Adapt or die?


Earlier this week I had the privilege to meet and hear John Peters for the second time in the past 12 months. This time I was determined to make notes so that I could remember his unique lessons (from captivity) on dealing with surprise and change.

“Prioritize your tasks, so you have the capacity to think”.

Who is John Peters?

On 2nd August 1990, Iraq invaded the oil rich sovereign state of Kuwait. By January 1991 Operation Desert Storm went into full effect. Whilst carrying out a dangerous, low-level, daylight raid on Al Rumaylah South West airbase, John Peter’s Tornado was hit by a Surface to Air Missile forcing him to eject over enemy territory. Shortly after parachuting to the ground, the two men were captured by Saddam Hussein’s forces. What ensued was seven weeks of physical and psychological torture. John’s mistreatment was see in the living room of every household as theimage of his bruised and battered face was repeated shown on Iraqi state television. John emerged from his experience in captivity a stronger, more resilient and more confident individual. And whilst one would not ever welcome such an ordeal, he realises that it was probably the making of him.

The big questions he asked us:

  • How are we evolving? All our qualifications and achievements, all our previous experiences got us here. What are we learning today to take us forward tomorrow?
  • How do we remain relevant in a constantly changing world? What did I learn this week? How did I get better? Did I beat my personal best? How did I challenge myself? What did I do outside of my comfort zone?
  • Can people really trust and believe in us? How do we lead? What tone do we set in our business? Do our people know that we will put your life(style) on the line for them?
  • Do we know what we stand for? How do we behave when no one is looking? What can people expect of us when everything is falling apart?
  • Do we look beyond the walls/situation/struggles? Do we create an overall tone that is characterized by hope? Is our passion contagious?
  • How do we deal with failure? Do we hide, lie, acknowledge, learn and adapt? The fear of failure or looking stupid stops us trying, learning, or evolving.
  • How do we make the firm/team culture so compelling that no one wants to leave?

The most important lessons he shared:

His number one lesson about what to do when you don’t know what to do – “Prioritize your tasks, so you have the capacity to think“.

Even our best plans will not go exactly as intended, so how will you prepare for uncertainty and how will you deal with surprise? The challenges, issues and events we will face in the future cannot be predicted but you can determine how you will deal with them. You can only influence your reaction function, tone and culture.

How fast can you learn and adapt? It’s not the big that eat the small but the fast that eat the slow. The speed at which you can complete the circle of design, deliver, execute, learn, feedback… Redesign, deliver…

If you’re working in teams, share, communicate, admit failures and learn fast. “The reason they separate prisoners of war is to avoid them sharing, and learning.”

If we are really willing to be ‘open’ that’s really powerful. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. How much do we reflect and learn?

Manage your self talk; keep positive and keep your head clear so that you can learn; so that you can adapt. You need to control your emotions through your intellect; to ensure you’re emotions don’t overwhelm you; if you move into fight/flight mode you lose 95% of your cognitive ability.

The culture we set of ‘who we are’ and ‘how we behave’ beats planning and strategy every time. Culture is not what you do, but how you do it, and who you are. To manage culture is to manage energy; we need to know which activities block energy, drain or boost energy.

We may think we are in a team, but are we competing against each other or are we completely competing against the people outside? Where do we want to be on that spectrum? Balancing cooperation, collaboration and competition. Red arrows – members are deeply committed to one another’s personal goals and success.

We are creatures of habit. We instinctively learn how to do stuff at a young age and continue to repeat this until its out of date. We all have a success formula that got us to where we are today; however we are not aware of it, we are not conscious of it and we do not evolve it. If we don’t reflect on it and adapt it, we will become irrelevant and ultimately fail.

Human systems are prone to fail; and we are prone to hide it. Even the smartest amongst us surgeons, fighter pilots, etc all do it. As human beings we don’t like failure. We don’t admit to failure. The key to success is to admit your failures. This is a key differentiator.

Leaders find it hardest to identify and admit mistakes; People tell leaders what they want to hear; the fear of failure or looking stupid stops us trying, learning, or evolving.

Maximum performance is right on the edge of failure. You have to keep your company on the edge, failing fast; at max performance. Right before the point of maximum performance, you need to lead with a new system, create what isn’t there yet. If you’re not transforming your team and business you are not a leader.

Companies need leaders because we need to deal with uncertainty; and because we need people to work beyond their known ability/capacity/expectations. Leadership is an attitude, it is a way of life, it is who you are; it is your character.

EDGE: win before you begin, team learning, how fast can you learn;
EXPLORE: experiment and test to fail fast and adapt;
ENGAGE: commit to the success of others;
ENERGY: manage energy not time.

Accept the brutal reality (facts do not lie);
look Beyond the walls (otherwise I would not have survived);
Choose your future/make a choice (be completely honest with yourself).

Memorable quotes:

“The key to success is not who you know and it’s not what you know; but what do you do with what you know?”

“How fast can you learn & adapt? It’s not the big that eat the small but the fast that eat the slow.”

“It’s easy like ABC: Accept the brutal reality; look Beyond the walls; Choose your future.”

“Will you choose to compete, collaborate or cooperate? There is real power in sharing lessons, admit failures and learn fast.”

“You need to learn how to control your emotions through your intellect; to ensure they don’t overwhelm you. 95% of your cognitive ability is lost in fight-flight mode.”

“Human systems are prone to fail & we are prone to hide our failures. The key to success is to admit & learn from them.”

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