The UK military’s chief survival instructor shares his views on how to cope during COVID-19

Covid-19 News | Employment & Skills | Interview
John Hudson in the Himalayas

Business Leader recently spoke with John Hudson, the UK military’s chief survival instructor and a former RAF helicopter pilot about his career, the best techniques to cope with lockdown and what it takes to be a leader.

Can you give me an overview of career so far?

I began my career as a pilot in the RAF, which was a great job that I really enjoyed, eventually flying the Puma battlefield support helicopter. Unfortunately though, a routine medical picked up something that meant I couldn’t fly anymore, so after a year out of uniform painting theatre backdrops, I rejoined the RAF as a full-time survival instructor.

Can you expand more on your time as UK military’s chief survival instructor?

Survival training is a fascinating field and something that I’d taken a keen interest in even when I was flying. That puts me in a small minority in the RAF; most aircrew actively avoid the forced camping ‘minus-tent’ world that I now inhabit!

Having done this job for around 20 years I now train the instructors at the UK Military’s Survival School. We teach people how to persevere through the most adverse conditions – jungles, deserts, extreme cold even at sea – by using a simple set of guiding principles that can be remembered when you’re very stressed and applied anywhere.

What lessons did you learn that people can apply in the business world?

A lot of what we teach has been learned by hard-won experience and borne out by success in life or death arenas. The good news is that because we teach foundational mindset practices, this can be brought to bear anywhere. In order to persevere through anything testing, be it a difficult project or barren tundra, we must engender realistic optimism via setting achievable ’stepping stone’ goals en-route to the finish line.

Survival, like many aspects of business life, should never be seen as one big problem; it is a series of small tasks, which when accomplished in the right order give a sense of agency that allows us to persevere towards our ultimate targets.

What tactics can people apply to be their best during the pandemic?

Knowing that our minds are incredibly adaptable to new situations, but that this adaption normally takes days not seconds, will help us to avoid the pitfalls of the planning fallacy. So as we ease out of lockdown, it would be foolish to expect to hit the ground running at the same speed that we were at before, and even more unwise to punish ourselves for not hitting that standard immediately.

We need to appreciate that it will take a gradual change of gears to get up to full speed, and this is true of everyone else in the field – if we attempt to go too fast too soon we could make costly errors.

How can you build mental resilience as a leader?

Lasting mental resilience is born from ‘hardship inoculation’; temporarily experiencing something that feels uncomfortable at the time, like survival training. By enduring that, we have the confidence when it matters to know that we can attempt to push through other hardships, to try a little harder.

We’ve all experienced a type of hardship during the pandemic, so the time is ripe to take the personal lessons learned here and to apply them to the future normal. I’m a huge believer in deliberate practice, where we focus on the bits of our output that we need to improve upon and train those areas up.

What traits are common among leaders?

There’s an old military truism that applies here I think, albeit in Victorian language: “Mission; Men; Self”. A good leader analyses and then prioritises appropriately, communicates the desired endstate to the team clearly, has confidence in their team to allow them to tackle the en-route problems without unnecessarily leaning in, and is fair and consistent in both praise and criticism.

What are your future plans?

I’m still quite into travelling the world and having adventures, but I’m really enjoying sharing my experiences with people outside of the forces too. I’ll be doing more speaking events and festivals that will hopefully allow me to take these strategies outside of the military and help enable a completely different, wider audience. I’m also thinking about writing another book, so it should be a busy few months.

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