John Peters’ bruised and bloodied face was one of the iconic images of the first Gulf war when, together with his Royal Air Force navigator, he was paraded before the media as part of a propaganda stunt by Saddam Hussein to undermine allied morale.
That was 20 years ago. Today the former Tornado pilot is putting the experience to good effect in a totally different environment. This October he is helping to launch an executive MBA programme at Birmingham’s Aston Business School, which he has personally designed.
All business schools try to make their programmes distinctive, at a time when corporate training budgets are under strain. And it has certainly been hard going at Aston to fill the places for what at £24,750 is one of the cheaper MBA programmes on offer.
But enlisting a former prisoner of war to teach would-be business leaders how to cope with uncertainty is a novel way to win recruits. Mr Peters, who is officially the director of performance, is enthusiastic, almost evangelical, in his belief that he has something to offer. Although he has no background as a teacher, he sat an MBA at the University of Leicester while still in the RAF. When he left the services in 2000 he made a living as a motivational speaker.
“I’d had a life experience that was unusual, that was televised, that resonated with the public. People wanted to know what it was like to go to war, to be tortured. From that I started working with corporates. So I learnt their language.”
The current project is the result of a serendipitous connection, he says. He had been invited to speak at Aston in his role as chairman of the Association of MBAs. Aston was so taken with his presentation he was asked if he would be prepared to design an executive MBA – a degree for working executives – for the business school.
James Wright, Aston’s corporate relations director for MBA courses, was strongly in favour of getting Mr Peters on board. “What’s most important for a business is what people do when they don’t know what to do.” That, he says is the leitmotif of Mr Peters’ programme.
Resilience and how to react to pressure in hostile and uncertain environments are key requirements for leadership, whether in a combat situation or in business.
“Are you able to engage people when they’re uncertain and when the problem is messy and when no one knows the answers. That is what separates the very best chief executives – making a difference in an uncertain situation,” Mr Peters says.
Those teaching leadership all read the same books, he adds. “If you go for a conventional management programme you end up with the same results. The whole point of these very innovative programmes is we get you to think differently,”
The Aston programme incorporates many modules found in a conventional MBA but Mr Peters, a fit-looking 51-year-old, has also focused on what he calls the “body, mind and spirit” elements of leadership.
The programme, he insists, will eschew jargon. “If you use business words to describe your vision you will turn people off,” he says. “Martin Luther King did not say: ‘I have a strategy.’ He had a dream.”
Mr Peters talks of the need for agile leaders. As in the military, there is an element of living by your wits. But performance can be hugely improved as a result of training.
“The phrase they use in the air force is flexibility. That’s the key to air power. How to make good and correct decisions, really fast.”
The business environment, he says, is very like war. But he stresses that while the conditions of the marketplace may sometimes resemble a battlefield, good soldiers do not necessarily make good managers and leaders.
“There are some people who are stunning when they go to war. But in peace time they can’t do that subtle thing of winning the political vote within the ministry of defence, for example.”
Good leadership is also about winning the trust of people with whom you may have no direct contact. “The challenge is how to inspire people, how do they make them feel they are led from afar. That is about character, values and integrity,” he says.
Much of the programme’s focus is equipping executives to deal with stress. For this, Mr Peters proposes therapies from meditation to breathing techniques and poetry.
But perhaps the most novel is the use of horses to demonstrate the importance of demeanour and body language in instilling confidence in fellow managers and the workforce.
“You realise the moment you enter the room your body is conveying defensiveness, aggression. The horse mirrors your state back to you. You have to be authentic with a horse. It’s the same in leadership in business.”