Lead Them Like Vettel! – Leadership Lessons from F1 Racing

Can leadership be learned from watching F1 racing? You bet! 

During the F1 Belgian Grand Prix last August, Sebastian Vettel demonstrated superb leadership skills (sans the X-rated language) when just minutes after he had urged the F1 race director Michael Masi to red-flag the qualifying session because of “too much water!” on the  track, another driver, McLaren’s Lando Norris crashed heavily in the torrential conditions at the Eau Rouge curve, one of the most challenging spots in car racing. 

“What the f**k did I say?! What did I say?! Red flag!

So unnecessary!

Is he ok???” – radioed furious Vettel.

For those of you who don’t follow the F1 racing, Sebastian Vettel is one of the most accomplished and experienced drivers, a 4-times world champion. When a driver of Vettel’s experience speaks, especially giving a clear warning, it would be wise to listen. And yet his feedback was ignored and, shortly after, Lando Norris had a horror crash at 180 mph / 280 kmh.

Vettel’s X-rated reaction, so unusual for a man who is very composed and mindful with his words, showed how frustrated he was that his expert feedback was ignored with such dire consequences for his colleague. He composed himself immediately though, showing his world-class leadership skills: he radioed to check if Norris was OK (check facts first) and stopped next to the crashed driver to make sure he was conscious and safe (humanity and safety first), and only then proceeded to the pits. 

It was a gentleman’s gesture, showing great emotional intelligence and leadership under extremely difficult conditions and in an emotionally charged situation where human life was put unnecessarily at risk.

Looking at this incident, two things come to mind:

  1. Leaders should listen to their experts.

This incident is similar to so many other accidents and  disasters which wouldn’t have happened if leaders actually LISTENED to the people they hired for their expertise (the Challenger disaster, the Deepwater Horizon, the Titanic…)

  1. Leaders shouldn’t put economic gains or politics before safety and human life. 

Michael Masi was directly warned by Vettel (twice). He should have stopped the qualification. Instead, he risked the safety of all drivers to keep the race going. 

With the Challenger Space Shuttle, a highly experienced engineer Bob Ebeling did all he could to stop the launch because he knew beyond any doubt (solid engineering data) that cold temperatures overnight — the forecast said 18 degrees F (-8C) — would stiffen the rubber O-ring seals that prevented burning rocket fuel from leaking out of booster joints and the engines would then explode. 

He and oder 4 engineers presented hard data to the executives and pleaded with them to stop the launch. Unfortunately, the NASA executives decided to launch anyway.  The shuttle took off against those engineers’ insistence only to explode in midair 73 seconds after takeoff. Seven astronauts were killed in the accident.

And the Deepwater Horizon? Same thing. The engineers had been warning for weeks that the well was at a risk of blowup and their warnings were ignored. The reason? Pressure to save money and time. In their race to drill the deepest oil well in the Gulf and pump as much oil as possible, BP, the operator of the rig, cut so many corners on safety procedures and equipment that the blowout was just a matter of time. As a result, 11 people were killed and the accident resulted in the largest marine oil spill in history. 

There are many factors impacting the leaders’ listening: ego, politics, company culture, pressure from above, greed, fear, complacency, poor soft skills, arrogance, poor judgement – this list is by far not complete.

Leaders must be aware of these factors and do what they can to mitigate them for themselves.

So how can you as a leader listen better in those moments of difficult decisions when a lot is at stake and you and your team are under pressure?

First and foremost: create psychological safety so that your people know that their feedback is welcome, even if it might be unpopular with their managers. This is fundamental. Psychological safety allows people to speak up and openly challenge wrong or uninformed decisions before  they develop into a proper crisis. It allows people to feel safe when they speak openly because they know that candor is welcome and there are no negative consequences. 

Second: trust your experts when they give you candid feedback or challenge you- they have the know-how that you don’t have. Remember? – they are the experts. By all means, ask them tough questions, ask for a second opinion, double-check their data.

But if the same message comes back (Vettel asked for the red flag twice) respect it and put safety and the wellbeing of your people first.

This is called integrity, and isn’t this what leadership is about?

More for you:

Radical Candor (Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity)” by Kim Scott