Trust and Transparency: A Lesson from the Blue Angels

The degree of trust felt by the members of a leadership team toward one another is often the greatest predictor of whether an organization will be great or merely good.

“Trust might be a greater financial asset than money. Trust is the means, profit is the end. [But] in pursuit of the golden egg, we often sacrifice the goose.”

—Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (Wiley, 1996)

There is an old adage that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone.” But if you really want to make significant, lasting achievements, you need to go as a team.

These days, organizations of all types are facing complex and unpredictable challenges, with high-pressure stakes and low margin for error. Businesses large and small are experiencing unprecedented degrees of turnover, competition, uncertainty, and other types of obstacles to achieving their goals. In this volatile climate, collaboration, creativity, and coordination are more critical than ever before, and solid teamwork is essential to achieve anything of real significance.

The most important element for all high-performance teams is trust. In fact, you can’t have an effective team—or any enduring relationship, for that matter—without it. Trust isn’t an optional “nice to have,” nor is it something that can be delegated to HR. It’s a core value that needs to be cultivated as an essential component of every major strategic initiative the organization undertakes.

The Blue Angels

Nowhere is this principle more evident than in the Blue Angels, where the team members operate in an extreme life-or-death environment. Navy fighter pilots have to apply and undergo a competitive process in order to be considered for the Blue Angels. It is a two-year assignment, during which the pilots travel almost 300 days a year, flying airshows over 35 cities from mid-March to mid-November, six days a week, for 11.5 months every year. When engaged in a flight maneuver, the Blue Angels pilots fly two to three feet apart, at a speed of 300 to 400 miles per hour, at very low altitude. Contrary to common misperception, there are no digital instruments keeping the planes in position—the pilots are flying based on eye-hand coordination, in combination with steely concentration. The assignment pushes the limits of human capability with little margin for error, requiring consummate teamwork and unconditional trust.

The biggest factor in any organization’s success or failure arguably resides with its leadership team. The degree of trust felt by the members of a leadership team toward one another is often the greatest predictor of whether an organization will be great or merely good. This is certainly evident on the Blue Angels. What if your organization’s success depended on your teammates coming to work every day willing to put their lives in your hands, on depending upon you, quite literally, to keep alive? And what if this were true not only in times of extreme crisis, but nearly every day for two years?

What Does It Take to Build Such High Levels of Trust?

Simple: In order to be trusted, the leader needs to demonstrate that he or she is trustworthy. Whether in the air, or on the ground, wingmen typically are asking five questions about their leader—and the answers to these questions will determine their level of trust. These questions can be grouped under the heading of five “C’s” leaders should ask themselves every day:

  1. Character: Do I walk my talk?
  2. Commitment— Does my team believe I’ll be with them when times are rough? And that I am playing to win?
  3. Competence: Am I doing everything I can to constantly improve my skills and stay relevant?
  4. Connection: Does my team believe I understand them? Note: This is different from asking whether the leader believes that he or she understands the team.
  5. Communication: Am I clear, concise, consistent, and direct enough to be understood?

Trust can’t be bought, it can’t be demanded, and it can’t be coerced. It’s a reward that is earned by leaders who demonstrate the five “C’s” on a daily basis.

The Blue Angels may be an extreme example of interdependence, but trust is actually the stuff of which all relationships are composed. Every team or client relationship can be improved with greater trust. And without it, there can be no effective leadership, teamwork, collaboration, or positive outcome. Like fish, which don’t think about water until it’s gone, we don’t think about trust until it’s gone…so when we do think about trust, it is usually in the context of damage control.

In his best-selling book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (The Table Group, 2002), Patrick Lencioni identifies the absence of trust as the fundamental problem with teams that don’t work well together. When trust isn’t present, there is a fear of conflict and honest communication, and even if there is an 800-pound gorilla in the room, no one will talk about it. Without honest communication, there is a lack of commitment and an avoidance of accountability. This leads to team members ducking the responsibility to call their peers out on counterproductive behavior, which results in low standards, and finally an inattention to results, as team members start to focus on personal status and ego rather than the success of the team.

Cultivating Trust from Scratch

What if trust doesn’t already exist in an organization? How can it be cultivated?

The answer can be found in the counterpart to trust: Transparency. In order for all members of an organization to trust their leadership, they need to have some visibility into decisions as they are being made, and into the reasoning behind them. This requires an open two-way dialogue.

In the Blue Angels, there is ritual that helps to build transparency each and every time the team flies a mission: The Debrief. After each and every mission, the team regroups to candidly discuss the details of what happened on that particular mission. If a mistake was made, or if anyone experienced a significant emotional event, it is critical that the team members communicate afterward, acknowledge it, and ensure it won’t happen again. This principle holds true regardless of whether the mistake was made by a wingman or a leader.

Unlike some forms of communication within the military, The Debrief is conducted without regard for hierarchy. There are, however, a few sacred ground rules. The first is that only the people who were involved in the flight can be in the room. The second is that whatever is shared in the room is offered and received in the spirit of betterment. The third is that all team members figuratively “take off” their rank in the room, in order to allow for completely honest communication. And finally, regardless of the content that is shared, each team member concludes with a simple reminder that it is a great honor and privilege to be a part of a team that shares such a high level of commitment to excellence.

This kind of real-time feedback that is mission-critical to building trust within the Blue Angels can be applied to teams within organizations of all types. For fighter pilots, the stakes are life and death—they are operating in such an unforgiving environment, there is no room for compromise. But within corporate environments, the same principles apply. People in the organization need to feel that their leaders value them enough to listen. And as part of this process, leaders need to be able and willing to accept feedback with humility. The truth is not always convenient—in fact, it can be downright painful to hear. But depending on how the leader reacts to the truth, it will either make the organization stronger, or it may be the last time they ever hear it again.

A culture of trust doesn’t just occur on its own, it needs to be carefully cultivated and inherent in every decision and activity. Trust/trustworthiness and transparency must be in the organization’s DNA. Communication is the key—it’s the oil for the high-trust engine. If communication doesn’t happen frequently and effectively, the engine will run rough due to the heat and friction of constant misunderstandings. An organization that places a high priority on transparency and communication will be on the right path to cultivating trust, which is the greatest asset for success in turbulent times.

Tony Mitchell is a successful serial entrepreneur who currently serves as chief evangelist at Waggl, a technology company that crowdsources and distills real-time insights from groups of people. Named after the dance that bees do in a hive to transmit important information quickly, Waggl lives at the intersection of two organizational realities: Companies want an engaged workforce and employees want to be heard. Waggl offers organizations an easy way to listen to many voices at once for the purpose of making them better. Prior to Waggl, Mitchell founded Visual Roads, LLC, and held executive positions at Hearsay Social, Ninth House, and SalesKit Software. He believes that work should be more human and that everyone’s voice matters.

Captain George Dom, USN (Ret) brings more than 30 years of executive leadership experience in high-performance organizations. He is currently founder/president of NFS Advisors, a business aviation consulting firm. Captain Dom’s decorated Navy career included Commander of a Navy Carrier Air Wing on USS JFK; Flight Leader of the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (Blue Angels); Commanding Officer of a front-line strike-fighter squadron; Instructor Pilot at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Topgun); Air Wing Strike Leader during Operation Desert Storm; and Division Chief on the strategic planning staff for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In addition to his work in corporate aviation, Captain Dom founded NFS Leadership Consulting, specializing in keynotes, workshops, and coaching. His mission is to help business leaders and their teams achieve and sustain high performance by following a clear path of precision, accountability, and focused engagement to reach the success they desire in work and life.