Rise Above by John Jupp

The Blurb On The Back:

What can you learn from the RAF to transform your own leadership skills?

The Royal Air Force is a well-oiled machine.  Much of that is down to its unique leadership style where seniority doesn’t automatically imply leader: anyone can be a leader on a mission.  Rise Above unpicks the RAF leadership model to provide a fresh perspective on how to:

– Deploy the shared leadership style to get the best results for your team

– Improve your personal leadership competences to guide your own development and enhance your skills as a leader

– Embrace diversity and inclusion, technology, innovation and adaptability, which have long been a reality for the RAF.

John Jupp combines practical strategies with real-life examples from over 100 years of the RAF, illustrating how leadership works, so you will be better equipped to lead effectively.

Whatever your level, you can lead.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order RISE ABOVE: LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM THE RAF by John Jupp from Amazon UK, or Waterstone’s.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

John Jupp was an RAF Group Captain, set up the RAF Leadership Centre in 2003 and currently works as a leadership consultant.  His book gives an interesting description of the RAF leadership model and how the service evolved, but he fails to convince on how it can be applied outside the RAF (which is a unique entity with a unique structure and mission) and also doesn’t look at where it’s fallen down and what lessons were drawn from that.

I’ve read a number of books on leadership and leadership models over the last few years because as I’ve advanced in my own career, it’s become a subject that I’ve become more interested in.  As a result, I’m always open to reading new material on the subject to see what I can take from it.

Jupp clearly has an in-depth familiarity with the RAF’s leadership model, having experienced it throughout his own career in the service and also having had a role in establishing its current Leadership Center.  As such, I read the book in no doubt of his expertise and he writes with confidence and in a fluid, easy to follow manner.  I particularly appreciated how he draws out the operational issues within the RAF, explaining more technical points where needed and giving context to structures by going back to look at the origins of the service.  Indeed, if you’re someone with an interest in military history, there is quite a bit here that would be of interest to you in terms of understanding the RAF’s roots and development.

Where Jupp falls down is in drawing a direct link between what the RAF does and how you can bring that to bear within your own organisation.  This is largely because the RAF (and all the armed services) are fairly unique in terms of how they’re structured, what their mission is and how they take their personnel.  The big focus in this book is how leadership can be devolved to people regardless of their rank, so that on a particular mission someone who is technically a subordinate, can be in overall control for the purposes of getting something done.  That is an interesting concept, but it does come out of how the RAF is structured and the types of missions that it carries out.  If you work, e.g. for a telecommunications company, the chances of needing to see out an objective that involves someone on the ground taking control over a senior manager is just not going to happen and Jupp fails to come up with any examples of why organisations should confront that.

I was also reading this thinking that if the RAF model is so good, then why isn’t it rolled out to the army or the navy?  Surely there are overlaps and natural synergies of function there that would see it as something worth trying, and this in turn reinforced for me the idea that if the other services don’t see anything worth emulating in the RAF model, then how adaptable is it to the private sector?

The book starts by giving a summary of the RAF, how it came to be established and what it does now before establishing what the RAF leadership model is and how it’s deployed in practice.  Jupp then goes on to look at the context of leadership, looking at the political, technical and financial skill set that good leaders need and how they need to be able to process problems and know when to permit or profit from ambiguity in a particular situation.

Where I did think Jupp makes a good point is when he talks about the need to empower people to step up when needed and one point he keeps coming back to is how good leaders need good followers, i.e. people who are prepared to raise issues when they see them but who are also ready to support leaders when a decision has been made.  I would have actually liked to have seen a bit more made of this in the book because it was the most obvious crossover area to other organisations and I think that there was more that could be said about its application and how, while the RAF structure does create good followers, there are nevertheless lessons that the private sector can take.

Jupp moves on to how to identify leaders, which for me was the least successful chapter in the book.  This was not because I disagreed with his points, e.g. that you should know your people and build trust in your organisation, avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and learn to be politically astute, but because the RAF service tenure and structure means that this is easier to build into the organisation.  For example, you generally join the RAF for a certain number of years and leaders are drawn from those who have worked within it.  Private organisations, however, frequently laterally hire – there’s less scope for internal promotion within multinationals these days and a big focus on graduate recruitment to establish management, with people rarely spending more than 5 years in a given company.  Just seeing an acknowledgement of this and how the RAF model could be adapted to it would have been nice but it gets missed.

In the chapter on strategy and vision, I found Jupp’s comments to be no different to those I’ve seen in other leadership books.  It’s the usual stuff about building good teams, asking questions and dealing with ambiguity in difficult situations and thinking about systems and adaptability.  I did like his focus on integrity as being a key thing in leaders – it’s an old-fashioned notion that’s fallen out of favour but personal integrity is, for me, a key think in a leader because it allows you to place faith in them more easily.  One of the later chapters builds on this and I found it interesting that Jupp talks about the difference between intellectual and emotional intelligence, the need to keep learning and how to keep building and maintaining trust within an organisation.

Jupp’s chapter on leadership in emergencies didn’t contain anything new for me, despite its mention of the COVID crisis.  I felt it could have done with more concrete examples on how you take opportunities that arise and reintroduce strategy later when necessary and how you build resilience.  Equally, his chapter on selection of leaders – with the need for objectivity and education plus learning through practice – held no new insights or information that I could use.  I did find it interesting that Jupp talks about the need for political intelligence but doesn’t go into how this applies at the RAF and it was, again, one of those areas where I wanted to see some development, especially given the impact of cuts over the last 10 years and how (if at all) the RAF has steered them.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book but it just didn’t seem to fulfil its brief in terms of giving information to transform leadership skills.  There is a lot of information about the early leadership of the service and the personalities at play, which I found interesting, but it’s much more silent on leadership after World War II, which I think is a shame.  If you’re interested in how the military does things, then it’s worth checking out but if you’re looking to expand your personal leadership skill set, then I think its appeal is more limited.

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