What I learnt as a POW in Iraq

Hilary Wilce meets John Peters, the Gulf War veteran at the helm of the Association of MBAs
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The Independent Online

Everyone knows the new public face of the Association of MBAs. It appeared, bruised and battered, on television screens around the world after John Peters, a Tornado pilot was shot down and captured on the first day of the first Gulf War, in January 1991. Seven weeks of torture and interrogation followed before he was flown home to a media clamour which still not has entirely abated - during the last Gulf War he got more than 50 requests a day to comment on unfolding events.

All of which he knows is the major reason why the Association of MBAs first invited him onto its board and then elected him chairman. "I'm a fairly average bloke. In the higher levels of achievement, which most people in the Association obviously are, I'm very average. I was gobsmacked when they asked me on the board. And did I get elected chairman because of my skills compared to everyone else? Of course not."

But despite being "not much of a one for committees" he clearly intends to be more than just a media-savvy figurehead. "I hope I can help take the Association from where it is now to a better position in the future. I hope I can provide the energy to allow others to feel sufficiently motivated to feel they can do things without restriction." As someone who feels able to "ask the stupid questions" and get everyone back to first principles, he probably can.

So how did this former bomber pilot end up in the rather less adrenalin-fuelled world of management education?

Clearly his war experience was life-changing, although he has never had nightmares or flashbacks, and the report which came out of Iraq earlier this year - that Qusay Hussein had wanted him killed when he was in captivity - leaves him unmoved. "I always thought I was going to die anyway. I was shot down by guns and missiles. Fifty feet above the ground, I ejected. On capture I had 15 soldiers with Kalashnikov machine guns - and these fire 30 bullets every half a second - starting to shoot at me from about 100 yards away, ending up 20 yards away. Bullets were bouncing four or five inches from my head, kicking sand over my back. When I was captured I thought I was going to be raped... So, no, I'm not worried about a report saying someone once wanted to kill me."

But he is noticeably more thoughtful about life, and his own place in it, than most ambitious 42-year-olds in the throes of their career, prone to musing on things such as why the world is keener to reward accountants than artists, and the perverse nature of celebrity. "I feel I've failed. I failed to drop my bombs. I should have done, and I didn't, and I'm famous, and there's something very obscene about that."

Perhaps not surprisingly, by the mid-Nineties, after the best-selling books and the award-winning documentary, he was feeling stale and in need of intellectual stimulation, so he paid his own way through an MBA at Leicester University, and introduced a cultural change programme into the RAF which allowed people to admit mistakes more openly - a programme for which he won the Flight International award for safety and training, and in which the health service has shown an interest.

On leaving the forces, he set up a corporate development company, UPH, specialising in leadership, team-building and communication with the rugby star Rory Underwood and survival specialist Martyn Helliwell, and has become a leading motivational speaker, drawing on his war experiences to talk about finding the courage to handle change and pursue goals. "What you learn as a prisoner of war is that you have to forgive yourself the failures of the past because none of us is perfect, and you have to accept you are in the present. You can have a vision for yourself in the future, but you mustn't bring hope inside yourself because that makes you soft and vulnerable, and you will die."

One of his aims in taking an MBA was to gain "a greater awareness of how things worked" and, having got exactly what he was looking for, is now critical of MBA-bashers, such as the American academic Henry Mintzberg, who say that management isn't a toolkit to be taught, but all about experience with people.

"I mean, look at me. First of all my Gulf War experience introduced me to a whole load of emotions and reflections I'd never had. Then I was speaking on the corporate stage and because of what I was saying, lots of people came up to me with their own emotional stories, and were very open with their thoughts and experience. Has all that made me a better leader and manager? I hope it has. I'm much more intuitive and insightful in an emotional sense as a result. But it was the MBA which gave me the tools to do the job."

His business dealings have left him amazed at how many senior managers in major companies have no awareness of the latest business thinking. "They might not have read a business book for 10 years. They might be a marketing man with no real idea how accounts work. What an MBA does is give you an insight into all these areas and see how they are put together."

His ambitions for the Association of MBAs include wanting to make membership a real benefit for holders and to raise its profile. "If those with MBAs are truly characters at the forefront of business thinking, then an association of those characters should be influential. What I would like to do is to start working more closely with the business leaders we do have, so that we can do more than just be a talking shop. We need to put on large functions that are recognised forums for business discussions, to be far more vocal in promoting higher business education, and to be involved in bringing together and coordinating with other business organisations."

All of which, he says, is not so very different from what he did as a fighter pilot, which was to "think clever, be flexible and solve problems in circumstances which minimise the risk to yourself and maximise the effect of what you are trying to do."