Mark Pollock is an Explorer, Innovator & Collaboration Catalyst, currently working with Microsoft on his research to fast-track a cure for paralysis. He is an example of innovation and resilience in action – how to preempt and respond positively to changing circumstances. In this guest blog post, Mark gives insight into how to lead in a crisis and his pioneering research with Microsoft.
A disaster on Mount Everest, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a collapse trapping 33 Chilean miners underground, or, in my case, going blind and then, having reclaimed my life, having an accident which left me also paralysed. These were the leadership challenges that my colleagues and I discussed in Harvard a few years ago.
The course on leadership in extreme situations was led by Dutch Leonard. We learned about 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 for months in the harshest environment on earth and he ultimately 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 wasn’t my only connection to the explorer’s story: Dutch’s research into how Shackleton and others solved unpredictable problems explained so much to me. It put words to my lived experience and legitimized the tool kits and informal teams I had learned to create after going blind.
The symbol of all this is the flag that our three-person team carried to plant at the South Pole. It was a flag made up of faces. 500 photos of the friends and family, total strangers, training buddies, financial sponsors and experienced explorers who wanted to be with us, who gave their time and advice to us – it was them who got us there.
Dutch used case studies to demonstrate how, in most situations, an established hierarchical structure is effective: you recognize the problem that presents itself and you are set up to solve it. But in unpredictable situations with unforeseen problems, like Shackleton’s, where knowledge is imperfect and results uncertain, this structure almost always, fails. However, collaborative structures created out of people and their skills, in working cultures where you can fail before you succeed, are more likely to achieve results.
I arrived at Harvard not long after I became paralysed and these ideas fuelled and informed my efforts to solve my latest problem – how to find a cure for paralysis. It was clear that this was exploration, this was something that required a new and flexible collaborative structure.
I am now using this structure and we are finding and connecting people worldwide to fast-track a cure. The formal medical system makes it possible for people like me to survive a 25-foot fall from a window, to transition from the hospital bed into a wheelchair and back to living a relatively independent life. 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 that I, or anyone else paralysed, should have to anymore. 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.
As we explore the intersection where humans and technology collide, we are pulling people to that intersection from the established hierarchies in science, technology, business and government. It is a place where the outcome is unpredictable and it is filled in equal measure with possibilities and problems. But the mix of collaborating and potentially successfully managing out of a crisis is attractive to the smart and the ambitious. We work with the World Economic Forum community, Wings for Life, the Christopher Reeve Foundation, their scientists and those in the business communities behind this endeavour. We created an experiment to walk my paralysed legs using a combination of my Ekso Bionics robotic exoskeleton and a NeuroRecovery Technologies electrical stimulation device to excite my dormant spinal cord. We published the research and have moved on and up to the next stage of this exploration.
All people need hierarchy and structure to solve life’s predictable problems with existing solutions. But when we don’t know where to start, we need the glorious chaos of global collaborations and a fanatical, fantastical desire to solve the things the human brain can’t yet comprehend.
To find out more about Mark or to check his availability for your event or conference, give our dedicated team a call on 02031377353 or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about Mark and his research here.