Leading Through Adversity | A Q&A with Gulf War POW and Businessman John Peters

30 August 2017

Captured during the Gulf War, former RAF pilot John Peters came to the world's attention in January 1991, when his beaten face was exposed on television screens around the world - a stark symbol of Saddam Hussein's ruthless aggression.

His harrowing, near death experience continues to touch audiences' minds and souls, but John is also able to powerfully relate his story to the business world, helping people deal with uncertainty and unexpected change, and to lead through adversity. He now runs a company called MonkeyBiz which is focussed on improving business performance.

We interviewed him to find out more about how his life changed for after his terrifying ordeal, and what we can all learn from it.

Hi John. Your time in captivity during the Gulf War was a horrific ordeal - how did you keep going day after day?

Well, of course, the situation can be overwhelming; the scale of the ordeal insurmountable. I would have given in, had I focused on the walls and the beatings - but that would have been myopic.

Instead, I visualised where I would be in the future. I imagined a better world of family holidays. I planned the business that I now run. I focused beyond the walls and beatings to where I would be in my future. By doing so, the starvation and degradation just became things to overcome in my journey to where I wanted to be.

The key to winning is accepting the mistakes you make, learning from them and adapting. Fast.

Many businesses with whom I have worked have vision and value statements. This is all very well, but, very often, not even the board can explain what it means in simple pictures. Go further down through the organisation, and it becomes clear why achieving change and improved performance fails: people cannot see a better world. An increase in shareholder value may mean something to the board, but what about the middle manager or the clerk? Performance improvement just becomes a pressure: a dark, dank prison wall.

If leaders cannot create an image of the future state that truly relates to each level, why should anyone follow them? Everyone at every level should be able to visualise the future: to ‘see’ a better world. This is the key driver to inspiring change or improving performance.

You describe your Gulf War as a failure. Why do you see it as such and what did you do to cope with this realisation?

Simple, a fighter pilot is not meant to get shot down! But, my war was not about dropping bombs, and I accept the failure, learn from it and don’t label myself a failure. It happened. Period. The interrogators tried to dismantle my willpower by focusing on this failure, beating me, burning me, depriving me of sleep and applying psychological pressure. With that sort of pressure, it is inevitable that one will feel weak and make mistakes. Too many people try and hide failures, then dwell on them, and then label themselves as failures. This ultimately will make them lose. The key to winning is accepting the mistakes you make, learning from them and adapting. Fast.

It takes courage to admit mistakes, but consider this: we are all too aware of the limitations of our own boss, so why do so many managers believe that they can hide theirs from those they ‘lead’? Leadership is transparent. Admitting vulnerability will develop trust and respect. This, in turn, creates the right culture in which learning and innovation can flourish. That is a performance culture that affects the bottom line.

How do you apply your experience to the business world?

It is not just the experience itself. My life has broadened immeasurably because I was a POW. Now, for 17 years, I have worked with boards and senior executive teams internationally, coaching and facilitating leadership strategy and change.

I remember following Nelson Mandela on stage in South Africa, which was a huge privilege. How do you follow Nelson Mandela? He was clear on leadership: “A good leader is one who knows when their attributes match the occasion; a great leader is one who knows when to step aside and let others lead”. True leadership is when someone trusts in you to lead him or her where they dare not go. It is about belief and trust in people’s motives both up and down the organisation.

What key message do you want to share with business audiences?

I appreciate that business people are not going to be a POW, but everyone must deal with unexpected change. Change is thrust upon us all: it is how one deals with uncertainty, circumstance, and choice that matters.

Going to war is unreal: one’s life is accelerated into overdrive. ‘You never train for the war you fight’, and that was the case with Gulf War 1. Considering subsequent history, that may seem strange, but until 1991 our focus was a Central European conflict, a nuclear exchange and an ‘end-of-world-as-we-know-it’ scenario. We found ourselves fighting in a ‘regional’ desert scenario. The fundamentals were the same, but the application completely different. We had to adapt and learn new techniques very rapidly.

When my mission went horribly wrong, life became increasingly uncertain as things sped up even more. The shooting down, the capture, followed by interrogation. The interrogators work to extend and enhance the anxiety of capture: continually changing everything to disorientate and defeat you. Once again, one must accept, adapt and learn.

In a similar manner, business is speeding up. Leaders have less time to make complex decisions. Unexpected events need to be assimilated quickly and decisions made. Flying at 500 knots forces you to think ahead; if you delay or procrastinate, the problem gets bigger and bigger…very quickly! It is the same in business. Michael Dell’s best advice for business was: ‘Solve your problems as fast as you find them’. Too many people in business procrastinate too long on the real priority decisions. Accept where you are, adapt to the new circumstances and have the courage in your judgment to make the right choice.

What have you learned from your experiences that have helped you to be successful?

I’m stronger for the experience; I’m a lot more confident. I realise that I can go way beyond the limits I believed I had. They didn’t break me, I did not give in. If you told me back then I would be here now, I would have replied impossible. But here I am. They took nothing away from me. In fact, my life has broadened because of the experience.

People understandably look at the whole experience – the beatings, the solitary confinement as a black box - as very negative. I gained huge power from the experience; it has provided an opportunity. When was the last time you sat alone, without interruption, even a cup of tea, and thought about your life, your philosophy and your sense of where you are? It takes practice and time to build that focus, but in the abnormal world as a POW, I had 7 weeks, 24 hours a day sitting in a black box, thinking about who I was, where I wanted to go and truly reflecting upon my life. This was exceptionally powerful and too few people nowadays find time to think, without interruption. It is the clarity you gain from that reflection that gives you power.

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