For my Broadcast Journalism dissertation, I was tasked with writing a research study regarding the topic theme I had chosen to lead with on my documentary film. I decided to write a study on the teamwork and leadership styles employed by the RAF Red Arrows, which you can read below. The essay is primarily focused on the airborne-side of the team’s dynamics. I’d be appreciative to receive any feedback on this, positive or negative, so I can employ that in future aviation/ defence feature writing.
Teamwork and leadership have been prominent in society for thousands of years, employed from the times of the ancient Egyptians through to today. This study will look at the teamwork and leadership skills employed by a high-risk military team, specifically the Royal Air Force (RAF) Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, and how it differs from traditional hierarchical teamwork and leadership styles. In particular, this study will explore the team’s use of different teamwork styles, along with how this aids and increases team cohesion and thus team performance. This study will also explore the leadership styles needed to successfully lead in a challenging and constantly changing environment, especially when precision and faith in your teammate is key, such as with the Red Arrows.
The Red Arrows are an internationally renowned military formation display team, which is dubbed by many aviation experts and the RAF itself as “one of the world’s premier aerobatic display teams.[i]” In its official description of the team, the RAF states it represents “the speed, agility and precision of the Royal Air Force.[ii]” Effectively its poster boys, its mission is to “assist in recruiting to the Armed Forces, act as ambassadors for the United Kingdom at home and overseas and promote the best of British.[iii]”
Since the team’s formation in 1965, it has performed over 4,900 times in 57 countries and is preparing to embark on its 55th display season, where the team will undertake a tour around North America. In 1980, the Red Arrows were endorsed with the motto “éclat,” a French word which translates to ‘excellence.’ That same year, it transitioned from its former Folland Gnat display aircraft to the BAe Systems Hawk, which it currently operates. Both of these aircraft were designed and built in the UK, showing that the RAF and the team support the British aerospace industry.
The team’s structure consists of nine display pilots, a tour which lasts for three years before the pilots return to regular frontline operations. The pilots are from fast-jet squadrons, having served on frontline combat aircraft, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II or the Panavia Tornado. Also present is a team manager, an RAF officer who holds the rank of Wing Commander; a supervisor (dubbed “Red 10”); who commentates the team’s displays and supervises flight safety during them. These officers are joined by roughly 90 staff members, including engineers and technicians, known as “the Blues” due to their blue flying suits. Ten engineers are selected to form a sub-team named “Circus.” These engineers fly in the Hawk’s passenger seat to airfields where the team stages displays. “Circus” members spend a season working with a designated pilot, servicing and preparing that pilot’s aircraft before and after each flight.
In 55 years, the Red Arrows have become a British pop culture icon. Whether it’s a flypast over Buckingham Palace or a display at a airshow, the team rarely fails to attract and hold the attention of audiences. It has been a focal point of key historical moments that promote the UK and British industry, like the famous flypast with Concorde for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. “The highlight – Concorde flying low with nine RAF Red Arrows Hawk jets streaming red, white and blue smoke over the Palace roof – brought cheers so loud the roar of the engines was barely audible[iv]” (Davies, C: 2002). This demonstrates how the team’s international reception is perceived by the media as representatives of the UK, not just militarily or industrially, but as a national symbol. This is due to it having developed into a more symbolic representation of the country as oppose to just being a military aerobatic team, the US Air Force Thunderbirds have done this similarly in the US.[v]
The Oxford English Dictionary refers to teamwork as “the combined action of a group, especially when effective and efficient.[vi]” Teamwork is valuable in any workplace, but in a military environment it is a strong requirement. Military divisions require teamwork for them to work to their full, effective potential, whether it’s an infantry unit on the frontline or close formation flying in the RAF. “For many people, the RAF Red Arrows are the epitome of effective teamwork: co-ordinated, assured, capable of reaching seemingly unattainable goals[vii]” (Owen, H: 1996). This is shown in the team’s public displays which are performed flawlessly. Some manoeuvres see the nine aircraft flying six feet apart, demonstrating expertise which requires a lot of training, co-ordination and communication, all key elements of teamwork.
The Red Arrows follow the hierarchical structure of a traditional team. “The team is expected to produce a product, deliver a service, or perform a function that the organization has assigned.[viii]” In relative terms, the team are expected to produce a 20-25 minute display, be able to safely demonstrate that in front of the public and carry out the operational goals set for them by the RAF. This teamwork style follows a traditional hierarchical military structure. The highest ranking member of the unit, Wing Commander Andrew Keith, was appointed as the Officer Commanding for the Red Arrows by high ranking members of the RAF. He has “overall responsibility for the Red Arrows and he ensures procedures are followed by the team to allow for safe and efficient flying.[ix]” This appointment follows a traditional military rank structure and inserts a departmental supervisor into the Red Arrows to make sure it is on track to meet its goals in a safe and productive manner, whilst enabling the team to have a high-performance output.
However, the team itself follows the style of a self-directed team, having minimal high ranking officials that lead the overall unit. A self-directed team is “commonly allowed to choose new team members, decide on work assignments, and may be given responsibility for evaluating team members.[x]” Red 1, the team leader (currently Squadron Leader Martin Pert) serves for three years, but must have completed a previous tour with the team. He’s “primarily responsible for all aspects of the display, from running the training programme to choreographing the show. He leads the nine-aircraft aerobatic display.[xi]” He’s also responsible for evaluating and selecting new team members who apply to join the team. Before the selection process, applicants must meet the RAF’s requirements, which includes “a minimum of 1,500 flying hours. They must have completed a frontline tour [and] be assessed as being above average in their flying role.[xii]” Successful applicants are shortlisted to nine pilots, who attend a selection week where they undertake flying tests, an interview and peer-reviewed assessments. Red 1 then selects three new pilots. This process is in line with how a self-directed team is constructed, enabling it to choose its own members through a unique selection process.
A self-directed team enables small units to have full automity to accomplish goals. Freedom of automity grants teams the ability to “establish their own internal goals and work practices,[xiii]” having the ability to empower “teams of employees to independently shape group tasks and processes, generate knowledge and explore innovation can be an effective way to achieve desired outcomes.[xiv]” In the case of the Red Arrows, this freedom of automity enables the team to choose its members, create a training programme that best suits them, critically evaluate themselves and the freedom to choreograph their entire display season. This means the team is accountable for its actions, if it’s displaying poor performance, this will reflect badly in the eyes of the RAF, its media image and its public response will be negative. This independence allows the team to train with little interference by other components of the RAF, which boosts the effectiveness and efficiency of the team.
The core goals of the Red Arrows relies strongly on team cohesion, boosting morale and thus their overall performance. “Those in a high-cohesive group will, therefore, be keen to attend meetings, be satisfied with the group, use “we” rather than “I” in discussions, be cooperative and friendly with each other, and be more effective in achieving the aims they set for themselves.[xv]” This differs to low-cohesive groups as they display common traits such as “absenteeism, the growth of cliques and factions, and a sense of frustration at the lack of attainment.[xvi]” The Red Arrows demonstrate a very high level of cohesion to complete their goals. Team members demonstrate that they have good morale, loyalty, high levels of communication, accountability, respect for peers and teammates, commitment to their goals and are able to give their opinions during decision-making processes.[xvii] Their ability to operate like this is down to the Red Arrows being a military unit, which is expected to have a high-performance output and generate results from its expectations. “Military group cohesion is a special type of cohesion in that typically the group exists as part of a large, long-lived, somewhat isolated, highly regulated, hierarchical organisation from which the group member cannot easily leave or travel about[xviii]” (Siebold, G.L: 2006). This is typical with the majority of military units, however, with the Red Arrows it is different due to their mission statement which revolves around representation. During displays, certain manoeuvres require pilots to fly to six feet of the aircraft next to them. To get that level of precision a lot of training, communication and feedback on each other in debriefs are required, something that negates the traditional hierarchical military structure. The team operate more flexibly in order to reach its goals, whilst maintaining regulations and the organisation set by the RAF. This presents the Red Arrows with a more friendly, less autocratic working environment, which improves team cohesion as it enables input from its members who have an influence the decision-making process, which acknowledges their expertise and boosts group morale.
There are two styles of leadership used within the team, autocratic and democratic. Autocratic leadership is “centred on the boss. In this leadership the leader holds all authority and responsibility… Leaders make decisions on their own without consulting subordinates. They reach decisions, communicate them to subordinates and expect prompt implementation. Autocratic work environment does normally have little or no flexibility.[xix]” During displays and flypasts, Red 1 is more autocratic, leading the team and being used as a reference point for all of the other pilots whilst in formation. He also determines which type display the team will perform. Depending on the weather conditions on the day, Red 1 will decide whether the team perform a full, rolling or flat display.[xx] In an interview published in Country Life, Red 1 between 2015-2017, Squadron Leader David Montenegro detailed how the team operate during a performance. “Our displays are almost scripted, and every manoeuvre is done on my command. It’s about getting the timing right, listening to my voice; there’s a very deliberate cadence.[xxi]” (Montenegro, D: 2016). This demonstrates how the team are lead in a more autocratic manner during performances and that autocratic leadership’s necessary in displays due to the high-risk of the aerobatic manoeuvres being performed. It is imperative that pilots focus on one individual to give commands as to make sure that the display itself is timed to perfection, making the execution of the routine as safe as possible. One mix up or extra command given by other pilots could disrupt this, something which could prove deadly in a life and death environment such as aerobatic displays, especially if multiple aircraft are involved. As seen in the 1988 Ramstein Airshow disaster, a midair collision during the Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori’s display, causing 70 fatalities.[xxii] This form of leadership ensures that the team maintains a level of high discipline during displays, keeping performances safe.
The team also encompasses a more democratic style of leadership, which is seen outside of displays and in pre/post-season training. Democratic leadership is where “subordinates are involved in making decisions. Unlike autocratic, this headship is centred on subordinates’ contributions. The democratic leader holds final responsibility, but he or she is known to delegate authority to other people, who determine work projects.[xxiii]” There are two sub-teams within an Red Arrows display, ‘Enid’ and ‘Gypo.’ At the halfway point of the show, the sub-teams split off, providing different aspects of the display’s second half. “Enid” encompasses Reds 1-5, whereas “Gypo” has the remaining four pilots, including the “Synchro Pair,” who perform the display’s opposition manoeuvres. During training, authority on training the “Synchro Pair” is delegated to Red 6, dubbed “Synchro Leader.”[xxiv] “We begin the training season in small groups and build up to the full formation, but for four months we barely see the Synchro Pair. They share an office and work up their routine, honing the raw flying ability they’ll need[xxv]” (Montenegro, D: 2016). The “Synchro Pair” spend a lot of time working together to execute their routine as the rest of the team focuses more on their own contributions. “Synchro 2 is a second-season pilot who will become Synchro Leader in his third year and be responsible for choosing a partner from the first-year pilots. It would be… wrong for me to become autocratic and make that decision; it must be the Synchro Leader’s choice[xxvi]” (Montenegro, D: 2016). This demonstrates a use of democratic leadership, as Red 1 delegates authority to other members of the group, with his subordinates contributing to the teams final display product and to the future set-up of the team.
In conclusion, the Red Arrows exhibit commonalities with two different teamwork styles, associating themselves as both a traditional and self-directed team. Using relevant modern theories associated with teamwork styles and team cohesion, this study has concluded that the Red Arrows operate differently in comparison to those exhibited by other military teams which follow a more traditional hierarchical structure. It proves how successful the appointment of a small self-directed team can be in providing top quality results in high-risk environments, whilst maintaining an increased performance output, keeping in line with its overall mission. This study has also proved how having a strong team cohesion contributes to any group’s performance, something which is demonstrated by not just the Red Arrows but by any other high-risk teams operating in the world. In terms of the team’s leadership style, obvious changes are noticeable, depending on its scenario. During performances, the leader adopts a more autocratic approach, with the team following Red 1’s strict commands. However, during pre/post-season and winter training, Red 1 adopts a more democratic approach, enabling subordinates to work in small groups in order to perfect their contribution to a final product, as seen with the “Synchro Pair.” In terms of teamwork and leadership styles of high-risk teams, this study concludes that more research has to be done in teams such as the Red Arrows in order to gain a greater understanding of how teams performing in high-risk environments work together to achieve their goals and to explore what other aspects of teamwork and leadership theory can be applied to them.
By Khalem Chapman [18/04/2019]
[iv] Davies, C (2002). “A jubilee sea of red, white and blue”. The Telegraph. 5th June 2002. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1396309/A-jubilee-sea-of-red-white-and-blue.html. Accessed on 19/03/19.
[vi] Oxford English Dictionary (2019), Teamwork, Oxford University Press. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/teamwork. Accessed on 19/03/2019.
[vii] Owen, H (1996, p. rear cover). Creating top flight teams. Kogan Page Limited. London, UK. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=5gA3dl_Fgl4C&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=RAF+Red+Arrows+aerobatic+team+teamwork&ots=UPsNjpqWPQ&sig=zQRdvsa9b_y1PnMcYLz5JimNPZU#v=onepage&q=RAF%20Red%20Arrows%20aerobatic%20team%20teamwork&f=false. Accessed on 19/03/2019.
[viii] Newell, S (updated in 2019). Teams and Teamwork – Traditional Teams. Reference for Business. Available at: https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/management/Str-Ti/Teams-and-Teamwork.html. Accessed on 19/03/2019.
[ix] RAF Red Arrows (2019). Team – Pilots – Wing Commander Andrew Keith RAF. Available at: https://www.raf.mod.uk/display-teams/red-arrows/the-team/. Accessed on 19/03/19.
[x] Newell, S (updated in 2019). Teams and Teamwork – Self-Directed Teams. Reference for Business. Available at: https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/management/Str-Ti/Teams-and-Teamwork.html. Accessed on 19/03/2019.
[xi] RAF Red Arrows (2019). Team – Pilots – Red 1-Team Leader. Available at: https://www.raf.mod.uk/display-teams/red-arrows/the-team/. Accessed on 19/03/19.
[xii] RAF Red Arrows (2019). Team – How to become a pilot. Available at: https://www.raf.mod.uk/display-teams/red-arrows/the-team/. Accessed on 19/03/19.
[xiii] Hess, J (2013). Empowering Autonomous Teams. Ivey Business Journal. Available at: https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/empowering-autonomous-teams/. Accessed on 19/03/19.
[xiv] Hess, J (2013). Empowering Autonomous Teams. Ivey Business Journal. Available at: https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/empowering-autonomous-teams/. Accessed on 19/03/19.
[xv] Oxford Brookes University (2018). Characteristics of a group – 1.7 Coheviseness. Oxford Brookes University. Available at: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/small-group/sgt107.html. Accessed on 21/03/19.
[xvi] Oxford Brookes University (2018). Characteristics of a group – 1.7 Coheviseness. Oxford Brookes University. Available at: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/small-group/sgt107.html. Accessed on 21/03/19.
[xvii] Molnau, D (updated in 2019). High-Performance Teams: Understanding Team Cohesiveness – What is Cohesiveness? ISixSigma. Available at: https://www.isixsigma.com/implementation/teams/high-performance-teams-understanding-team-cohesiveness/. Accessed on 21/03/19.
[xviii] Seibold, G.L (2006). “Chapter 9: Military Group Cohesion” cited in Britt, T.W; Castro, C.A & Adler A.B: “Military Life: The Psychology of Serving in Peace and Combat Military Performance, Volume 1.” Praeger Security International. Page 185. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=MNaym4QmPy8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA185&dq=team+cohesion+military&ots=O_sbFZE4i8&sig=z8QLBGMBDIB2PWkhLJjgjNNGbIk#v=onepage&q=team%20cohesion%20military&f=false. Accessed on 21/03/19.
[xix] Raza, A (2017). 12 Different Types of Leadership Styles – Autocratic Leadership. Wise Toast. Available at: https://wisetoast.com/12-different-types-of-leadership-styles/. Accessed on 25/03/19.
[xx] RAF Red Arrows (2019). Display – Types of display. Royal Air Force. Available at: https://www.raf.mod.uk/display-teams/red-arrows/displays/. Accessed on 25/03/19.
[xxi] Montenegro, D (2016). ‘The Red Arrows leader on respect, trust and the occasional missed heartbeat.’ Interviewed by the Red Bulletin. Cited in Country Life. 28/11/16. Available at: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/luxury/red-arrows-leader-respect-trust-138424. Accessed on 25/03/19.
[xxii] Roblin, S (2017). ‘In 1988, a Horrific Crash Changed Air Shows Forever.’ War is Boring. 25th September 2017. Available at: https://warisboring.com/in-1988-a-horrific-crash-changed-air-shows-forever/. Accessed on 28/03/19.
[xxiii] Raza, A (2017). 12 Different Types of Leadership Styles – Democratic Leadership. Wise Toast. Available at: https://wisetoast.com/12-different-types-of-leadership-styles/. Accessed on 25/03/19.
[xxiv] RAF Red Arrows (2019). Display – Full Display Sequence 2018. Royal Air Force. Available at: https://www.raf.mod.uk/display-teams/red-arrows/displays/. Accessed on 25/03/19.
[xxv] Montenegro, D (2016). ‘The Red Arrows leader on respect, trust and the occasional missed heartbeat.’ Interviewed by the Red Bulletin. Cited in Country Life. 28th November 2016. Available at: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/luxury/red-arrows-leader-respect-trust-138424. Accessed on 25/03/19.
[xxvi] Montenegro, D (2016). ‘The Red Arrows leader on respect, trust and the occasional missed heartbeat.’ Interviewed by the Red Bulletin. Cited in Country Life. 28th November 2016. Available at: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/luxury/red-arrows-leader-respect-trust-138424. Accessed on 25/03/19.