Blog — Leadership Development

Formula 1, horse racing and making leadership decisions under pressure

Nigel Girling
Nigel Girling
Head of Professional Qualifications
Formula 1, horse racing and making leadership decisions under pressure

Leadership means making choices under pressure.

If you are or have ever been in a leadership role, you’ll probably remember some of the difficult decisions you’ve had to make and how it sometimes seemed as though whatever you decided to do would turn out to be wrong for someone… We’ve all been there.

Sport perhaps highlights this better than most situations, with so much at stake for those involved.

Here are two examples that might make you very glad not to be the leaders in each of these cases… but also might throw some light on the right way to approach such dilemmas.

Example no. 1: The Formula 1 Season – the final Grand Prix – December 2021

Lewis Hamilton was cruising to a race win and thus his record-breaking 8th world title, taking a lead of almost 12 seconds into the final few laps and with the gap continuing to widen. Suddenly, a crash near the end brought the safety car onto the track. You don’t need to be a F1 expert or afficionado, but what happened next was a controversial and unfathomable leadership decision.

The race director chose to allow some, but not all, cars to overtake the safety car, leaving Max Verstappen immediately behind Lewis Hamilton, when there had been 4 cars between them at the time of the crash. He therefore chose to ‘re-interpret’ the regulations and do something unprecedented. In doing so, he effectively took the championship away from one driver and team and handed it to another, in a single decision made under intense pressure.

The two drivers were level on points coming into this final race. Max Verstappen of Red Bull had pitted to fit new tyres – another decision with massive consequences, as Hamilton’s Mercedes team decided not to do the same – meaning that one car would be much quicker and that there was only going to be one winner in this final-lap ‘shootout’.

It was the opinion of many commentators that the decision to race for one final lap in such circumstances and in artificially adjusted race positions was almost certainly made to satisfy the desire for drama from TV organisations and race sponsors.

This illustrates a classic leadership dilemma – when difficult choices need to be made, which stakeholder takes precedence? For any leader caught between those rocks and hard places, it is remarkably hard to remain impartial and objective. One stakeholder or group is likely to benefit from whichever choice the leader makes – usually at the expense of another.

So who ‘wins’? There can only be one mantra for any leader faced by such a dilemma and for me it comes down to this – “When in doubt, do the right thing“.

Most leaders can see the decision that is ethically, morally and rationally right – but choosing it in the face of intense pressure takes a strong leader and a clear head – and the courage to fight for that ‘right thing’.

Was the right thing the yardstick used by the leaders here?

Example no. 2: The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and the case of Frost vs Dunne

In recent seasons, the rapid rise of female jockeys has brought a significant shift in both the National Hunt and Flat racing world – after a century or more of continuous male dominance.

Some background: Rachael Blackmore, an Irish female jockey who is a principal rider for the Henry De Bromhead stable (which has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, The Queen Mother Champion chase and many other major races) broke through to win the 2021 UK Grand National and Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Bryony Frost has been a multiple winner at the Cheltenham Festival and has also won the King George VI and Tingle Creek championship races – and Holly Doyle won a record 165 races during the 2021 flat racing season. The long male monopoly on race riding and big-race winners (and the financial rewards that follow) has been very clearly and very publicly broken.

But…

The ‘weighing room’ is the place where jockeys prepare before a race. Like many traditionally ‘male’ group environments, a culture of masculinity – sometimes even toxic masculinity – has prevailed for a long, long time – long enough to be considered completely ‘normal’ by those who have spent their working lives there. However, once you inject female jockeys into that environment, there are likely to be some rough edges and culture clashes. This has clearly been the case for Robbie Dunne and Bryony Frost, the two jockeys at the centre of a media storm in recent weeks.

There have been rumours of friction between them for a number of seasons and several incidents between horses ridden by the two jockeys. Whatever the circumstances and detail of the allegations that Dunne abused, verbally assaulted, threatened and bullied Frost, it was very apparent that the views of the Professional Jockeys Association (the jockey’s ‘union’) and BHA (racing’s ruling body) were diametrically opposed.

The case had split the weighing room into those who thought things needed to change and those who were very keen to keep them as they have been for decades. The ruling of the BHA in Frost’s favour and the subsequent banning of Robbie Dunne for 18 months have thus driven a very large wedge between the ruling body and many of the jockeys.

Once again, leaders of both organisations have been caught in a very sticky place. Whichever way they ruled would carry enormous consequences, not only for the individuals concerned, but for their owners, trainers, stable staff and jockeys.

Unlike the F1 example, it appears that the leaders in the BHA have chosen to do what they feel is morally ‘the right thing’, even though the consequences will be huge for them and perhaps for Horse Racing in both its formats. The fall-out may take years and is probably echoed in many other contexts where an all-male and ‘macho’ culture is changing fast.

This is in reality just an aspect of the shifting landscape of inclusion and diversity. Leaders need to champion the transition of the prevailing culture to one which truly embraces difference and welcomes people regardless of background or whichever ‘tribe’ they appear to belong to. That is not the same thing as producing some policies about it to tick a box.

The decisions a Leader makes are symbolic. It demonstrates attitudes, priorities and expectations and it sends out a message to ‘followers’ about the direction of travel. Leaders must be mindful of that when making major decisions. As a leader, its always show time. Everything you do is observed and judged. Make the right call.

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