Blog High Performance Under High Pressure

High Performance Under High Pressure

A former Red Arrow & RAF fighter pilot, Justin is a renowned expert and inspiring speaker on high-performance cultures and high-risk environments.

When Justin Hughes published his book, The Business of Excellence: Building High-performance Teams and Organizations, we interviewed him. Justin shared with us how best to perform under pressure, how to consistently deliver excellent results and what pointers an ex-RAF pilot can offer today's businesses. Sharing his still-relevant top tips and insights into the life of a Red Arrows pilot, Justin highlights the similarities between leadership soaring above the clouds in a fighter plane and leadership with your feet firmly planted on the ground in the boardroom. 


You’ve just written your new book 'The Business of Excellence: Building High-performance Teams and Organizations' in which you cover the challenges of high-performance leadership, what is your top tip for performing under pressure?

One word: preparation. It's very difficult to deliver in high-pressure environments if everything is new to you and you have no idea what the highest priority is. In my previous career as an RAF fighter pilot, the organisation helped to prepare me in lots of ways, both explicitly and implicitly.

Examples would be the use of standard procedures for predictable situations – this frees up your brainpower for the difficult stuff, such as contingency planning for less certain scenarios and making sure you are absolutely clear on your priorities for complex emergencies. When you combine simulation training (to help desensitise) and high-quality regular debriefing (to accelerate the learning curve), it means that in a high-pressure situation, you are both mentally prepared and have maximized the benefit of all your previous experience.

You will never get it right in the heat of the moment if you making it up; make the high-pressure decisions in low-pressure environments.


The key to success is preparation 

As a former Red Arrow and RAF fighter pilot, have you ever found yourself in a life or death situation, and if so how do you manage this risk? 

Military aviation, to some extent, always carries life or death risks and I have certainly seen a few situations which could have turned out a lot worse. In terms of managing those sorts of risks, I don't think that any clever pilot has ever rationally worked out how to do it, but some good approaches have evolved from hard-won experience.

The most important point is that for complex fast-moving situations the approach to managing risk has to be cultural. It is not possible to have a process for every possible scenario. So, in addition to regulation and systems, fighter pilots train in human factors such as understanding decision-making and the impact of behaviour. There is a heavy premium placed on operational excellence because good business is safe business. And finally, there is no bigger influence on people's approach to risk than leadership behaviour.


Making the right decision impacts everything

Although most business will not face the physical dangers and risks of air aerobatics, when under a mentally difficult situation which involves financial risk, how can team leaders ensure they are negotiating the best possible outcome? 

In many competitive situations, whether air combat or a financial negotiation, the two 'players' are often seeing a situation from completely different perspectives. The keys to success are often to have absolute clarity in what success looks like for you and then to try and see the scenario from the other party's perspective.

We can all be guilty of becoming 'wedded to our own brilliance'. High performance in demanding situations benefits from a clear head and objective thinking. Try and view your own performance/situation with the same objectivity as a third party and stress-test the assumptions in your thinking to avoid reacting to a situation in a purely emotional way. Objectivity is an under-rated trait.


Balance and objectivity need to be more highly valued 

The Red Arrows team consistently remains world-class, despite the high turnover of pilots every year, how can business mirror this level of team performance? 

You are right - given that the team loses its most experienced 3 pilots every year, there is a remarkable consistency of performance year on year. There are a number of keys:

1. If your work is primarily team-based, then recruit, select, develop and reward team players. On the Red Arrows selection, there is a flying test which lasts about 20 minutes. The rest (of the week) is primarily about establishing cultural fit. Even in a job which most people consider very technical- or skill-based, the selection process is nearly all people-based.

2. Systemise best practice. The Red Arrows have a set of standard operating procedures which define best practice culled from the previous 50 years of collective experience. It's not a big document, and it evolves over time, but it largely defines how the teams do business.

3. Fix fast and fail. There is a significant training burden changing 3 pilots every year but the debriefing process ensures that performance improvement is accelerated and errors are fixed fast. The ability to apply learning fast is a key driver of performance.


Fix things quickly: time is of the essence

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your collective career experiences? 

Time goes fast and you don't get it back. Don't waste it; make decisions; take chances; pursue your dreams.



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