What Can a Fighter Pilot Teach a CEO?

Old Boy Justin Hughes attended Merchant Taylors’ between 1978-82 following his time at the prep school. He has now drawn upon his wealth of experiences to write a book illustrating how to transfer military approaches to working environments…

WHAT CAN A FIGHTER PILOT TEACH A CEO?

My first career was as an RAF fighter pilot.  I flew the Tornado F3 for 6 years and was then lucky enough to spend my last 3 years in the RAF on the Red Arrows.  I became the Executive Officer and flew around 250 displays worldwide.  I had no real longer-term career plan, so it was a case of working out where else I might be able to leverage my skills and experience.  I decided to set up a team building business applying my experience in the corporate world.

My break came before the business even started.  During my last summer on the Red Arrows, I flew in a flypast over Buckingham Palace in formation with Concorde for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.  As a result, I had the opportunity to take a flight to New York on Concorde.  The co-pilot asked me what my next job would be.  I told him about my plans for the business and he said I should meet his sister who was Head of Internal Comms at a large insurer.  They became our first client.

Since then, the business has grown in breadth and depth and is now a consultancy which partners with organisations committed to high performance.  There is a surprising commonality between the challenges faced by a fighter pilot and those which exist in large organisations.  A fighter pilot’s world is characterised by ambiguity, imperfect information and time pressure.  Sound familiar to anyone?  Over time, we have deconstructed the key factors which drive high-performance in that world:

  • People: the primacy of attitude over skills
  • Capability: building alignment before setting people free
  • Delivery: a process to close the gap between desired and actual outcomes
  • Learning: how to accelerate performance in real time

Bring these factors to life in an engaging way was the aim in writing my recent book:  The Business of Excellence:  Building High-Performance Teams and Organizations.  The book draws on lessons from the military, commercial and sporting worlds to illustrate and explain tools and methods which the reader can apply in their own teams.  Experience seems to show that the fighter pilot approach actually translates pretty well to other environments.

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The Business of Excellence, published by Bloomsbury.  ISBN 978-1-4729-3022-4