‘This is not a drill’: a real-life crisis leadership story

Written by Dr John Jupp OBE Tuesday 03 August 2021
One engine fails. Your wing starts melting. What are your options? Here are some need-to-know crisis management lessons from an RAF leader
Two RAF pilots walking and talking

There is always a moment at the beginning of a crisis when there is a huge pressure on leaders to do something, everyone looks to you for the way forward. That is the time when leaders must pause for a moment to ensure they understand what this crisis is about. A wrong step at the beginning might be disastrous.

Here is an example:

Art Stacey was the captain on Nimrod aircraft, which was used in the RAF for maritime and other surveillance. Art and his crew were asked to do an air test on one of these aircraft after some maintenance. It was a very much modified version of the aircraft, one of only three in the world – and expensive! The air test was over the sea off Scotland. Shortly after commencing it, one of the engine fire warnings came on. Not that unusual and normally a false alarm, it was a four-engined aircraft anyway. Art was not worried. He and his crew carried out the immediate action drills and turned for home.

Then his rear crew members reported that there was smoke still coming from the affected engine. This was more concerning, and Art discharged all four fire extinguishers into the engine that was on fire. He put out a Mayday call and started an immediate recovery to the nearest airfield, changing his plans again. All of Art’s experience – and he was one of the most experienced Nimrod captains – told him the extinguishers should deal with the situation.

Now, Art and his flight deck crew were very busy doing emergency drills, talking to air traffic control about the emergency, their immediate recovery, the number of people on board and so forth. In the middle of this, one of the junior rear crew members, a sergeant, managed to break into a quiet spot on the intercom and report that the wing was melting, and he could see the wing spar through the flames of the burning engine.

This was extraordinary. Art now had a very difficult decision to make, the nearest runway was maybe 15 minutes away or he could ditch the aircraft in the sea before the wing fell off.  However, no-one had ever ditched a Nimrod before – and the pilot’s notes said that the flight deck crew may have a limited chance of survival.

Art made the decision to ditch and brought the aircraft down perfectly into a calm sea. Everyone survived and was rescued. The aircraft wreckage was also recovered, and it was determined that had Art decided to go for the runway, the wing would have fallen off before he got there. Art’s cool, calm decision-making in a crisis, his ability to take in almost unbelievable information and reassess his decisions was just superb.

Be decisive

You will need to become more decisive, more dictatorial maybe, and people will want this initially. They want to be told what to do. But you need to step away from this mode as soon as you are able or else you will disempower people, they will become disengaged, and frustrations and relationships will worsen. Good leadership is also a major factor in the resilience of others.

Emotional intelligence is important

You must know yourself. Know when you are reaching your limits, when you need help from others. Know how you come across to others and how you are affecting them. The crisis will affect you and you need to retain this skill despite that.  If you start alienating your people, your customers, your suppliers, all will be lost. It is so easy to slip out the wrong statement at the wrong time. If Art had said the wrong thing to his crew about his decisions and plans, they would have lost faith in him. And then what?

Listen to people

Really listen to them. You might not think they have much, if anything, to contribute; after all, you are the expert at your business. But they could just give you the one vital piece of information you need, like Art and his crewman. Yes, you have to be decisive in a crisis, and you will often need to take those decisions with much less data to hand than you would like. You need to be able to re-examine those decisions in the light of fresh data offered.

Lastly, have someone you can confide in

Most leadership can feel lonely; in a crisis it gets much worse. Many leaders confide in their spouses, but don’t load up that person with all your stress in a crisis – that might just be another relationship that won’t survive it! Build a relationship with someone outside your business: this could be your coach but does not have to be. A fellow leader in another business is just as good. They may not be in the same crisis and can give you perspective. They may be in it and you can offer each other mutual support.


For more crisis management lessons, check out the resources on our Covid-19 hub: Leading Through Uncertainty. You can also find help for navigating the potential crises of the return to work phase in our recently launched Better Managers Roadmap.

Dr John Jupp OBE is a former fighter pilot, Squadron Commander and founder of the RAF Leadership Centre. His new book Rise Above – Leadership lessons from the RAF is published by Pearson.

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