Peter Docker is the author of the new book Leading from the Jumpseat: How to Create Extraordinary Opportunities by Handing Over Control. He also has co-written the book Find Your Why. He served for 25 years in the Royal Air Force, and has worked in a variety of industries including construction, mining, pharmaceuticals, and banking. A keynote speaker and facilitator, he is based in the UK.
Q: You begin your book with an anecdote involving your own role in a potentially dangerous airplane situation that explains the origin of the book's title. Can you say more about that incident?
A: My book’s title, Leading from the Jumpseat, was inspired by an event that happened some years ago now when I was a senior pilot and officer in the Royal Air Force.
I flew large passenger jets – about the size of a 737 – and I had just certified a pilot called Calum to be a fully qualified captain. This meant he would be responsible for the safety and operation of the plane, crew and passengers, flying anywhere in the world.
We had stopped the night in San Francisco and Calum was at the controls to fly us to Washington Dulles. I had planned to be down the back of the aircraft with the other passengers, but Calum had asked me to sit on the jumpseat for the taxi and take-off from San Francisco to help look out for other aircraft during the morning “rush-hour” of departures.
The jumpseat is a seat on the flight deck of most large passenger jets and is immediately behind the captain and copilot’s seats. When seated there it’s possible to touch the pilots on their shoulders, it’s that close. The jumpseat is usually empty, but crew members can sit in there if necessary, such as when they’re hitching a ride home.
All was going well until immediately after take off. At a height of only 500 feet we were faced with an emergency and Calum was suddenly wrestling with the controls. Although I was not in the pilot’s seat, what I chose to do in the moments that followed would affect whether we, and the 140 people on board, survived.
I chose to do nothing.
I sat there calmly, with my hands in my lap. At that moment, I didn’t need to be the leader. I needed to become a great follower – to have Calum feel that I had his back – and allow him to do what he had been trained to do. If I hadn’t had confidence in him to resolve the situation, I would have had no business signing him off the day before as a fully qualified captain.
In life, it’s inevitable that we will hand over control at some stage. As the leader of a team, we will leave and move to another team. As a CEO we will retire. As parents we will watch our kids grow up, leave home and start to lead their own lives. Handing over control is inevitable.
Jumpseat Leadership is all about recognizing this inevitability and leading in such a way that we lift others up so, when the time is right, they can take the lead and carry forward those things we believe are really important.
Jumpseat Leadership is a higher form of leadership since it’s not about increasing or retaining one’s own power; it’s about empowering others. When we lead with this intention, it creates extraordinary opportunities by transforming the capability of our team in a way that serves us during normal times, in crisis, and when faced with the unknown.
Q: What do you see as the importance of control in professional situations--and of handing over that control? And what is the appropriate time to hand over that control?
A: Control is important in professional situations, but often control is retained at too high a level – and focused on the wrong things. The more senior we become, the more we need to be focused on the context of the work we’re engaged in – the reason behind the work our organization does, our vision or mission.
This is what I refer to as the “picture on the puzzle box.” Our people are usually ideally placed to work out how to bring those puzzle pieces together.
If we retain control by always being the one who comes up with the answer, we become the constriction in the pipe – our team only advances as quickly as our own knowledge allows. While it can feel good to be the “go to person” who always has the solutions, it severely limits the velocity of our team’s progress.
The British entrepreneur, Richard Branson, takes this to the next level: “It’s all about finding and hiring people smarter than you. Getting them to join your business. And giving them good work. Then getting out of their way. And trusting them. You have to get out of the way so you can focus on the bigger vision.”
And yet just handing over control to others without equipping them first would be irresponsible.
For example, to certify Calum to fly as a captain without any training would likely have been disastrous. Instead, he had spent years training to become a pilot, then served a long apprenticeship as a copilot on the specific type of aircraft he was flying that day, before receiving around six months of further training and qualification to become a captain.
Our organization had invested in him because we wanted him to be able to lead in that role – so we could have many captains to fly aircraft around the world to the standard we needed.
It’s the same in business: if our company is totally dependent on one individual to lead and deliver what they do, it is exceptionally limiting. Overcoming this dependency is at the heart of the Jumpseat Leadership approach.
In his quote, Branson also points to another vitally important aspect: trust. When we keep the picture on the puzzle box very clear for everyone to see, and then invest in our people by training them and giving them opportunity to grow within that context, trust begins to emerge.
When Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was faced with ditching his US Airways flight into the Hudson River barely six minutes after take-off from LaGuardia Airport, he didn’t know each member of his crew particularly well.
Indeed, it’s not unusual for airline crew members to meet one another scarcely an hour before departure. And yet they have all gone through the same training, committed to the same context of keeping everyone safe, and so the trust is there for them to be able to work as a team when an emergency suddenly occurs.
For Sully and everyone on board the aircraft that day, it all ended well and the incident became known as The Miracle on the Hudson. That would not have happened without trust being present, and the trust would not have been there without training.
As well as training, trust is further enhanced through building relationships. I had known Calum, and his family, for some years before we were faced with that emergency. I’d seen him perform in high-pressure situations before. I knew his character. I knew he was ready to take the lead.
Importantly, Calum knew me, too. In the moment, he knew I would have his back. Significantly, by choosing to invite me to sit in that jumpseat, Calum demonstrated he had confidence in me to not interfere or undermine his leadership – to be a great follower. A question for all leaders is, would you be invited?
Q: In the book, you describe the role that ego plays in various situations. What advice do you have for people dealing with their own, or others’, ego?
A: Everything we do in life that is important to us is driven by Fear or Love.
Fear is valuable when our life is in danger. It helps us jump back and away from an ongoing car when trying to cross the road. But fear is also triggered when we sense our livelihood, status or reputation is under threat – a particular challenge in a business context.
In these circumstances, fear rarely serves us well since it can show up as anger or meekness, or a view of the world dominated by scarcity – a win/lose mentality that says we have to win at the expense of others.
Above all, when we let fear drive us, this is when ego can raise its head, when our focus becomes completely on self and we close down thinking about others. The trouble with ego is that it can become infectious, with those around us allowing their own egos to take the lead too. And that’s when effective teamwork diminishes rapidly.
The good news is, we always have a choice. The choice is to recognize fear as a warning flag and to choose instead to be sourced from love. Love in a business context is about seeing the world as a place of possibility, rather than scarcity; of being in service of others, rather than self; and leading with humble confidence rather than ego.
Humble confidence is when we are resolute on where we’re going as a team or organization (the picture on the box), ready to take the decisions that are needed, but importantly, willing to be curious and listen to the input of others. What links fear and love is courage: courage can’t exist without fear, but it can only be sustained by the love for something.
So, when we feel ego starting to rise inside of us, take a breath and recognize it as a warning flag and the opportunity to choose to be driven by humble confidence instead. We can do this by reconnecting to the picture on the box – the reason we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. When we are truly in service of others, ego will begin to dissolve.
When we see ego arising in others, take a moment to reflect on the fear behind the ego. We then have an opportunity to break the chain and respond with humble confidence. When we do that, humble confidence can become infectious too.
Q: Who do you see as the book's readership, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I believe that everyone is capable of extraordinary things, so anyone who shares that belief would benefit from what’s in this book.
Whether we are starting out in life trying to get clear on what’s really important to us (“Learning to fly”); feeling in flow with our current work and starting to think about raising the bar (“Flying”); just moved into our first management role (“Teaching others to fly”); or at the stage of taking a step back for others to fully take the lead (“Leading from the Jumpseat”), there will be value in the techniques I’ve shared.
What I’ve noticed is that we can be at the stage of Leading from the Jumpseat in one aspect of our life (a CEO of a business), while just Learning to Fly in another (taking up scuba diving or being a parent). Leading from the Jumpseat is all about leading yourself and others, and how to create the extraordinary opportunities that happen when we are able to hand over control.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Writing Leading from the Jumpseat has helped me to really bring into focus everything I’ve learned about leadership over several decades. I’m still practicing the techniques myself and I’m keen to help others adopt them too.
So, as well as the keynotes and workshops I currently deliver, my team and I are working on a Jumpseat Leadership Course for business, together with a companion guide to help companies embed these ideas in their workplace at their own pace.
There will also be a Consider This guide that builds on the “how to” sections of the book in support of those who want to put Leading from the Jumpseat into practice each day.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: As human beings we don’t always get it right. One aspect of Jumpseat Leadership is to give ourselves some grace when we slip-up and wish we could have done better. It’s less about the single events and more about the trend over time. And, above all, seeking to always source our actions from a place of love, rather than fear.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb