about how you challenge yourself and step into discomfort. Work out where you need to push yourself and test your limits. It doesn’t have to be an extreme physical challenge!

  • Perspective: when you are feeling down, it’s perfectly normal and human to have a wallow. But don’t stay down, don’t get stuck wallowing. When something happens, remember that the situation could always be worse, then find ways to make it better.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help: the support team you build around you is so important. Ask for help when you need it. It’s a great example to set as a leader at work - show your colleagues and team it’s not a weakness to ask for help.

  • Trust yourself: think about trust rather than confidence. You can fake confidence in the short-term, but trusting yourself goes much deeper and is much more sustaining.

  • Do something: face up to your issues and take action, whether or not you move sidewards or forwards.

If you are interested in discussing with Kate how she can help you or your organisation through her coaching or speaking services, please email: kate@corranconsulting.co.uk. You can find out more about Kate on Linkedin and follow her on Twitter @corrankate.