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What are the Belbin Team Roles of an elite Fighter Pilot?

What are the Belbin Team Roles of an elite Fighter Pilot?

Sabre's MD Talan Miller interviews Wing Commander and Fighter Pilot Mike "JB" Prior.

I was recently asked during one of our “Leadership DNA” and “Executive Warfare Centre” programmes “what are the best Team Roles for a good Fighter Pilot?”

This prompted me to go directly to the source and pose the question to a Fighter Pilot, and a good one at that, who also happens to be a Sabre leadership facilitator. Wing Commander Mike Prior.

Now who do you have in mind when thinking of a Fighter Pilot?

Is it the Hollywood image of Tom Cruise playing volleyball in Top Gun complete with tight white T Shirt, immaculate hair and Ray Bans, or perhaps something a little more British, like the dashing Lord Flashart from the "Blackadder Goes Forth" series (WOOF)?

Irrespective of the stereotypes, just as in all real world jobs, Fighter pilots do come in all shapes and sizes. There are however some common traits and behaviours that help them succeed at their job. More on that soon.

Now, about our Fighter Pilot Mike. Mike was actually the youngest Pilot Officer to have been given the command of an FA18 Hornet Fighter Jet (a record he still holds), which gave him his military call sign / nickname of “JB”, which is short for Junior Burger, a handle given to him by the much older hands in his first Squardron.

He went on to become a renowned Fighter Pilot, and also a Fighter Pilot Instructor before ultimately rising to the very top level of his profession as a "Fighter Combat Instructor", simply known in their trade as an "FCI" (the Americans refer to them as "Top Guns").

With over 2500 hours of elite military Fighter flying under his belt, along with numerous overseas postings, he certainly knows his stuff (even without Tom Cruise's dress sense or Lord Flasharts handle-bar moustache).

Recently he has even made the news alongside Prince William The Duke of Cambridge. He put The Duke through his paces in a Super Hornet simulator during a Royal Visit to an operational Fighter Squadron where Mike still consults as an elite Instructor.

So in this brief interview format, let's explore with Mike what he thinks the “Top 3 Belbin Team Roles” for a good Fighter Pilot might be.

Talan: “So Mike, sorry, that should be “Wing Commander Mike”, what do you feel are the three Team Role syles most suited to being an elite Fighter Pilot, based on your own experiences not just in the cockpit, but also mission planning rooms, messes and general Squadron environments?

Mike / JB: “Role 1 would be The Shaper. Air Force recruiting and subsequent Pilot's course weeding out processes, still look for the person that has the drive to take on the task knowing that there will be obstacles and challenges thrown at them.

They also need to handle the fact there may be no discernible clear, right, or single answer, but rather situations can involve significant risk, including the personnel risk of being harmed.

Talan: “How about the notorious Shaper weaknesses with all of those strong Shapers floating about?”

Mike / JB: “On the weaknesses, yes it is true that these types are prone to provocation, however it becomes an accepted by-product because, for the most part, the avoidance of the risk of personnel harm will come from someone else protecting your little pink arse.

So the old adage of ”harden up sweetheart!” tends to apply.”

Talan: “When thinking about a second Team Role for a good Fighter Pilot, I recall you speaking to a client group on the dedicated quest, even thirst for knowledge in this field that a young pilot needs to have before making it into a working Squadron.”

Mike / JB: “Yes, with that very thing in mind Role 2 would likley be Specialist, as we are special needs children (laughs), but we need to be.

One of the very things that drives the motivations, and likely also the competitive Shaper behaviour, in the Fighter Pilot world is the knowledge that "not everyone can do this" and that challenge in itself drives not only the system, but the competition within the Squadron to be the best specialists that we can be.

For example becoming an FCI – Fighter Combat Instructor. It is also an unusual environment where everyone around you is a specialist of some form, and so you are on show everyday and being compared to your peers as a specialist.”

Talan: “So Role 3 in this mix must be the warm, caring and flexible Teamworker then Mike?” (laughs).

Mike / JB: “Well it’s funny you should say that Tal as with Role 3 it actually depends on whether you are the "Junior Fighter Pilot" who actually tends to succeed with some Team Worker, because for the first 2 years we want them to listen, learn, be perceptive, working in harmony and to grow. They tend not to have yet developed strong leadership skills and therefore can be a little indecisive and need to be led.

Then you may have the senior "Flight / Mission Lead" fighter pilot who tends to develop some Implementer skills, because their progression relies on them being able to take all of the exposure, ideas, and things they have seen and now act upon and implement them whilst organising the flow and structure for others to carry out the mission.

Then you have the The "Supervisor" Fighter Pilot who tends to have strong Monitor Evaluator, because they need to control the excesses of the more junior fighter pilots with "all thrust ...but no vector" and guide them appropriately, particularly in respect of balancing mission risk assessments.

To do so they need to be able to dispassionately weigh up all courses of action, relate that to the current strategic guidance, and judge accordingly with a level head.

Talan: How does a Monitor Evaluator, who also has some Shaper, handle giving their feedback to young pilots, it must be a little harsh at times?

Mike / JB: It is true that because they have to supervise critically, then they can be seen to be overly critical, but it's for a very good reason.

Like all leadership environments, it’s a subtle blend, an art form and a science, and very importantly knowing which role to play and when".

So there you have it folks.

Next time you are watching Top Gun (or its imminent sequel), or Blackadder Goes Forth, you may do so with the Belbin Team Roles in mind.

If you want to check out some of our best military themed team building and leadership development packages then click through here to our Military Themed Section on the Sabre website.

Aviation "buffs" may also wish to read the excellent article "Team Roles On The Flightdeck" by our very own Dr David Marriott, Director of Belbin Australia and renowned Team Role Expert.

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