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The Leadership Top Flight


While many businesses strive for excellence, only very few achieve outstanding performance on a regular basis. So why is it that military organisations such as the Royal Air Force (RAF) can deliver outstanding execution with such extraordinary consistency? Justin Hughes, managing director of Mission Excellence, examines what lessons the corporate world can learn from the RAF.

In the world of military aviation, outstanding results depend on outstanding teamwork. When teams of fighter pilots are involved in a mission, the environment is often hostile, extremely complex, and can change continuously. Furthermore, the team will comprise multiple sub-teams of various nationalities and cultures, who never even meet up, and yet they must succeed first time. While the world of business might appear to share few similarities with the military, there are in fact many key areas of common ground. The risk to life and limb may not be there, but the complexity, hostility, and pace of change of the environment, together with the need to engage and empower diverse multi-site teams certainly is.

The first key area where business might benefit from the approach taken by the RAF is in behavioural training and development. Prior to any technical training, trainee fighter pilots in the Royal Air Force (along with officers from every other discipline) complete an intensive immersion into the organisational culture of up to six months. As well as the organisation’s history and values (brand), the crux of this programme is about understanding leadership and ‘followership’ behaviours. We deeply embed the right behaviours before we even start to worry about skill or process. Yet many commercial organisations concentrate their induction training almost exclusively around technical competence. In fact, a recent Mission Excellence survey showed that almost 50% of respondents commented that people are promoted to leadership roles based on technical competence rather than leadership ability.

As well as attaching great significance to leadership values and behaviours, the military practice a form of leadership called Mission Command, which is all about empowerment – delegating decision-making authority to the lowest practical level at which the decision should be made. The leader delegates the ‘what’, the ‘when’ and the ‘why’ but not the ‘how’. This ensures that teams and subordinate leaders have genuine ownership of the task, which becomes a powerful motivator and also a very effective tool in eliminating decision-making bottlenecks and increasing agility and speed of execution. Such delegation should not be confused with abrogation of responsibility. Mission Command is a two-way process requiring trust, support and mutual accountability.

When it comes to execution and delivery of the task, although line management in the military tends to be hierarchical, operational task management is the opposite; operations or projects are resourced to task or opportunity, with fighter mission leaders selected independent of rank or seniority. The focus is wholly external - who is the best person to lead this team, as opposed to who is the most senior person. This external focus pervades the whole of the planning and delivery process. In commercial language, it is a totally customer-centric focus rather than product-centric. The aim is to develop and deliver plans which factor in the competition, the customer and the operating environment.

And when the task is complete, it’s time to make learning from experience a reality. Debriefing is the single most powerful tool in the military environment and can be used with similar success in business. Ideally, the debrief should be an objective, non-confrontational performance review, which when done well, is a combination of 360º feedback, performance review and executive coaching all rolled into one. Although there is an underlying process, the biggest hurdle here is embedding the necessary behaviours. In order to enhance performance, commercial organisations should structure their debriefing sessions so that there is no hierarchy – everybody is equal and everybody is there to learn. A leader should be nominated to control the flow and facilitate the debrief, but who can also learn as much as anyone else. If the reasons for poor performance are ignored, glossed over or incorrectly identified, the team’s performance will never improve. The aim is to learn, take ownership and accountability, but without blame.

One powerful example where these behaviours and processes all come together is in the Red Arrows. In spite of losing its three most experienced pilots every year (a 33% churn rate of key personnel), the team continues to deliver world-class performance year in, year out while operating in an environment where mistakes cost lives. With a continually evolving team, its performance cannot be attributed to one or two ‘stars’, but deeply embedded team and leadership behaviours, disciplined processes (best practice) consistently and rigorously applied, an objective outcome-focused training programme, and continuous improvement through open, honest collective assessment of performance – in other words, debriefing.

Experience with commercial clients shows that learning from operating high performance aircraft in complex team environments, and in particular the learning form the Red Arrows, is highly relevant to the business community. My mission has changed slightly since my RAF days to a more corporate focus; however my desire to empower outstanding execution and performance remains extant.

* Mission Excellence is a team of former Red Arrows, fighter pilots and training experts who now specialise in the development of leadership, teamwork and execution skills. Further details about Mission Excellence can be found at


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