The greatest Briton: Sir Geoffrey de Havilland CBE

If the BBC can do it, so can Personnel Today. We want to know which Briton
you rate as the greatest people manager and leader of all time. Personnel Today
has invited 10 leading figures in the field of management to nominate
individuals they believe are the best, and then convince you they are right. To
vote, visit the voting form where you will also find summaries of all 10
The voting closes on Tuesday 4th March 2003.

This week’s nominee is:

Sir Geoffrey de Havilland CBE

By Linda Holbeche, director of research at leading management school Roffey

For me, the words greatest, British and manager do not sit comfortably
together. Perhaps it is not in our national character for the most effective
managers to blow their own trumpets and achieve national status. But there is
one daring pioneer, who showed great commercial and managerial acumen, and
succeeded against the odds – Sir Geoffrey de Havilland.

De Havilland was one of the world’s pioneers of powered flight; a man
considered to be as important to the development of British aviation as the
Wright Brothers were in America. He was born in 1882, the son of a clergyman,
and soon developed an enthusiasm for mechanics that led to many explosive
childhood experiments.

He built and flew his first powered plane in 1910, without plans or
instructions. De Havilland’s love of natural history was also apparent in these
early tests – he would search the field (runway) for larks’ nests to ensure
their protection.

De Havilland tested all his early planes himself, becoming a highly-skilled
pilot. He maintained his love of flying throughout his life, regularly going
for long flights over Europe and Africa, and mixing with the aviation pioneers
such as Amy Johnson and Alan Cobham. But he was more than more than just a
pioneer and test pilot. Supported by a loyal team, but with only a few hundred
pounds for capital, he was responsible for the first and many of the finest
planes to be used in the First World War.

De Havilland created his eponymous company in 1920 and designed and built a
wide range of civil and military aircraft such as the Rapide, the Mosquito
fighter-bomber and the Comet, which was the first jet-powered airliner.

Not only did he have to overcome the typical commercial and management
pressures facing any company today – working hard to develop a supportive board
and adequate finance – but he had to convince sceptical customers of the value
of his planes.

For example, the Air Ministry needed a lightweight fighter-bomber with a
reasonable range for the Second World War. De Havilland’s answer was the
Mosquito, which was built with a wooden frame because of the shortages of metal
during the war effort.

With Air Ministry officials questioning the robustness of the frame, de
Havilland decided to finance the early prototypes himself to prove its worth.
Once in action, the wooden-framed Mosquito substantially advanced Britain’s
airborne capabilities, providing strength, speed and manoeuvrability in

My late mother-in-law, who worked as a tracer (who copied the original
design drawings of aircraft for use by component manufacturers) on the Mosquito
during the war, spoke of the amazing efficiency with which these machines were
produced, as well as the good working conditions in the company’s factories.

An even greater challenge for de Havilland was the development of the Comet,
the first commercial jet airliner in the world. He saw the potential of this
new high-speed form of air travel, especially for long-haul flights. The DH-106
monoplane Comet was initially a fantastic success, carrying passengers at more
than 500mph at an altitude of 33,000 feet.

However, some of the earliest Comets crashed due to problems with metal
fatigue. Among the first casualties was one of de Havilland’s three sons – also
called Geoffrey – who was killed test piloting the aircraft in 1946. In the
wake of the tragedy, de Havilland took the courageous decision to make all details
of the design available to investigators and competitors alike to avoid a

Public confidence in the new technology waned, and this gave US
manufacturers, such as Boeing, the edge they needed to take the lead in
developing aircraft. The rest, as they say, is history. Though confidence in
the Comet took years to recover, the military version still flies today in the
form of the Nimrod surveillance aeroplane.

De Havilland’s company was later merged into the Hawker-Siddeley Group, and
de Havilland himself maintained an active and visionary interest in the
development of air and space travel.

So what can HR learn from Geoffrey de Havilland? Partly, it is the priority he
placed on achieving good conditions and working relations in all his factories.
He gathered great managers around him, including Frank Hearle, who de Havilland
said: "would always listen to complaints and try to see the other man’s
point of view and take steps to remedy problems".

The company, which by 1961 employed 37,000 people, was a pioneer of
sponsored apprenticeships, which gave young people opportunities and provided a
conveyor belt of talent. He also recognised that giving staff complex tasks that
required high degrees of skill could be highly motivating.

But the greatest lesson for our risk-averse era is that the chance of
failure is inseparable from progressive advance. Risks have to be taken if you
are to achieve anything worthwhile.

De Havilland believed that air travel was governed by "one of the few
invariable rules of human behaviour": people will always want to go faster
and that creates problems.

De Havilland had the courage to tackle those ‘problems’ and it paid off. He
dared, and he won, making him the Greatest Briton in Management and Leadership.

De Havilland’s CV

July 1882 – Born in Hazelmere,

October 1910 – First successful flight

1914 – Chief aircraft designer and test pilot for Airco

1920 – Founded De Havilland Aircraft Company

November 1940 – First flight of Mosquito

July 1949 – First flight of the Comet, the world’s first jet

1961 – De Havilland merged with Hawker Siddeley

1965 – De Havilland died

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