Former Motorsport Director and former Latin America Executive Director of Pirelli

In September of 2009 Paul Hembery stood by the side of the the race track in Singapore and had a thought that was to change the face of Formula 1. He called his CEO at Pirelli and simply said “We should be here”. At this point, Pirelli hadn’t been involved in Formula 1 for 21 years: they had no tyres, no factory and no team. But 7 months after that phone call, in March 2010, Hembery signed the contract with Bernie Ecclestone to become the sole tyre supplier to Formula 1. They had just 9 months to pull together a team, and factory, that could design, prototype, manufacture, supply and be on the track to test in November 2010.

For the toughest of leaders, this could be considered a daunting task, maybe even a foolish endeavour, but Hembery insists that when most people step away from the prospect of failure, he steps forward. He says he is driven by the challenge, and the fear of failing. Seeing a challenge as an opportunity rather than a threat, is a key trait of the Mentally Tough.

He doesn’t like the expression ‘Mentally Tough’, he prefers to be described as a person that won’t give up, won’t be beaten. He has extraordinary self belief, and goes so far as to say he has a gift, that people are in awe of him, and he has a duty to himself to achieve.

So where did Hembery’s attitude and approach to risk, failure, confidence and commitment come from? Interestingly he was adopted at 6 months old, was raised by his adoptive parents and grandmother, and it is she – Nan – that seems to have had a profound impact on his approach to life. Hembery remembers “She was wonderful – she made me feel so special. She told me over and over as I grew up that I was special and so I guess I just accepted that she was right. I lived as if I was special. She had a magic power over me. So now, as a leader, when I’m faced with daunting challenges, I feel confident that I can find a way to deliver”.

His adoption could have sent him either way along continuum of success, as it does for many adopted adults from the 60s (who are now in their 50s); they tend to be either particularly high, or particularly low achievers.

Hembery has an insatiable hunger for solving problems, he enjoys a crisis, he is opinionated and gets bored easily. He enjoys dealing with whatever is thrown at him; he is a great visionary, and is almost clairvoyant in his ability to predict future outcomes.

All these traits of the mentally tough can often cause difficulties for the people around them, and Hembery agrees he isn’t always popular, “I told my team, you might hate me when I am here, but you’ll miss me when I’ve gone. And it turns out I was right. I left Pirelli last year after 30 years of service, and I think they DO miss me!”

So, how does he handle the stress and the pressure of leading a world class team with big, hairy, world class challenges? When he is stressed he goes quiet – checks out of life – maybe has some red wine and listens to music. He is happy in his own company. He is hard on himself, calls himself all sorts of vile names, beats himself up. But he doesn’t stay in a dark place for long. He has learnt to take a deep breath, quickly get gloved up and bound out of the blue corner for the next round.

“I am a big picture person, I don’t get bogged down in the detail – other people can do the detail. I see a crisis and I only need to ask 5 questions to see the way out. So many people get bogged down in the numbers, find comfort in numbers, but I think you miss the big opportunities when you focus so small”.

When asked what was the most impossible task he has faced in his career so far, he is quick to respond. “At Silverstone, 2014, there were 4 tyre blow outs during the F1 race. It was a disaster. The next race was the following weekend and 2500 tyres had to be shipped to Germany in time for the practice session. We had from that Sunday night to Thursday morning to re-design, prototype, manufacture and deliver thousands of tyres. In 15 mins I had the solution, and I knew we could do it. We had an amazing team of people, we made rapid decisions, and we delivered. I will never forget that weekend!”

Although Hembery isn’t shy when it comes to talking about his achievements, he says he still doesn’t feel he has achieved much. He says he thinks he has done, in his words…’OK’. So what advice would he give someone who is struggling to achieve? “When it all goes to shit, let it go. Failure is a transition, it’s not permanent. Your feelings in any situation won’t last forever and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Distractions are great – so move on to the next thing and focus on that”.

Hembery says his approach to life and achievement is thanks to people – his nan, his parents, his teachers, the teams he has built around him and the aspirational company he keeps. Here is a lesson for us all.

Paul Hembery is resilient, confident and committed. His stubbornness and determination are blindingly obvious to see, and feel. He might not like being called mentally tough, but he most certainly is.


If you’re interested in developing your Mental Toughness, get in touch with Penny Mallory at [email protected]