Once upon a time, off the coast of China…

I had a “road to Damascus” moment.

First, you need to understand how I came to be on that road in the first place.

My parents had worked very hard to send me to a good school – at great personal cost, as they came from a working class background.

I was aware of the cost to my family of my schooling, so as a teenager I looked for ways to make myself financially independent. I had already decided to become an engineer, so I went looking for sponsorships for a degree, and then a future career.

I was selected to become an officer in Royal Navy, and then to become a University Cadet – one of a small number of each year’s trainees who attended a civilian university to get their degrees, whilst being paid a salary, and spending a year in the RN doing basic training with an operational deployment as a “gap year”. My gap year finished with six months in the Middle East, on a warship escorting tankers in and out of the Straits of Hormuz, learning about leadership and operations in a high profile, high stress scenario.

I spent three years at Cambridge enjoying student life and getting my Engineering degree before returning to the RN in 1992. It was a bit of a shock going from being a student to deploying for the Gulf War a month later! That deployment was for seven months and taught me lots of lessons about planning, risk and leadership. Being on a war footing showed how sometimes procedures and policies needed to be bent: balancing risks to personnel and machinery against the need to achieve operational aims.

I stayed in the RN doing various jobs; learning about project management, engineering operations, planning, and how seemingly minor events can have a disproportionate impact, sometimes thousands of miles away.

After thirteen years service, I was sat on a warship with nearly 1000 marines onboard, loitering off the coast of China as the UK handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese. We were there to provide additional backup to the police force, should there be large-scale civil unrest during the process.

Being a warship, the team onboard are always practising for when the unthinkable needs to happen: a shooting conflict breaks out.

We were doing a damage control exercise, where we simulated being hit by bombs or missiles that generated fires, smoke and system failure. My job was to lead the damage control function, particularly around the machinery that generated power, kept us moving, enabled us to fight fires etc. All the things that allowed us to deliver the command priorities: fight, move and float. It was a high pressure job controlling the efforts of around 100 people.

I suddenly realised that I didn’t believe in what I was doing any more, or in what the RN was trying to achieve. My next job was going to be leading a department of 60-80 engineers and technicians in a smaller ship that would be sent all over the world to do various jobs, some of them quite dangerous. I realised I couldn’t lead a team effectively if I couldn’t lead them with authenticity. The authenticity wasn’t there because I no longer believed in what I was being asked to do.

It took eighteen months from that point to resign, serve my twelve months’ notice period, and start a new job delivering ground breaking IT solutions to a large government department. Even now, more than fifteen years later, my contemporaries in the Royal Navy still think my resignation was a brave thing to do…