Episode 317: Leading from the Jumpseat with Peter Docker

Episode Summary

One of the worst mistakes we can make as leaders is retaining control. Being responsible for the outcome doesn’t mean we must control everything; it’s quite the opposite. The moment we learn to hand over control, we empower ourselves and our teams, and extraordinary opportunities emerge. Leading without thinking of handing over control buys excellent opportunities for the present by selling the future.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We have a fascinating guest with us today. He’s passionate about enabling people to unlock their natural talents. He teaches leadership that’s focused on commitment and the human connection. This approach harnesses the collective wisdom of teams to generate extraordinary outcomes. His commercial and industry experience has been at the most senior levels and sectors across more than 90 countries, including oil and gas construction, mining, pharmaceuticals, banking, television, film, media, manufacturing, and services. And his clients include Google, Four Seasons Hotels, American Express, NBC, Universal, and many more. So, welcome, Peter Docker – is that how we say your last name?  

Peter Docker: It is indeed. Thank you so much, Steve, for having me on your show. What an intro there. Good heavens! I’ve done all those things.  

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this, Peter. And I’d like to give a little bit more background on Peter, and then we’ll jump right into things. Having served for 25 years as a Royal Air Force Senior Officer, Peter has been a Force Commander during combat flying operations and has seen service across the globe. His career has spanned from professional pilot to leading an aviation training and standards organization, teaching postgraduates at the UK’s Defence College to flying the Prime Minister around the world. So, Peter – he’s been around, that’s for sure.  

Peter Docker: Yeah, you could say that. It’s been a wild ride.  

Steve Shallenberger: And we have so much in common because of our family’s affinity for flying. And Rob, of course, was on the advanced team with Air Force One and flew combat missions, and as did Steven. We thank you for your service to trying to help our world be a safer place, Peter.  

Peter Docker: Well, thank you. People thank me for my service, and 99% of them are American – a sad reflection, I think, of my own country that we don’t recognize veterans and service personnel in quite the same way. So, I really appreciate those words. Thank you, Steve.  

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. Well, it’s heartfelt. Peter is also a keynote speaker and facilitator. He does present around the world offering workshops and leadership programs. He’s also worked with Simon Sinek for over seven years and was one of the founding igniters on Simon’s team. He took his years of practical experience to co-author “Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team” with Simon Sinek and David Mead. So, he has so much experience and background, we’re aligned in many ways and delighted to have you here. So, let’s jump right into it. Let’s talk about your background. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you, Peter. 

Peter Docker: Well, Steve, I think you’ve covered quite a bit of my background there – good heavens! As well as my military service, I’ve worked in industry, I’ve run multibillion-dollar programs, I’ve negotiated with the Russians when the Berlin Wall came down – sounds like we need a bit more negotiation right now. And I’ve negotiated with your State Departments on export licensing for all sorts of things. So, wonderful diversity of things I’ve been fortunate enough to experience. But you know what? Over the 93 countries that I’ve been to and counting, the things, Steve, that really has me pause and think is that there’s so much more that brings us together as human beings than keeps us apart. And I think that’s one of the joys I’ve had of experiencing so many different cultures and people across so many countries. But in terms of turning points in my life, I go, actually – good heavens! – I go 40 years ago, when I first went to university to college, and I was halfway through doing a double degree in Electronic Engineering and Computing – subjects, by the way, about which I knew nothing before going to college, but I thought it would give me the opportunity of getting a great job and helping to support my family, who were pretty hard up at the time. But halfway through that course, a turning point happened in my life, and that is, small islands down the South Atlantic called Falkland Islands, which are British territory. It was 1982, and they were invaded by Argentina, who claimed them. And I remember, at the time, it was nothing to do with the politics. I didn’t understand, at the time, the history and the background there. But what really incensed me was the notion that someone was going in imposing their will on others who were unable to help themselves. So, I actually left the university mid-degree to join the Royal Air Force. Because I have some experience of the Air Force, I thought, “Well, by joining the Air Force as a pilot, in the future, I’d be part of a team who could help others in similar situations who could not help themselves.” So, that was a big turning point in my life, and there have been several crossroads since, and it’s been fascinating.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that is wonderful. And to have a purpose, something that really speaks to you from deep within, can have a grand impact on our lives, can’t it?  

Peter Docker: It certainly can. And in my latest book, “Leading From The Jumpseat,” I focus a little bit on that because I go deeper. I talk about “Well, what are those things that are deeply important to you?” I’m not talking about the latest iPhone or car or whatever; the things that are the non-negotiables, deep inside. Well, for many of us, family, for example, is really important. And you’ve mentioned your sons as I’ve mentioned mine. And I remember a couple of years ago, my wife gave me a call, she’d just been involved in a car accident, and I dropped everything to go and support her. And I didn’t know what I was stepping into, I didn’t know what I would find. But all I did know was that I have to go and support it. There was this deep energy inside – “the non-negotiables” – about family that drove me forward. And it made me think when we can connect with other things, which are deeply important to us in our lives – and there might be quite a few things – then that can provide an immense reserve of energy to help us step into the unknown and to overcome the challenges that we face. And I’ve already mentioned the non-negotiables for me. It goes back to that 1982 experience of leaving university to join the Royal Air Force; how I characterize that now as a non-negotiable is something that’s deeply important to me, is mutual respect. And I feel that is so strong inside of me that it’s one of my immovable things. And if I see someone not being respected, then that really fires up that energy. So, yes, it’s all linked to purpose, but there are quite a few things. And when we’re clear on what those non-negotiables are, they can turn into standards. And those can be a fantastic foundation on which we can build our lives, build our work, and lead other people, as well as our own life too. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, I’d like to talk about two things here before we go on to other things. The first one is I’d love to hear about your book, Jumpseat Leadership, and what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. I’ve had the privilege of listening to it and loved it. It’s fantastic. But tell us about it, first of all. And then I’d like to come back to the non-negotiables: How do we identify those? How can we make those relevant headlines or, at least, know what the foundation is? So, let’s start with your book. Tell us about that, why is Jumpseat Leadership different? What is it?  

Peter Docker: The full title of the book gives a little bit of a clue, actually, because the full title is: “Leading From The Jumpseat: How to Create Extraordinary Opportunities by Handing Over Control.” That’s the first clue because often when we think about leadership, it’s about retaining control. But what I’m putting forward here is that, actually, great leadership is about handing over control because when we do that, extraordinary opportunities emerge. And the language, the notion came from a story. Well, it dates back a couple of decades or more now, when I was a Senior Pilot in the Royal Air Force. I was flying big aircraft, passenger jets, about the size of a 737. We carried around about 140-150 people. And I’d just certified a new captain. He’d been a first officer and co-pilot for a while, but I just certified him as a new captain. He’d done a great job flying us into San Francisco. But the following day, he was going to have his own crew and fly us back to Washington Dulles. I was going to be down the back with the passengers just hitching a ride. But he came to me and he asked me to come and sit on the jumpseat for takeoff because San Fran was very busy and he wanted to make sure that we had an extra pair of eyes on the flight deck just for safety reasons. And the jumpseat is a seat on most large aircraft, on the flight deck. When you sat there, you can literally touch the pilots on the shoulder – you’re that close. And so I strapped in, had a great view – Callum, the captain – and he thanked for that. No problems at all. I knew he’d have it covered. And we got clearance to take off with thunder down the runway, and it was all going very well. But just after liftoff, when we were out about 500 feet – still pretty close to the ground – we had an emergency, and Callum, the captain, was wrestling with the controls.  

Peter Docker: Now, what I chose to do in the next two seconds, maybe less, would fundamentally affect whether I and the 140 other people on board would survive or not. Well, here’s the thing, many of us will have ideas, perhaps in our minds, as to what we would do. After all, I was the most experienced pilot on that flight. But actually, all I did was nothing. I sat there in that seat, with my hands in my lap, quite calm, and just allowed Callum to do what he needed to do to ensure our safety. And here’s the thing, if I’d chosen to step in, I had no rights signing him up, signing him off the day before, as a fully certified captain for the safety of that aircraft. What I needed to do in that moment was not to lead, I needed to become a great follower, and for Callum to feel that I had his back. And so this point, the notion of jumpseat leadership, because you know what? At some stage, we all hand over control; if we’re the CEO of a company, we’ll retire; if we’re the leader of a team, we’ll move on to another team; even as a parent, our kids grow up, leave home, and eventually start to lead their own lives. And we take that step back. So, jumpseat leadership is about addressing that inevitability head-on. Because it turns out that if we lead with that intention of handing over control, it creates extraordinary opportunities in the presence. And jumpseat leadership is not about retaining or increasing our own power; it’s about empowering others; it’s about lifting them up so as they are fully equipped, such that when the time is right, they can take control and carry forward those things that are deeply important to us.  

Steve Shallenberger: That may be one of the greatest responsibilities of leadership that we don’t always discuss, which is how do we help others grow, which in turn strengthens our organizations, our teams, our relationships, and our capacity overall. It’s not uncommon for somebody to go down, something to happen – you getting sick or something else. And so as you create this strength within your organization by enabling others, empowering others, it helps everybody. So, I love the idea. Good job, Peter. 

Peter Docker: Thank you.  

Steve Shallenberger: Now, let’s go back to the non-negotiables. This probably gives you the confidence where you can do better in jumpseat leadership. Tell us about that. And how do you identify these so that they’re clear to you and they resonate, you know what they are?  

Peter Docker: Absolutely. So, leading others – I think we do a much better job when we learn how to lead ourselves better. And I think one of the fundamental things around leading ourselves better is understanding ourselves better – understanding what drives us forward. And this links to that conversation of non-negotiables. So, how do we identify those deeply important things, those non-negotiables, as I call them? And the clue is in the choices that we make. I gave the story of the reason I left college halfway through my degree. And that was a choice, that was a crossroads, that was something where there were a lot of people out there who were saying, “Peter, really? You’re going to give up your college degree? What? Now?” There’s always going to be the dissenters, but you feel, “No, I’ve got to take this path. I’ve got to turn left when others are saying, ‘Turn right.’” And so that was one great clue as to what’s deeply important to me, as I mentioned, I articulate that now is mutual respect. But going a little bit further back, why did I choose to go to university and study two subjects for which I had no background educationally whatsoever? And that gave me another clue as to what’s deeply important to me. At the time, my parents had both lost their jobs, were very harder, we didn’t have enough money. It was difficult for them just to put food on the table. And so going to university at the time in the UK, you could go to university, and if you didn’t have much money, the government would pay you. So, financially, it made sense as well. But I wanted to take on subjects where I thought I’d be able to get a really, really well-paid job afterward. And A, I wouldn’t be a burden on anybody else – not at least my parents – but also, I’d be in a position, hopefully, to support them and make sure that they were okay. So, that was another choice, which indicated something that is deeply important to me and non-negotiable, and that is not being a burden on others and being in a position to help others.  

Peter Docker: So, these are two examples. And family is another one, the example I gave of my wife having that car accident, and me dropping everything. And these are all dictated by the choices that we make. So, if we want to discover what our own non-negotiables are, take time to sit down and reflect on those crossroads in your life, where you’ve made decisions, made choices; where perhaps other people around you will say, “Really? Oh, you should do this instead,” or the other detractors. But no, you’re very clear, this is something you have to do. And the energy is so strong that there’s nothing that’s going to dissuade you from that path. This then is starting to nibble away at what those non-negotiables truly are for you. And I think they go deeper than values. We talk a lot about values in life and in business. But in my experience, values aren’t as fixed as we might like to think they are. They’re really not. They can depend on circumstances, on occasion. If you’re racing to get to a business meeting because you’re late, and you get to the parking lot and you see one more space available, and you can see someone else hunting around for a space; you might like to look after other people, generally, but you ignore that other person for the moment and you grab that space. Now, you might feel bad about it because it goes against the value of being courteous to others, but it just shows that, in that moment, that value has flexed a little bit. The deep-down drivers, the non-negotiables – they are as the name suggests – they are non-negotiable, and they will inform our values, they will inform our character that people become to rely on in life, but they are much deeper and more steadfast than those values.  

Steve Shallenberger: Have you found it helpful, Peter, to pause and try to articulate those clearly? Or are they just fuzzy in your mind or a feeling inside? What do you do with them? 

Peter Docker: Here’s the thing, you don’t have to do anything. Why it’s worthwhile doing it is because it helps us when we’re leading in situations where we don’t know the answer, when we’re in the unknown, when we haven’t got a roadmap, when we’ve got nothing to fall back on – those drivers, if we formulate them and turn them into stands – and we can talk about what a stand is in a moment if you like – but put them into stands, then they act as a handrail. When we’ve got nothing else to fall back on, it gives us the guidance we need to make the best possible choices we can as a human being and as a leader of others.  

Steve Shallenberger: I’m glad that you mentioned that. I know, in your book, you talk about that; the difference between position and a stand. Do you mind talking about that? What is the difference? And how is this helpful to you and can be useful in jumpseat leadership?  

Peter Docker: The difference between a position and a stand is one that I find really, really helpful. There’s a street just by where we live in the countryside here in England, and it’s very narrow. And although it’s a two-way street, when two cars meet head-on, one of them has got to go into a passing place so the other one can go by. But quite often what you find is that two people in their cars, they meet fender to fender and they stop, and what happens? They take up a position against one another – a position is always against something. And just like the two cars fender to fender, a position cannot exist unless there’s a counter position. If there was no other car there, that position would not be able to materialize. And the thing with a position is that just like these two cars, fender to fender, not willing to give way, they become more and more entrenched and angers arise. But what if one of those cars, immediately they meet, one of the drivers decides to reverse up to a passing place and let the other guy go past. Two things happen: One, that guy who was starting to get his position against the other driver, that position dissolves because he’s on his way – it no longer exists. But the guy who’s reversed up to the passing place, he’s done so because has a stand. And a stand is for something. And in this example, the driver’s stand is for being courteous on the road. And when he’s let the other guy go past, his stand still exists. In fact, it’s likely strengthened because of the action that he’s taken.  

Peter Docker: So, this is what is really helpful to us in life. When we think of all those things that we have great feelings around, we can often characterize them in the context of a position against something. But it’s much more powerful, it’s much more generative when we couch it in terms of a stand for something because a stand is like having your own island where you plant that flag on that island. And people that are sailing past, they can see what you stand for because they can see your flag. And if they stand for that, too, they can come and join you on your own, and that’s okay. But what’s equally okay is if they don’t believe that they can sail on past, and that really is genuinely okay. So, the reason that stands are so important is because they are often linked to those things that are deeply important to us, our non-negotiables, and so they have that firm foundation. So, in times of crisis or times of uncertainty, we have our stands to fall back on. And because they’re not dependent on anything or anyone else in the world, it’s up to us to build them and to carry them forward. That’s why a stand is so much more valuable than a position.  

Steve Shallenberger: It is so fun visiting with Peter today. And Peter is talking about these powerful principles of leadership that grow and expand and strengthen teams and individuals and bring peace and happiness, right?  

Peter Docker: Absolutely.  

Steve Shallenberger: I love it. Some of the research that I completed. When I started, I had a fairly large, fast-growing company. We went from several hundred employees, when I was 27 and the CEO of this new company, to 700 within a few years. They would come to me and say, “Well, how can I be among the best – the best salesmen, the best leaders, managers?” And I’d share a couple of things, but I knew there was a lot I didn’t know. And of course, in the spirit of what you’re talking about today, I think that may be the greatest part of leadership is helping others be their best. And so I started a research that I thought would take just a few years; Peter, it ended up taking over 40. I interviewed over 175 CEOs around the world on what sets apart high-performing individuals from all the rest. What we discovered is that no one was really perfect. But we saw, over and over, 12 things that they did that created the excellence. For example, they led with a vision, they managed with a plan, they treated people with respect, and lived the golden rule. And these are the things you’re talking about, and I love it because that’s what extraordinary leaders do. They’re doing what you talk about. I’m sitting back really kind of smiling a little bit because these are the very things that I found also observed that you’re talking about; it’s these foundational principles; it’s the non-negotiables, and you take a stand around those things, and that is what gives you your power. So, it’s been so fun hearing you talk about it.  

Peter Docker: Well, Steve, can I pick up on something you said, which I think is really important? You said that when you were 27 years old running this company – and fantastic accomplishment, by the way – you said there was so much that you didn’t know. And I think this is another aspect of jumpseat leadership, which can really give us velocity, and that is becoming comfortable leading when we don’t know the answer. And that is a big challenge for many because the way that we’re brought up in this world is that we go to school, we learn stuff, and we become good at perhaps one or two subjects, and maybe we go off and get an apprenticeship or we go to college and we specialize in those subjects – let’s say, computing, that’s what I was going for – and then we’re hired by a company for those skills. And if we’re really, really good, we get promoted. And then we suddenly stop doing the computer programming, and we’re looking after the people who do the programming, and we don’t get training in that. But the problem then is we are programmed to be the person who has the answer because that’s how we’ve always been rewarded. But if we’re leading a team where we’ve got to be the person who’s got the answer, we become the constriction in the pipe because our team can only accelerate as quickly as we know the answer. So, the opportunity is to become comfortable leading when we don’t know the answer, and turn that from a perceived weakness into a great strength. Because then what we focus on, instead of knowing the answer, we focus on asking the really important questions. We also focus on the context: “Why are we doing this in the first place? What’s important? Where’s our focus?” And then we allow our people, we draw on the collective genius of our team to figure out the answers. Now, when we practice that on a daily basis, in normal times, it means that when something comes along, like we’ve had over the last couple of years, for example, completely unexpected, no one knows the answer; we are already practiced in leading when we don’t know the answer and we’re comfortable in that role. And therefore, our team can continue to progress, and we are no longer that constriction in the pipe.  

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, I love it. What a powerful insight that is, I’m so glad that you took the time to talk about that. There’s one other thing that you talked about, that I observed in the book, that before we’re done, I’d like to touch on today. And that has to do with this perspective of commitment and the role of fear and love and courage, and how do these apply to business and life? 

Peter Docker: So, what I love about this question you just asked is it links in all the things that we’ve spoken about. Everything that we do in life – everything – is driven by one of two things, everything is important: It’s either driven by fear or it’s driven by love. Now, in the business world, people get twitchy when we start talking about love in business. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But first of all, fear. Fear is triggered when we sense our life is in danger. When we step out into the street, there’s a car coming along, we have fear and we jump back and it saves our life, and that’s good. But fear is also triggered when we sense that our livelihood, our status, or our reputation is under threat. And in those circumstances, fear serves us less well, because fear emerges as a view of the world where there’s scarcity, there’s got to be winners and losers – it’s binary – and we’ve got to be the ones that win. It can emerge as anger. It can emerge as the other end of the scale, meekness. But most importantly, it can often emerge as ego. Ego is Greek for “I”. We close down our vision, we look inward at ourselves, rather than outward towards other people on our team and the people that we serve in our business. And that is not good, because people start to fall away from us and the team becomes dysfunctional. The good news is we always have a choice. And that choice is to be guided instead, not by fear, but to see fear as a warning flag. And instead of acting on that fear, we choose instead to source ourselves from a place of love. And in a business context, what love can look like is – well, we have a view of the world of opportunity and possibility rather than scarcity. We see the world where we’re in service of others, rather than just ourselves. And most importantly, instead of ego taking the helm, we allow ourselves to be led by “humble confidence.”  

Peter Docker: And humble confidence, as the name suggests, is made up of two things. First of all, let’s look at the confidence side. Humble confidence is about being very focused and resolute on where you’re going. This is where your stands come in: What you stand for, what you believe in, what you’re committed to, personally and as an organization. Also, being ready to make the decisions when the time comes to make those decisions. But most importantly, as well as knowing our own strengths, it’s the humility piece that comes in. And that humility piece looks like listening to others and getting their input. And that links back to the earlier part of our conversation, Steve, where I was talking about harnessing the collective genius. You cannot harness the collective genius of your team if you’re being driven by ego and fear. You can only do that if you’re being driven by humble confidence; through love for something rather than the fear of something.  

Peter Docker: So, there was one other word in your question, which links love and fear. And that’s courage. Courage can’t exist without fear. But courage can only be sustained by the love for something. So, it takes courage to make that choice of love over fear. But the more that we commit to leading with love and humble confidence, actually, the less courage it seems to take. So, the last part of your question, I’ll just answer very quickly, which is commitment. And if we look in our earlier conversation, where we start off with those non-negotiables; if you’re clear on those, they turn into stands: What do you stand for as a person, as a human being? But then when you put those stands into action, they can become commitments. But all the commitments actually have little to do with other people. A commitment is when you make a promise to yourself – that is the key – a solemn promise to yourself. Steve, you and I could have a contract to deliver something together, and we could sign that contract. But actually, unless I’ve made that promise to myself to deliver, unless you’ve made that promise to yourself to deliver, we can always find a way around the contract. So, commitment is about the promise you make to yourself. And that gives you the confidence to lead with humble confidence and from a place of love, rather than a place of fear.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, this has been so fun being together with Peter today. I’m always amazed at how fast things go. We are right at the end of our interview today. It’s been fun having you. Any final tips you’d like to offer? And then I have one last question: How can people find out about what you’re doing?  

Peter Docker: Well, I’ll pick up on something you mentioned earlier, Steve, which is, go easy on ourselves, we are human beings. And sometimes we won’t always get it right. Certainly, we won’t always get it right in terms of leadership; and give ourselves a break. Rather than the individual data points, what’s most important is our intention. We source ourselves from a place of love rather than fear. And the trend; are we heading in the right direction? So, that’s my leaving tip for today, perhaps. And in order to contact me, you can find me on the internet, on the website, If you want to learn more about “Leading from the Jumpseat”, then the book is available everywhere. And it’s a how-to book, it shows you how to put these ideas into practice. And also, you can find me on LinkedIn and all the other social media places too.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, you can tell from this interview, for all of our listeners, that Peter is an awesome person and it comes through in the book as well. And thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today, your experience. We wish you the best as you’re working on blessing the world for good and helping others realize their fullest potential.  

Peter Docker: Absolutely. It’s been an absolute delight and pleasure. Thank you very much, Steve.  

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. And we wish all of our listeners the very best as you are making a difference in the world. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership wishing you the best today and always. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Peter Docker

Co-Founder, Why Not Un Limited

Royal Air Force Senior Officer, Force Commander, UK’s Defense College Professor

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