Two years ago today, Formula 1 racing legend Niki Lauda passed away. A lot has happened since then, but we wanted to take this opportunity to look back on Niki’s life and career and to better understand how he was able to achieve elite performance on the track and in business, whilst also creating a meaningful culture of care and trust in his peers. There is much that we can learn in safety from the legacy left behind by Lauda in how we can become better leaders and inspire others to become even better people.
Lauda may be best known as a three time Formula One World Champion, but in truth, he would still be a hero to many even if he had never turned a wheel in a racing car. In this article we want to tell the story of how Niki understood the human elements of risk and reward and was instrumental to ensuring that a proper and thorough investigation was carried out following the crash of one of his own Lauda Air airliners. He understood, better than anyone else at that time the importance of exonerating the pilots, crew and ground staff from blame and how that would lead to a better understanding and emotional closure for the victims families. This kind of felt and visible leadership of Lauda Air and a willingness to collaborate fully with Boeing contributed to making air travel considerably safer today. We can only hope that Boeing are approaching their current crisis in the style that Lauda would have taught them a few decades ago.
To best understand Niki Lauda, we must start with his youth, coming from a relatively wealthy Austrian family big in the world of finance, Niki’s story is not the rags to riches tale that is so often applicable to the world’s top athletes and performers. Many argue that top performers emerge from more challenging backgrounds as the ability to overcome adversity has allowed them to develop the resilience required to reach the top. Certainly, this paradigm would apply to fellow F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, and many other sporting and intellectual greats including golfer Tiger Woods, scientists Albert Einstein and Craig Venter and entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson.
Despite a comfortable and somewhat privileged upbringing, most would forgive the young Lauda for being content with his destiny, joining the finance industry and completing a career that almost anyone else would deem to be successful and desirable. However, he chose to take a path that many in his position would never consider. Realising that a combination of an ability to take risks coupled with a powerful desire to challenge himself and to achieve a goal only accomplishable through dedication, perseverance and hard work.
In the days that Niki had chosen to go racing, motorsport and especially F1 came with the acceptance of high likelihood of serious injury and often death, this was the “norm” in his new world. Tragically, we are reminded once again just a few weeks ago at Spa Francorchamps with the death of Anthoine Hubert that no matter how many safety regulations and devices and procedures are put in place, there is always potential for death to occur when dangerous activities are performed routinely. Many of you would have travelled to this grand prix by air. You have benefitted from the work of Niki Lauda who contributed to changing the way people think about safety in aviation by encouraging a mindset of embracing risk for what it is and finding ways of finding continuous, controllable improvements.
His desire to make the extraordinary, ordinary and to work with an open mind or growth mindset as we might call it today whilst also operating thousands of flights a year is not dissimilar to the kind of safety challenges that Lauda faced as a driver competing in over 170 races. As with Aviation, piloting a Formula 1 car in a safe and effective manner requires expert control of the factors within the drivers control and also a detailed understanding and adaptability to the factors that he cannot.
Lauda joined the Formula 1 grid in 1971 right at the dawn of a new generation of drivers and with the sun setting on the era defined by legends such as Sir Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Greame Hill. He was often underestimated early in his career as he lacked the obvious flamboyance and flair of his great rival James Hunt or the effortless cool of past legends like Sir Jackie. In a similar vein to Alain Prost, Niki’s racing philosophy was derided by many as too calculating and lacking in passion. We now know of course that he had charisma and presence, but chose to express these qualities in different ways and it was this more serious and subdued approach to racing that set him aside from his peers.
To understand Lauda’s perspective on performance, risk and safety, it is important to consider his background in the finance industry and the effect that Sir Jackie Stewart would have had on Niki during his formative years as both an entrepreneur and an elite F1 Driver.
The world of finance is almost entirely about the calculation of risk and using that information to make informed choices which protect against losses whilst also returning consistent gains. Driving in F1 could also be described as a constant calculation of risk. When to overtake, when to pit, whether to push hard and go for the win but risk crashing out of the race. There are many similarities. The key difference is that in F1, the decisions must be made at speeds approaching 300kph and the penalty for miscalculation is significantly more traumatic, at least in the short term! Again we could draw parallels to our world of safety and the constant need to minimise losses with maximum gains.
We might picture the financiers making deliberate, well reasoned, data-led decisions after a period of detailed analysis and due diligence. When Nikki was behind the wheel, he needed to make similarly complex calculations of risk on the fly, in the moment and still have capacity to execute the move. Perhaps the best explanation for how the human brain is able to operate in these two very different ways is the book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by the world famous psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, the father of behavioural economics. Leaders in safety can learn a lot from his research in the areas of decision making, loss aversion and influencing behaviours. Following a similar ethos, Lauda was a master at picking up on signals (or cues) and selecting exactly the right moment to make an overtaking move on a rival, using all of the subtle visual cues presented to him to make a decisive judgement, knowing that miscalculation could result in death, not just for himself but also for others.
In our world of safety there are still many workplace activities that involve risk and as safety professionals, our goal should not be to create a risk or error free environment, for that is not under our control. We should strive to better understand these areas of decision making and seek new ways to look at risk.
Something that set Niki Lauda apart from other drivers of the era was a continuation of a driving philosophy pioneered by Sir Jackie Stewart. Whilst the majority of drivers would approach racing a formula 1 car with a degree of aggression and strength, drivers like Niki and Sir Jackie pioneered a new style of taking care of the car, keeping off the kerbs and always leaving a margin for error. This mentality of “to finish first, first you must finish” should be at the forefront of a leader’s mind in facing the safety challenges in our organisations today. What if we really made decisions based on taking care of people rather than just focussing on the “finish line”?
Often, leaders can feel that safety and business performance are antagonists of each other, with safety regulations slowing down production or progress. However, over the longer term, effective leadership and decision making at all levels can protect a business from potential ruin and help to increase the health, happiness, motivation and sense of value among employees. Businesses that cut corners on safety may see short term increases in speed or profit, but will ultimately be doomed to failure in the longer term.
Another gold nugget that we can learn from Lauda is that, regardless of our performance domain, the most effective way to set organisational culture is through clearly communicated and consistently reinforced values and beliefs. If we have a collective set of values rather than priorities or targets, our colleagues can adopt these values to help shape their behaviour and decision making, even when situations and scenarios continue to change rapidly.
The focus of this article has been to remember Lauda’s remarkable achievements outside of F1 and to identify any learning points for us as safety professionals. Niki’s moral and physical courage and an ability to provoke change in the most competitive of environments were famously tested when he deliberately retired from the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix. Believing that the extreme rain at the circuit presented an unacceptable level of risk, in doing so handing the World Championship to his arch-rival and nemesis James Hunt. A key moment where although the weather conditions were outside of Lauda’s control he was still able to react to the situation and form a behaviour based upon his clearly defined values of if it doesn’t feel right then something should be said and of course done about it.
After leaving F1 in 1985 Lauda’s airline commenced operations. By all accounts, Lauda Air was a big success and one of the finest examples of a sportsman applying the psychological characteristics honed in the sporting arena to business.
In 1991 Lauda Air suffered a tragic disaster in which a Boeing 767-300ER crashed over Thailand, killing all 223 passengers and crew onboard due to the unexpected activation of one of its reverse thrusters mid flight.
Lauda insisted on taking personal charge of the investigation. He met with the victim’s families, promising that he would leave no stone unturned until he found the causes of this incident even if it placed himself and his colleagues at the centre of responsibility. This was a highly unusual step from a CEO of an airline in such a situation and serves to demonstrate his integrity, trust and courage in adversity that Nikki Lauda embodied.
After determining that the reverse thruster activation was the likely cause of the crash, Lauda, a trained airline pilot in his own right, travelled to London to personally conduct simulator flights to determine whether there was anything the pilots could have done to recover from the situation. Lauda then took his findings to Boeing directly, for whom he flew a further 15 simulated runs of the incident to demonstrate that the activation of the reverse thruster whilst in flight was non-recoverable.
Initially, Boeing resisted Niki’s assertions, until in true Lauda fashion, he offered to board a real plane and have the reverse thruster deploy midair and see if Boeing’s own test pilots could recover the situation. This resulted in Boeing issuing a press release that effectively exonerated the Lauda Air pilots and asserted that this fault was not recoverable. Boeing also added a specific safety measure to their planes to prevent such accidents occurring again, directly because of the dedication and persistent pursuit of excellence that has become synonymous with Niki Lauda.
Although Lauda Air never really recovered from the incident and ultimately was acquired by Austrian Airlines in 2000, the story serves to demonstrate how his principles and core beliefs can shape behaviours which exude integrity, transparency and dedication to the prevention of accidents that should be fundamental to all health and safety professionals.
We are glad to have the opportunity to highlight not just one of the greatest achievements of any sportsman outside of their sport, but also one of the most impressive tales of someone who relentlessly pursued a culture of care rather than just compliance with his staff and customers even when the stakes were at their highest. Like Niki, as safety professionals we might not always be perceived to have the personality and charisma of a typical F1 driver, but perhaps we can stand out from the crowd and drive change like he has shown us in just the same way.