Leadership; Dropped In At The Deep End


I recently attended a small event, run by a team of former fighter pilots and Red Arrows Leaders at Mission Excellence. At the moment, I’m researching a book on world class teams and world class leadership. During the last year or so, I’ve spent time working with one of these pilots; a former Red Arrows Leader. So far I’ve gained some fascinating insights. So I sat with my pad of paper, pen poised, listening intently. Around 30 minutes into the presentation one of the facilitators burst into the room.

“Do you have WiFi connection in here? There’s a breaking news story. Can we get it on screen?”

I’m sure you can guess the next bit. For 2-3 seconds we sat there thinking, “I wonder where this is going?”. As you might expect, what followed was a practical exercise in team-working. The news clip showed a war torn region in Africa, which was desperate for international assistance. In particular, there was a shortage of water, shelter, food and medical supplies. Our job, as a team, was to deliver aid to as many people as possible, safely and within budget. To give you a little more background, there were nine of us on the table. We had made the briefest of introductions; a handshake and first name. Obviously, we’ve already forgotten most of the names. We, the team members, were each handed a card which identified our role and gave the information that we needed to know. The rules of the game stated that we could not pass the cards around or show our cards to the other members of the team.

It all sounds like fun so far doesn’t it. When my card arrived, I noticed that it was headed with the words “Mission Commander”. I’d managed to land the role of “leader”. As my eyes scanned the heading on the card, and this realisation began to dawn on me, I noticed a distinct change in my thoughts and feelings. I’m fascinated to understand what goes on between our ears, and how it effects our performance. Normally I study this in others. However, this particular experience has given me a first-hand account of how it ‘thinks and feels’ to take on the challenge of leadership. So, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my experiences.

As a realised that I’d been given the task of leading this team through the task, I became aware that I’d just been yanked out of my comfort zone and dumped slap bang in the middle of my discomfort zone. Normally, when I step outside of my comfort zone it is by choice. I tend to choose how and when to challenge myself. This time discomfort was imposed. As you can imagine, this experience also triggers a shift in thinking and feeling. Over the years I have noticed that thoughts and feelings are not always complete and obvious. The conversation that goes on in my mind isn’t comprised of full sentences or even full words. Instead, I notice the shadow of my thoughts and emotions. It is like they’re lurking around the corners in the corridors of my mind. I’m aware of their presence, but they’re just out of view. They are half whispered fragments of a conversation; fleeting thoughts and emotions. They’re not specific and tangible. Instead, I just get this vague sense that they are there, and a feeling that I’m not at ease.

If I expanded these further and brought them out of the shadows, I’d probably see phrases like…

“Oh bugger, why me?” … “Everyone’s going to be watching me” … “Is this a test?” … “I’m in a room full of business leaders who will all be thinking they could do this better than me” … “Are they all judging me?” … “Is this just an opportunity for me to look like an idiot?” … “I deliver Leadership Development, so I’m supposed to be good at all this stuff” …

And of course

“How the hell am I going to do this?”    

As I sat there, I actually tried to make out that the ‘Mission Commander’ card belonged to the woman sitting next to me and attempted to give the card to her, but it didn’t work.

For many years, I’ve been helping athletes to control the controllables and focus on the task before them. This swarm of thoughts will not help me to lead the team and complete the mission. My job is not to impress them or be the ‘perfect leader’. My job is to help us to deliver aid to the maximum number of people, safely and within budget.

So, all the eyes turned to me. I paused to draw breath. As I did so, one of the team decided to kick off. “Well, my card says that we need to…”. If I wasn’t careful, this could easily fragment before we’d even started. I piped up.

“It seems that I’ve been given the role of Mission Commander. Just before we get going on the solution, let’s make sure that we all understand the mission in the same way. As I see it, we have to deliver aid to the maximum number of people, safely and within budget. Does anyone have a different view?”. I looked at everyone individually to connect with them visually. I wanted to see whether we had genuine agreement, or silent disagreement. It seemed that everyone was in agreement; looking back and nodding. “It also seems that we have different sets of information on our cards, and that we’re going to have to pool the key elements. I propose that we spend just a couple of minutes reading the information, and then go around the table to pull together the key points. How does that sound?”. There were positive sounding murmurs.

Phew, I had a few moments to read through my card and gather my thoughts. To give myself a little more thinking time, I speed-read my card. In hindsight, this was probably not a composed response. I tend to be hasty when I get uncomfortable, rather than slowing down and taking more time. I sensed that I wasn’t taking in everything on the card. There were still a couple of thoughts competing for my attention. My eyes were looking at the words, but they weren’t really going in and I had to read them again to make any sense of them. I term this phenomenon ‘thought blindness’. It is a symptom of mental overload. I needed to take one thing at a time and make sure I did it well.

Having taken the headlines from my own card, I also started to pull together a skeleton plan to lead the team. We had 50 minutes to complete the exercise. I set the timer on my phone. There was a flip chart and pens behind me. I tend to be quite comfortable facilitating discussions, so grabbed the pen and stood up next to the flipchart. Now things were starting to feel more familiar. I suspect that it is human nature to gravitate towards familiarity when you’re a fair way out of your comfort zone. It felt like I was starting to play to some of my strengths now.

As we began to pool the information, the complexity of the task began to reveal itself. There were a host of variables. I suspected that some of these were going to be significant and some were just ‘noise’.

We know that we need to deliver aid to a war torn region. There are four specific areas that need support. Each of these areas have their own risks, to varying degrees. We’re tasked to deliver aid to the maximum number of people, so need to identify the population of each area. We have a budget to work to and fixed costs for transportation and supplies. We have resources at our disposal, such as aeroplanes and trucks, but these have limitations. For example, they don’t always work. Within each area, there are ‘safe windows’ available, during which an aid drop can be made. In some cases these windows are just 30 minutes. The challenge is that unloading the aid supplies also takes time. Just to spice things up, we need to put aside funds to bribe local officials, in order to gain access to these four areas.  

I’m a pretty simple bloke. My brain seems to get lost in the myriad of complex details, so my natural inclination is to try to simplify all of this. As we began to collate the information on the flipchart it occurred to me that this information fits into various categories. Some of it pertains to the resources that we have and our capacity to deliver. We also have information on the needs of the people and their priority for aid. There are also threats and restrictions, which we need to work within. And finally, of course, there is the cost. Although the information didn’t emerge from the group in a logical fashion, I tried to group it together in these categories on the flipchart to that we could all see it. I’ll be honest, the flipchart was pretty messy, but the key elements were all there.

We have 13 Hercules transport planes, 12 Typhoon fighter jets (to provide protection), 35 trucks to deliver supplies overland. If we want to protect a Hercules, we need two Typhoon jets for each Hercules and the Typhoons can only fly once a day.    

We also have a budget of $9.3 million. As we begin to look at how far this can go, we hear a voice from the back of the room. “Unfortunately, your budget has just been cut by $2 million dollars from the figure stated on your cards… carry on”. Okay, make that $7.3 million.  

As we began to understand the need, the resources and the threats, I asked the team a question. “Okay, the aim is to deliver aid to the maximum number of people, safely and within budget. So, how do we best employ our resources to meet the need, based on these restrictions?”.

After a few minutes discussion, we had a basic outline strategy. We’d managed to create something from nothing. That something was not very detailed and needed a lot more work, but we had something. We had decided to make two drops initially, to the two biggest population areas. One involved an air drop, and the other a ground convoy.

I had noticed during the course of the discussions, that there were certain people that developed natural lines of conversation around specific topic areas. These people shared similar information, or had complementary information. They appeared to be a functional fit for each other. If I looked at this task as a jigsaw puzzle, their pieces seemed to slot together.

“Am I right in thinking that the Typhoon fighter leader, the Hercules leader and Area South Intelligence can work together and plan the first drop in detail; take off times and transit times to hit that safe window, etc?”

“Am I also right in thinking that the Ground Convoy Leader, Area North Intelligence and Political Intelligence can work on the detailed plan for the second drop?”

Again, we had agreement.

“Once you have the basic plan, could you liaise with our Finance Director to cost it out? Knowing that we’re about half way through our 50 minutes, can we pull this all back together in 5 minutes?”

Once again, agreement.

I stood back. My brain whirred back into action.

“Have we missed anything blindingly obvious?” … “Am I doing the things that a great leader would do?” … “Am I committing a whole bunch of school boy errors here?” … “Have I forgotten something crucial?”


“Let’s take a moment to step back and look at the task again. Are we delivering aid to the maximum number of people, safely and within budget?”

As I looked at our strategy, and listened in to the discussions, I began to wonder whether we might have the budget and resources to complete a third aid drop as well. Obviously, if we could, this would help us to deliver to ‘the maximum’ number of people’. I thought that, as we pulled the team back together, this is something that we could explore.

Just as I began to do a quick sense check, the facilitator made an announcement to the team.

“Your Head Quarters has been attacked and your Mission Commander has been assassinated”. He looked at me. “I’m afraid you’re dead so you need to hand your card over to the person you nominated as your number two, as per the instructions that I’m sure you will have read on the card”.

Ah, bugger, I must have missed that bit!


The Debrief

After I’d died, the facilitator asked me to make some notes for the debrief, which we were going to do after the coffee break. I know that, in a Red Arrows debrief, the leader kicks off by acknowledging what they could have done better. So, in the spirit of the occasion, that’s where I began.  

To this day, I have no idea whether my card instructed me to appoint a deputy or not. Perhaps ‘thought blindness’ prevented me from registering those words when I was reading them. As I watched the group work without their Mission Commander, I saw the person that had received my card do exactly the same as I had tried to do; he passed it to someone else. In fact, the role of leader wasn’t really filled at all. The members of the team largely went about the task as they had before. They worked in their pockets and continued to flesh out their plans. Interestingly, the team never pulled the conversations back together. The team did turn the strategy (to deliver two aid drops) into detailed plans and submitted them. They were able to co-operate and co-ordinate without direct leadership.

When we came to the full debrief exercise, the facilitator revealed our score in the game. We’d scored 65%. We’d lost 5% due to an inaccuracy in our plan. The other 30% was lost because we’d missed an opportunity. In order to score 100%, we required to deliver a third aid drop to another region. As it turned out, we had around $2 million in unused budget and we had spare resources available to do it. It illustrated to me that a team is often able to co-ordinate and co-operate without leadership. However, the solutions that it produces may not be optimal. Therefore, missing the instruction to appoint a deputy may well have made the difference between our team scoring 65% on the test, and 95%. 



It was a very interesting and educational experience for me. Given more time and preparation, I would have approached the job of leadership differently. If we had more time during the exercise, I would like to have found out a little more about the team members before we embarked upon the challenge. If I’d have discovered that one of my team was the Managing Director of Honda, I might have appointed him as the deputy… who knows? Perhaps the most profound part of this experience, for me, is the reminder of how it feels to be jolted out of my comfort zone. It reinforced how my mind and emotions work when I find myself in an unfamiliar situation with a challenge in front of me. It also helps me to appreciate what leaders think and feel.

I hope that it has also been helpful for you too.


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