John Foley (@gladtobehere) is a former lead solo pilot of the Blue Angels and is now a keynote speaker and consultant at John Foley, Inc. He talks with Mark today about how you can use military communication methods and team building in business.
- The Blue Angels and the Navy SEALs have more in common than you think
- The debrief is the single most important element for high performance
- Just being “glad to be here” and having gratitude is so powerful
Listen to this episode to get more insight into the debrief process and why gratitude is so important—especially in the current VUCA landscape.
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Mark: Hey folks, welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. This is Mark Divine your host. Super-stoked to have you here. Thanks for your time, I do not take it for granted. I know that there are a billion things vying for your attention. The fact that you’re listening to this right now is just freaking amazing. So I’m deeply humbled.
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Man, I’m really stoked today to talk to John Foley. Navy teammate from a different discipline. (laughing) He was flying those shiny things around the sky, while I was crawling through the mud and getting screamed at. Bullets flying over my head.
It’s a little bit different, but we both served. And I’m really grateful for his service. John Foley is a former top… I was going to say “Top Gun” – Blue Angel. You’re a Top Gun in the Blue Angels, but you were a marine pilot instructor. Graduate of the us naval academy.
And one thing I’m really interested in learning about – a top 10 carrier pilot. That sounds pretty cool.
John’s now a leadership expert, and he helps companies and teams really find their groove. And bring out their best.
We have a lot in common there as well, because sort of what we do.
Anyways, John, I’m glad you’re here. And I’m glad that you’re glad to be here. Because your t-shirt says it.
John: Hey, Mark. First off, thank you for having me. It’s a real honor. I’ve been following you for so long. You’re making such a great impact on so many people in this world.
And yeah, I’m glad to be here – that’s a saying we actually had on the Blue Angels. I can’t wait to dive into the similarities between the teams and the Blue Angels… and that was one of them. Is to be grateful and earn the right every single day. So, thank you very much.
Mark: Oh, you’re welcome. Yeah, we called that earning our trident every day. It’s part of our SEAL ethos. I mean, it’s a big deal isn’t it. And it’s one that’s often lost on civilian leaders. Like you just have to do the work. Just show up and do the work.
You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, it’s important not to pretend to be perfect, right?
Mark: But just show up and do the work and be grateful that you have the opportunity to lead others. That’s awesome.
John: When I heard… obviously, I know about the SEAL ethos… but when I heard you on one of your earlier podcasts… or actually you break it down in your book… and you were writing about the depth of that. It really resonated to my heart, because that is the same ethos on the Blue Angels.
And every single day, “glad to be here,” what it meant. At the end of our debriefs – and I know you debrief all the time too – we would always end our comments with “glad to be here.” And that could have been the worst flight you ever had. The worst experience you ever had was still, “I’m grateful to be part of this team. I’m grateful to be part of the organization – this purpose larger than itself.”
But here’s the real key, and I just love that you said it – is that we have to earn that every single day. Every single day I was saying, “man, I am grateful and now I got to deliver on my promise to my teammates.”
Mark: Right. And when you screw up, you’re grateful for the screw-up, because you learned how not to do it one more time. We had the word Hooyah as you know, and Hooyah essentially meant a couple things – and different things to different people – but from my perspective…
On the one hand it meant “we’ve got this. We’re going to crush this.” And the key there is “we,” right? There is no “I” in teams – in the SEAL teams, nor in the Blue Angels. Like, “we’ve got this.”
And then Hooyah also meant “yeah, this is awesome. I’m glad to be here.” So, we didn’t use that terminology, but at the end of everyone’s comments at debrief was like “Hooyah.”
John: That’s cool I actually never… the aviator ranks, we didn’t use Hooyah too much. We used “glad to be here,” at least on the blues.
But it’s really cool what you just described. Those two things are very similar in their meaning. So, I learned a lot already.
Mark: (laughing) Well, plenty more where that comes from… but this is about you not me. So let’s kind of go back in time a little bit, and what were some of the influences that led you into the naval academy. And I know you played football there, and had a couple winning seasons…
What was your early childhood life? And who were your mentors and how did you develop into that naval academy warrior/athlete?
John: Well, ironic… I never expected to be at the naval academy – my dad was an army officer. And I loved my dad, man. Mark, I mean he was one of these… he was the picture of what I would call integrity. Instead of trying to define it in words, I just looked at my dad. Character.
I said, “that’s what I want to be.” So honestly, Mark, I wanted to be an army engineer. That’s what he was. I’d play with my little army man. I didn’t even know about the SEALs. But I’m like “that’s what I want to do.”
And then one day he took me to an air show. I’ll never forget this day… I’m 12 years old, we’re in Newport, Rhode Island – because he was going to naval war college, even though he was in army, he went over there – and he took me to an air show.
And Mark, I remember it to this day. I’m looking up in the sky, and I see these six magnificent blue jets. And if you’ve ever been to the show, you can feel it, right? It’s not just the jets. The smoke rolls in the air, you can feel the visceral energy.
And I remember turning to my dad and I said, “dad, man, I’m gonna do that.” And that was a 12-year-old kid.
Now got to be honest with you… man, did I have a lot of obstacles to overcome. I got rejected three times – military didn’t want me. I tried to apply for the air force, because I’m thinking, “well, pilot – join the air force.”
Luckily, they rejected me, because I didn’t realize the Blue Angels were actually navy.
Mark: (laughing) You’re not alone. I was just talking to Geoff – our videographer and a tech genius – and he thought the Blue Angels were air force, too. But air force have the “thunderbirds,” right? That’s their performance unit?
John: Absolutely, yeah. And people always ask is there competition between the blues and thunderbirds. And the first answer is not really, no. We’re all on the same team. It’s going out there and doing the mission. You know that incredibly well.
But is there some? You know, we do want to beat the other guy. Okay, there’s a little bit.
But we also share, we collaborate, right? So the blues and thunderbirds, we get together once a year. They’ll come and visit us, we’ll come and visit them… and we lay it on the table, man. They get to sit in on the briefs and the debriefs. And you’re just raw.
And we’re trying to learn from them, they’re trying to learn from us… but it’s also that real camaraderie, that chemistry bonding. So, love my brothers.
Mark: I love that. Yeah, that reminds me a little bit in the spec ops community – for many years, we kind of did our own thing in the SEALs. And the green beanies did their own thing. And the rangers did their own thing.
And it wasn’t until – gosh – really probably the Iraq war… it started in Afghanistan, but then went into Iraq that we really started working closely together… and sharing sops, and sharing strategies…
And wow, all of us in terms of the competencies of the units have really gotten much better. Because the interoperability and understanding the language and the mindset…
And it’s very different. I’m sure you learned some things about the thunderbirds where you’re like “that’s really cool, but it’s not how we do things.”
John: Dead on.
Mark: Same here. We were like “that’s really cool, but if we tried to do that it would just breach one of our core, fundamental ways that we operate.” And the SEALs are very different in that regard. And we needed to keep that difference alive but learn from each other where appropriate.
John: I love it. And the word that comes to my mind is “culture,” right? There’s a different culture. We may have the same mission, but we may have a different culture.
I know in aviation, at least… I was blown away with the level of the air force preparation mentality…
I mean, we used to joke around because you’re deployed in the navy – you have three jobs – you’re a pilot, but you’re also a ground officer of some sort, maintenance or supply or something…
And the air force had these beautiful sops, incredibly well written out… in fact, we used to joke around – so the inside scoop is in the air force they’ll give you a book that’s about this thick – an operation manual for flying a jet, let’s say – and it tells you everything you can do.
And in the navy, we’ll give you a book it’s about this thin and it just tells you everything you can’t do, and the rest is up to you. It’s called judgement.
Mark: (laughing) I love it. That’s awesome. That’s kind of like the SEALs, yeah, we really rely on the individual operator. And in fact, that reminds me of one of the big differences between SEALs and army. For us army is like the big competitor, whereas you it’s the air force – in that you could be observing – if you were a fly in the wall in a tactical operation center – the leader of the ranger, the special forces platoon is going to be like barking orders or always going to be on the phone saying and guiding from the top.
And in the SEAL toc, the leader is just watching – just watching the screen, right? And he knows that his guys know what to do. And that they have more information than he has. On the ground.
And so unless there’s something going really wrong, or he has a piece of information that is critical, he stays out of the way. Was it that way for you guys?
John: Yeah, this is so cool. I’ve been really looking forward to having this conversation, because the similarities between the SEALs and the Blue Angels as we’re unpacking this, I think are going to become very, very obvious. There’s probably some little unique differences too, which is really cool to unpack too.
But that’s exactly how we did it on our team. So the air force is much more top down, okay? Hierarchical. To change a maneuver in the thunderbirds, they’d have to send that up through the chain of command.
On the Blue Angels, it was just the opposite… we did have a boss and he was a commanding officer, no doubt. He was a post-command commanding officer, so usually like the CEOs of Top Gun – the last three CEOs of the Blue Angels have been prior to that – CEO is a Top Gun, right?
So we joke around, because the Top Gun guys – it’s kind of a little rivalry there – who’s better and what… we say, “well, the Top Gun’s just a training ground for the Blue Angels,” right?
That’s an inside joke. I mean, tactically the Top Gun guys are going to kick anybody’s butt, okay? They are the tactical experts, right?
But anyhow, to get back to what you’re saying, because I think it’s critical – on the Blue Angels, there was the commanding officer and he or she had 51 percent of the vote.
But they never had to use that. I would say in my whole time – three years on the Blue Angels – I only saw that three times.
Because what did we do? We delegated down to the table. And table was the fellow pilots or officers – the junior officers, right? And we were all flat. Not so much as in a normal fighter squadron – there’s some obvious operations officer, tactics officer… on the blues it was a little bit more flat, and we made the operation decisions. And if the boss needed to make an input, he did.
And you can see that in the debriefs that we did.
Mark: Oh, that’s really cool. And we’re not saying that one is better than the other. It really goes down to the culture and also the mission parameters, I think. Not so much between thunderbirds and Blue Angels, because your missions are kind of the same – to put on a performance.
But in the air force – the mission of the air force – mostly dropping bombs, and bomber support, probably. Whereas in the navy – aerial combat and ships – dynamic multi-dimensional warfare at sea when you’re protecting a carrier battle group or something like that. That requires split-second decision-making and deploying the OODA loop both strategically and tactically. And you just cannot do top-down management or leadership in that kind of fast-paced, dynamic environment.
And I’d love to talk about that – the OODA loop – when did you first learn about the OODA loop? And did you guys like train it? Or was it just something you kind of knew about? I mean, were you aware that you were tightening up your loop? And was it something you guys debriefed?
Let’s talk about that. And maybe help the audience understand the criticality of that as a mental construct.
John: Yeah, so the OODA loop mentality – observe, orient, decide, act – that was something that actually was never taught to me, or any of my naval aviators, from a training standpoint.
But it was what we did, right? It’s just built into the system. So absolutely…
Mark: Yeah, I don’t think when Boyd created it, he didn’t… it wasn’t taught then in the air force. He just recognized that this is what’s happening.
Mark: He kind of codified it. And I don’t know if it’s taught today – we teach it now in the SEALs, but… I don’t actually know if the SEALs teach it – I teach it – let’s put it that way.
John: Yeah. No I agree, it was never a formal teaching, but it was informal… that’s how the culture and you learn, right? And I think on the Blue Angels what I learned was a little bit of a different formula that really is the OODA loop. The first thing besides observation, I go with beliefs… I talk about “well, it’s not just vision, but more important to me is what do I believe? What do we believe? What’s limiting us? What’s liberating us?”
So the idea of starting with beliefs even before you get to the preparation, the execution – what do we believe is I think very critical.
And that’s the same thing with the observation. Can you observe with a neutral state of mind? Can you make that happen?
So, I’m happy to unpack it with you, if you want.
Mark: Yeah, let’s continue that. I agree with that because beliefs are backed by biases, right? And also emotional kind of conditioning or shadow. And so two individuals – could be equal rank, equal training, equal experience – are going to perceive something completely differently.
And so you’ve got to understand what’s driving that perception. That’s really interesting. And that’s trainable, but that’s difficult work. That takes time and that’s where the debrief is so important, because you can have another individual say “hey, this is what I saw. What did you see, John?” Because it sure seemed like we were fighting a different fight.
John: Right. Well, and as you were talking about – the two perceptions, that’s valuable. I want to have the other perception, because a) I may have a blind spot. I may not be seeing it correctly; I’m obviously seeing it from my perspective.
And I’ve learned this – not just in flying, but what we get to do now is working around the world with all these other organizations – is this idea of perspective. And how can we not only look at what are we doing, but more importantly – and the debrief 100 percent is the most critical element, that’s the tool that allows us to talk about this. Lay it on the table.
And at the end of the day, it’s not about being right, I just want to get better. That’s all I care about.
Mark: That’s right. Constant growth and learning in the team environment.
Planning and Visualization
Mark: I want to come back to the OODA loop, but this point really needs to be brought out here – the Blue Angels are a team – yeah, you’re a bunch of individuals. And just like in the SEALs those individuals… each one of us was super competent – you put us alone in a bar, standby we’ll hold our own….
John: Hey, what’s the bar down on, um…
John: Yeah, McP’s! I’ve been in that a couple of times. But I realize I’m going into your territory, right? And I love the ethos in McP’s, man.
Mark: Yeah, I’ll have to disclose here that I did put on… we used to have flight suits, we wear them for jumping… and we put we put our little rank insignia with the trident on it, and we would go up to the Top Gun officers club at Miramar, just because that’s where all the girls were going. (laughing)
We didn’t exactly get the right kind of girls at McP’s.
John: (laughing) There was a difference… why do you think that is? Because actually Wednesday night at Miramar – that bar scene that everyone saw on “Top Gun,” that was the real deal.
Mark: That was a real deal. That’s funny.
Yeah, so where I was going with that is the team – the brief and the debrief, right? For me the differences are the brief is where everyone kind of syncs up the hive mind for the vision of what we’re going to do. What’s the vision here?
And that’s when you visualize that one last time the maneuvers and the outcomes you desire. And you talk about what could go wrong. And what you’re going to do when things go wrong.
And the SEALs would use these… nowadays, these elaborate, very visual presentations – lots of video and pictures… is that true for you guys? Did you guys use a lot of imagery and visuals?
John: Well, yeah with technology now it’s changed significantly, right? Google maps and all the satellite stuff we have.
But to reinforce what you just said, I think a lot of people think the brief is about planning. In the Blue Angels, it’s not about planning, okay? That happens prior to.
Mark: Right, the planning’s been done.
John: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. This is that preparation and that focus time. And we actually did visualizations – I don’t know if you’ve seen it – but when I was on the blues, we did a tour called “around the world at speed of sound,” and we can talk about this later – but we went to Moscow in ’92… which was a really cool thing and actually exchanged…
Flying with the Russians. Kubinka air base, right there in Moscow – I just targeted it a couple of years prior. And now I’m sitting there arm in arm with these Russian pilots, I’m jumping in an su-27, mig-29… they’re jumping in my jet.
And it was amazing, Mark. I hope we get back to that, I really do.
But to back to your comment on the brief there, is we would go through a visualization process. And the boss would actually go through the ritual of the maneuvers in the exact tone, in the exact cadence and the rest of us would be close… some guys close their eyes, some guys don’t – it’s whatever you want to do – but you would get into that state of mind of what did it feel like? What’s the g-forces here? What am I going to smell? What am I feeling?
And flying in a three-inch circle on the other jet – this is upside down, trying to get your jet… but that’s how we did it. That’s how we did it through the brief…
Mark: Yeah. That’s incredible.
Yeah, same. We would – I think nowadays they’re probably doing this some more structured format, like you did – but the brief itself served as the tool for all the individual operators to visualize the same thing. And I think this is a key point for leaders, your company or organization has a future mission, right? But sometimes with that mission, not everyone understands the mission, right?
So let’s just assume everyone does understand the mission. There might be different visions for what that looks like. Depending upon the different perspectives of your individuals and your organizations. So if you had an organization – let’s say with an executive team of 15 people – and they’re all visualizing a different outcome for your mission, how’s that going to go?
And so when you brief something… at an annual planning event you would brief the vision for the next three years or five years… whatever your time horizon is… or maybe it’s just the next year.
And you would visualize it. When you’re launching a project, brief the vision, and then talk through the vision in very visual language, or have video and PowerPoint… just pictures.
And so everyone’s getting the same imagery. I think this is critical, very critical.
When I launched my first business – the Coronado brewing company – I deliberately built a brief like that into my business plan. And I had an artist do renditions of the restaurant. Now this is not uncommon, but I did it as much as I possibly could. And I wrote in very visual terms. And I described what the experience was going to be like, and the smells in the kitchen, and the open wood fire pit for the wood-fired pizza. And the bar with the mahogany, and the brass behind it. And sipping that fresh cold IPA…
Man, I tell you what. I raised so much money with that business plan… (laughing)
John: Well, I love that you brought it back to business. And that’s exactly what we were doing in the Blue Angel brief… but, here’s another point. We did that every time. And I think that’s a problem in the civilian world, right? You think if you do it once at the annual kickoff, that’s enough…
No. Every time we went flying… and we’d have to carve out the time. You need to do this as part of the evolution…
And, in fact, if you missed the brief, you didn’t go flying. It was that important.
And the key was – I think – the ritual. So we got into… what I thought was unique about the blues, which was different than an operational squadron – because an operational squadron has a very standard briefing – what’s the objective? What’s the safeties? What’s the contingencies? What’s the admin? You go through this standard checklist.
The blues changed it a little bit. We did that in the beginning very quickly… and then we got into what you just talked about. And I think that’s what’s unique probably about the teams and the blues, is that we did this group centering exercise – we call it visualization – meditation wasn’t a word back then that we used – but we actually were.
But it’s an alignment process, right? And I just remember how powerful that process was.
Now after we got done with that process, and I’d gone through the whole airshow in my head… the execution was easy, right? I had already executed what I knew I needed to do. And – I think the critical part – was that we were visualizing the perfect outcome.
Okay, I was visualizing what was going to work. I sure wasn’t visualizing being off. I could adjust to that, but I’m visualizing what I want to happen…
Mark: Yeah, I agree with that. A couple things you said I’m completely in sync with. We call it – in our company – winning in our mind, before we step foot into the battlefield, from a famous sun tzu quote.
So winning in your mind, is when you have that clarity of outcome. There’s no doubt. And you’ve done it in your mind.
And your body accepts that as a real practice. We now know that from research. The body accepts that at a neurophysiological level.
And in your mind is the only place – like you said, John – that you can have perfect outcomes. You can have a perfect flight in your mind. And you know that you might have a close to a perfect flight in the air, but there’s never perfection.
Like there was never a perfect op. I remember a book called “One Perfect Op,” there’s no perfect op, right? There’s always something that could have been done better or something that goes wrong. And you just adapt on the fly, because you’ve already won it in your mind.
This is such an important point for leaders. And you’re right – it has to be done every day. The practice of winning in your mind is a daily practice, right?
Even when you weren’t flying, I bet you 100 bucks, you were practicing in your mind.
John: Exactly. Well I do it right now, I do what I call my “glad to be here” wake up. So here’s my ritual. Can I share it with you?
Mark: Please do. We love rituals.
John: Okay, so every morning when I wake up – and it is winning in my mind – but I do it this way… I use gratitude as the center point. So I just wake up and I say, “what am I grateful for?”
I did that this morning… I happen to live out in sun valley… the spring is starting to hit… I’m sitting here… one of nice parts about covid is I’m not on the road 100 times a year. I wake up with my wife, I’m so grateful…
The next thing I thought about, is I go back 24 hours – and by the way, this ritual you could do while you’re still lying-in bed, you could do it when you’re working out, whatever…
I go back 24 hours and I just say, “what happened yesterday? Did I have something to be grateful for?” And I think of events or people that happen to be… we just did a virtual event for 5 000 people. I said, “that’s cool.” I was just grateful to have that opportunity…
But here’s the key – is then I go forward in my day, and I start planting seeds. And I think about, “well, what is my day going to look like?”
And Mark, you came up in my brain. I said “I’m gonna get the rare privilege to be with Mark Divine. I mean, this guy is rocking it.” It’s been a while, you and I never connected personally, and I said, “I can’t wait.”
And I put that in my brain. I said I’ve gotta do everything I can to make this his best podcast.” Which is hard to do, because you’ve had some pretty cool podcasts. And I’m going to say, “what can I do to make this best for him?”
And that repetition. I do that every day. I call it my “glad to be here” wake up. Just makes my day better.
Mark: That is awesome. And I gotta share with you that I do something very similar. Wake up with the gratitude, similar. What am I grateful for now, today? How am I going to make this day unbelievable – so I also visualize this podcast…
So we’re co-creating the outcome here. And then I go into – it’s slightly different – I’m big about emotional development, one thing I learned in the SEALs you can be a badass and you can still torch yourself because of the emotional shadow that we drag along and as leaders…
My book that came out the week before the pandemic lockdowns last year, so not many people have heard about it. It’s called “Staring Down the Wolf.” It’s all about overcoming the shadow…
John: I’ve got it, by the way. I’m one of them who was on your pre-sale list.
Mark: Oh cool. Thank you so much, yeah.
So that means my next thing after gratitude is “what can I let go of? What regret? What kind of element that is just icky that’s percolating in my life either today, this morning or yesterday.
And this is like the great regret eradication machine. It’s just letting things go and forgiving yourself… or if you think you’re the one that was harmed by someone else, forgive that other person, because life is just too short.
Those two practices then set the foundation for me to win in my mind. Because I’m super-charged up positively, I’ve let go of any regret that could be holding me back or could inject some negative energy into my life today.
And then I dirt-dive the day. Just like we did in the SEAL teams.
That’s cool. So good for you.
John: Hey thanks for sharing that. I’m going to incorporate that starting tomorrow. I love that.
Mark: Hooyah. No charge.
Mark: So back to this elite team like the Blue Angels, you do this process of a brief and it’s a daily practice of preparing the mind as an individual and as a team. I just want to hammer that point home.
Now the team is in sync. You’ve got a shared vision for how the whole team is supposed to function and operate, and how your individual role fits within that. Hugely important, right?
And then you go execute, and like you said – execution if you operate this way, is actually kind of easy. It should be fun. Because you’re not in your head planning the next future move. And you’re not obsessing over what what’s going wrong all the time… you’re just present. So execution is all about just maintaining a mindset of presence and real-time OODA looping.
What’s going on? How can I orient to this? What’s the new decision? Micro-goal it, and then act. And then just do that over and over and over again.
So when you train that, that actually becomes easy. But then the debrief, the other bookend… we’ve already talked a little bit about it, but this is also about the team and the individual – but again – you can’t really separate that. And you can’t separate the leader from the team.
So that debrief to me is critical as a bookend to the brief, because that’s where the learning comes in. And that’s where you SEAL everything in, right? I can’t even imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have the debrief in the SEALs. Because every op everyone just starts this is kind of common even in sports teams that don’t debrief, quite a few don’t.
They’re just done and everyone kind of goes to their locker. Just take care of your own gear and you’re off to the races.
And what we did is we came together as soon as we were done. And before anybody cleaned any gear or took care of anything, we all came together. And we often stayed standing, and everybody spoke – it’s kind of like you had a talking stick – although we didn’t. Everyone was supposed to be heard from. You couldn’t hide behind “oh, I got nothing to say.”
No. If you don’t say something, we’re going to say something for you, right? So you got to say something.
And basically, it’s what went well – from my perspective. What didn’t go well – from my perspective, and what did I learn? And what how do I think we can improve as a team? And so you just end up becoming a learning machine this way, don’t you?
John: Yeah, yeah. We were very similar. I’ll go through the process here real quick… but I’m curious… who started the debrief? Who went first?
Mark: Generally? That’s a really good question… I think it was often if not always, the senior enlisted. Because he had the most perspective and so he would kind of like deliver his perspective. And then either I went last, or I would go second. Sometimes we changed it up. A lot of times, it just depended on how we kind of organized when we came together. And so we just go around in a circle.
We didn’t go by rank or that kind of position.
John: Yeah, so here’s what we did on the blues. And you’ll see why I was looking forward to pick out the similarities. So absolutely, want to just stamp that the debrief is the single most important element of high performance. That’s the learning element. That’s where we did it.
I like to add, it’s a “glad to be here” debrief… and I’ll share with you what that means on the blues. Because it wasn’t part of the normal operation navy or when we were aviators. It was unique to the blues and made a big difference.
But we would do exactly the same thing; you execute – I think the key to execution is high trust contracts – so I remember being airborne and adapting – we used to say you can brief the perfect flight – and we did that. And the minute you get airborne, things change. And we knew that.
I know it’s the same in your world. So I’m used to change… I’m actually looking forward to it. That’s normal, right? Okay, let’s adapt to it.
But the key was on the debrief. So to get back into that, what we would do – and the same thing on the in the tactical side of the navy – land your jet on the carrier, you would go right down into operation civic and debrief the major ops. And then you go and you’re doing a debrief.
On the blues it was unique, because we were out in front of the crowd. So when we got done with the jets, we’d march down – and by the way Mark we can’t march with crap… naval aviators can’t march
Mark: (laughing) Neither can navy SEALs.
John: And so we would march that would work on that – we’d even debrief the march – but we would go and first we hit the water wagon, because you’re really thirsty. You lose about – no kidding – six pounds of sweat in about 45 minutes. Yeah, I mean I’d come out drenched, right? And it’s not just from the g-forces, which were tremendous – it was the mental focus. It’s the concentration.
So anyhow go to water, I’d get a water and we’d have a quick debrief with our maintenance troops. Right away. Okay, is the jet broke or not? Up or down, we used to call it. And boom.
But then we would go to the crowd line. And this was only when you were the blue and it was so cool, Mark, because you’d go to a crowd line, and you get a chance to meet the kids. And that’s why we’re there, the Blue Angels only exist because we’re there to inspire greatness in kids. And hopes and dreams
And so I’ll never forget… that always grounded me. Because you could have had a really terrible flight… you could have been really intense, and you go there, and you see this little girl. And all she wants is smiles, and you see the look in her eyes. And you get to hold her in your arms. I mean, I got pictures of me with Russian kids…
And it’s just so cool.
Mark: (laughing) And they don’t know you screwed up. They think it was perfect. They’re like “that was amazing! How’d he do that?”
John: Exactly. But in the back of your mind, you’re going, “man, I got a debrief to do here in a little bit. And I’m going to get hammered.” Not “I’m going to get hammered,” “I’m going to hammer myself.” That’s the big difference, right?
And so then we’d go into the debrief room. And of course we had it scheduled. And they had a sign on these… would be an air op or something… “Blue Angels only.” And I don’t care if you’re a three-star general, you’re not walking in that room.
It was cool, because it was our sanctuary, right? So we walk in the sanctuary and then guys get pretty serious. And we used to have the whole plan was on the back of a picture. Because the overview of the site, right?
And we would start to write notes. And the notes were first off safeties… the safety was anything that was out of parameters that you had to… and you’re going to expose that first. You’re not waiting for a teammate to point out a safety. And everyone gets a chance.
Mark: A safety for your flight or your equipment?
John: Yes. For you. So let’s say I was supposed to be in formation, I got too deep, and I didn’t clear. Because if you get out of position, you’re supposed to clear the formation. Which means go away for about six feet, and then come back in. And if you didn’t do that, that’s a safety. Because you broke a standard operating procedure. So you have to say it.
And anyhow, what we would start with, Mark, is… the boss on the blues always started first… and I agree with you, in leadership, there’s times when you don’t want to do that. As a leader, you want to go last because you don’t want to influence unduly what’s going on in there.
But on our team, the boss would start and then we just go around the table. And we just went in order – so, we all had numbers. We didn’t have names anymore – it was one, two, three, four, five, six, right? And you just go around in order.
And everyone started with the general safe comment, which was very interesting. We wanted to hear what people felt – it was not about facts first. What I wanted to know is “what do you think about the evolution? Did you think it was good or bad? Are you happy or sad?
I mean, just let me know what you think. And then if there were any safeties, so something out of parameters. So these comments went quickly – we call them general safe – usually less than a minute for each person and we went around the room. And it wasn’t just the pilots.
Everyone – all the support officers – everybody in that room spoke. And then once you got the general safe out of the way – which is very powerful, because it grounds the whole thing – then we’d go into a very specific debrief. And we used the video, we used pictures and we would break down every maneuver into minute details…
But that only came after the general safe. Which was fairly unique – at least in aviation.
Mark: How long did it take you to do the debriefing?
John: Yeah, it was always twice as long as the brief – usually an hour and a half minimum – and that’s if everything went well. And most of the times it doesn’t. You’ve always got something to improve on. So we would budget about two hours for the debrief.
Glad to be here
Mark: What was the most sketchy situation you were in as a Blue Angel?
John: Oh well, personally there’s a few… three times I wanted to eject, and I couldn’t… I couldn’t, meaning I was inside what they call the “ejection envelope.” Which just means by the time you pull that handle – there’s a handle between your legs – and all that ejection seat is a rocket motor, and we’re sitting on these two rails.
So you decide “do I ignite this rocket motor or not?” It just blows you out of the cockpit. Sometimes right through the glass, sometimes the canopy goes first – depends on your airplane. You saw the movie “Top Gun,” right? Where Goose got killed because the canopy… whatever…
But then actually we can talk about that. The real stories in “Top Gun” if you want.
But the bottom line is by the way time you pull that handle, about 1.2 seconds before the gas charges ignite the rocket motor which blows you out – and also, depending on the attitude of the airplane… like if you’re upside down, 50 feet off the ground, hey you’re just going to be a smoking hole. You’re going to punch yourself into the ground.
But if you’re 200 feet, no. It’ll erect you. So there’s certain envelopes you need to be in. All three of those times, I was out of the envelope meaning it wasn’t going to happen.
Now by the grace of god and just also some luck and some training, I’m still here. But those are the places you don’t want to be. I’ll tell you, that’s a safety to get into that position that you even have to think about that.
So the bottom line is that was individual ones. But those are no big deal. I mean, you learn from them and you just appreciate life. I remember how good ice cream tasted that night…
Mark: (laughing) Oh yeah, right.
John: I mean, it’s just the little things…
Mark: That’s a real “glad to be here” moment… many of those from my SEAL days
John: Yeah. But there is the team one… I think to get to your question… we were in England; it was part of this tour where we got to go around the world. We actually call ourselves “ambassadors of goodwill.” We may be naval aviators, warriors, but that’s not what we call ourselves. We call ourselves ambassadors, right?
And I remember we were flying just north of London – it was a one-day air show. We had just gotten back from Spain or Romania these other places, and the weather was bad… like it always is in London sometimes.
And I remember standing out there on the tarmac – we had briefed, we go out on the tarmac and there’s 100,000 people. And this is a one-day air show. And the weather was right at our minimums, actually slightly below.
And you know, Mark, that the hard calls and leadership is the gray calls, right? It’s not… when it’s obvious, it’s obvious… no big deal.
But I remember standing out there on the tarmac with the boss… all of us… and we’re waiting, we’re just hoping that the weather would lift a little bit.
The issue that day was visibility. And what we need is a thousand feet of ceiling, and three miles of visibility… that’s our no-go. And it was briefed that it was a little bit below that.
And so we’re standing out there, and we’re looking at it… and finally the boss looks over at me and he goes “Gucci? Can the solos do it?”
And I said “yes sir, boss. We can do it.”
And so then he made the call. He says, “okay, we’re going to go fly it.”
And the reason he went to me – I was the operations officer and I was the lead solo – so he realized that was the weakest point, right? And so we were airborne, and we flew the hop, and everything went well. And we had a debrief that day.
But if it hadn’t gone well, he was accountable… they would have questioned his decision-making. And the bottom line was, he trusted my judgment in that case. But more importantly, we all trusted him. And that’s how the debrief went.
I remember the very first comment in the debrief, when he started, he says, ”you know, I’m glad we went flying today.” And he said, “oh by the way, Gucci, I dropped you off a little bit low on the inbound pass and that’s a safety.” He was just admitting it.
And then we went around the table and guess what number two – his name was “Fudge” – because we all get call signs… and do you guys get call signs by the way?
Mark: Nicknames. We don’t have call signs, but all SEALs have nicknames. Mine was “Cyborg.”
John: “Cyborg,” yes. I got it. It fits you by the way, I can see that. (laughing) Mine’s “Gucci,” and I hate it. So I don’t know if you like “Cyborg” or not, but I hate “Gucci.”
Mark: (Laughing) I learned to like it…
John: Yeah. Call signs – at least in the aviators, you don’t get to pick them. And usually if you like them, they don’t stick.
Your buds nailed you with it, right?
Mark: That’s right. So your number two guy…?
John: Yeah, yeah. Thanks. So Fudge is the number two guy, he looked at the boss and he said, “I’m glad we went flying together, too. By the way I was 30 feet low on this maneuver.”
And then we just went around the table, but what was going on behind the scenes – and I know you understand this, but for your audience – what Fudge was really saying… he was looking at the boss and saying “I’m with you 100 percent. You can make that call anytime, any day – I’m your wingman, I’m ready to go. And I’m glad to be here.”
And everybody ended their comments… not just that one day, but every single day with “glad to be here.” And we cemented that, and that was the ethos of the team.
Mark: I love that. That’s a neat cultural kind of artifact. Everybody should have that I’m going to think about that for our team. Like, what could be the thing that we say every time we hang up a zoom call or finish an event?
John: Well, if you want…
Mark: (laughing) Maybe we’ll steal “glad to be here.”
John: Yeah, you can… I was going to say, it’s not stealing, you can use it.
But that’s exactly what we do. Every one of my teams. It’s so funny – I was on a client call, and we were going through the… everybody checks in, we’re doing our stuff. And my team – I didn’t even realize this, because it’s so ingrained in our culture…
The client goes “everybody ended their comments with ‘glad to be here.’ that’s so powerful.”
And all of a sudden, I went, “cool. It’s now so powerful that it’s just who we are.”
Mark: (laughing) Yeah. It’s cultural sop. This stuff just happens, doesn’t it? The best cultures just evolve those really cool, powerful mantras and artifacts. They kind of define who they are. That’s neat.
So before I get into… I know, we’ve got probably just a few more minutes here… maybe five or ten… but what is a top ten carrier pilot?
John: Yeah, so in the aviator ranks – and I don’t know if this is true in the SEALs, I’d have to ask you… the idea is everybody earns the right to be there. With the trident or in the aviators, we call it the wings, right?
But then there’s a pecking order… you want to continue to grow and there’s certain ways to just know who’s doing the job well.
One of the ways in aviation is your carrier landings. So landing a jet on the back of an aircraft carrier… still to this day, Mark… I used to have hair, okay? When I was on the blues, I had hair.
It was those damn night carrier landings that that took me. And you’re scared. And it’s never comfortable, right?
But you get graded. And you get graded by your peers, that’s what’s really interesting. So they call them LSO landings, and they’re fellow pilots. And I was one of those. And you spend one day on the back of the ship grading and not just grading, you’re there for safety.
But then the next three days you fly. So every single landing is graded, and then you get debriefed by your peers, okay? Every single time.
And then they keep track of it. And the best you can get is what they call an “okay.” So call out a 4.0. So the best you can do is just “okay,” which is kind of funny, but that’s great…
If you did your average at 3.0, that’s called a “fair.” So, if you’re average, you’re “fair,” right?
If you are below average, we call it “no grade.” No kidding. And that’s what they call it. You got a “no grade.” “whoa, I don’t want that,” right?
And then the bottom line is they keep track of it. And at the end of a line period – so you’re deployed for six months or whatever – about every six weeks or eight weeks, we call it a line period – they have a party. And they pull everyone together, and they just go through the grades. And the top ten pilots in the air wing get recognized and actually what you do is you get a patch.
But you know what I hadn’t planned on this – but I don’t know if you are filming this, but you get a patch. It’s called a top ten patch. So, here’s my old fight jacket.
And you get to wear these patches, there’s carrier landings on here, and that kind of stuff. But nothing is more valuable – like when you walk into McP’s – I don’t know if you guys had anything – but in Miramar when you walked in with your flight jacket, that’s a living billboard of who’s who, right? And the top 10 patch is something that you want to earn.
Mark: That’s kind of interesting. That’s another cool, cultural artifact – and I think again, leaders listening to this can think through like what are the battle rhythms and the rituals and the artifacts of your culture and your team?
And really good teams – excellent teams like the angels, and the SEALs, and the New Zealand all blacks -they have these unique artifacts, rituals and cultural kind of rhythms, let’s just say, that they all do.
And so, you’ve got the brief and the debrief… you got the Wednesday clubs… you’ve got the patches for top 10 carrier landings that go on the artifact of the jacket. Everyone knows you’re an aviator with that jacket.
And the flight suit and so it’s really interesting to ask what are our artifacts? What are our unique kind of rituals as a team that are going to help define the culture? What language do we use? Like “glad to be here.”
So with unbeatable, one of our unique rituals is that we sit, and box breathe before every single meeting. For five minutes. It’s a powerful process, because just everyone clears their mind, and everyone kind of synchronizes, and we become co-conspirators, because we’re co-inspiring.
So now we’re a unit when we get on that call. We’re a team. That’s a cool ritual.
John: Well, I noticed that you live your model. Right before this podcast started you said, “let me take a minute and get grounded and centered.”
And I did the same thing with you. Because I appreciate that. It’s amazing…
Mark: Right, and I imagine a lot of those skills are just ingrained in you. But like prepping for an event, where you’re going to be presenting to 5000 people… I actually know what that’s like, because yesterday I was on stage at Tony Robbins’ event…
John: Oh, you did Tony Robbins…?
Mark: Yeah, it was a phenomenal experience… because there were 4070 participants, and he has got this incredibly beautiful stage… with all these people zooming in from around the world. And you’re standing there… like, you can reach out and touch the world.
And it was powerful, but I visualized that hundreds of times probably over the week before I went down there. And I knew the outcome. And the way my mind works is every presentation – probably for you as well – just like we know every performance in the angels is going to be different – now you have a plan, but it’s going to be different.
So I have a plan, but it’s different for every presentation. Depending upon who the audience is, the feeling I get about them, what they need… how to serve best.
And so I don’t use PowerPoints, and I don’t have a lot of like, “I’m going to use the seven commitments of elite teams as this presentation,” right? I allow myself to get really deeply into the process of winning in my mind.
And then guess what? Usually it’s the morning before or it can even be the morning of… the entire presentation just appears in my mind. And then I go deliver it with total calmness, now and just have a lot of fun.
Now this has really taken a long time to develop for speaking, because speaking can generate a lot of tension and anxiety in the body/mind… and that’s a blocker for a flow state. So a lot of people struggle, and so they rely on PowerPoint and they rely on a lot of structure.
And the energy just kind of gets stuck. What’s your experience like on this?
John: Yeah, 100%. So I do a storyboard in my mind, and then I go through – and I learned it in the blues. Basically we had certain maneuvers and it was a sequence. And so I create that storyboard in my mind, I make sure that it has a story to it – not just the principal – I’m like you, right?
And some sort of way to connect back to them, and that’s always the unique part. Every single presentation, you have a unique audience. So how can I make this meaningful to somebody else?
And I’m like you, I’ve probably visualized every presentation at least 10 times and I’ve done over four thousand presentations now, right? And I still take that time.
Because what that does is then when you are on that stage, or in front of… even virtual here. You’re in that flow and you can adapt. You’re not worried about what’s my next slide, or what’s the next point I want to make.
You know that. It’s like adapting to you… your questions… adapting to what it is. And that’s when it’s fun, right? And I think everybody can do this. It is a skill, but we all can do this.
Mark: Absolutely. And it’s transferable, like you said earlier, to the team. So again – if we could think about every individual who’s involved in a critical function or critical task, project, new initiative, new venture… whatever – insert your whatever it is…
When we begin to visualize that every day and then just show up. You begin to be able to execute with that autonomy and spontaneity. And we use the term VUCA a lot, I’m sure you use that in your conversations, and in order to deal with VUCA, you have to be intuitive and spontaneous. And trust that your decision making is moving in the right direction.
But then execute that OODA loop, where you’re always gathering information and reorienting yourself. And you can’t go by the 72-hour planning cycle anymore. I mean, for some companies obviously they’re going to do that for certain initiatives. But when it comes to the ground level execution, it’s like real-time nowadays. You got to be able to be very adaptable and flex on the fly – we call it fast twitch iteration.
John: Yeah. It’s funny, when I played ball, I was a defensive back. And I had these fast twitch muscles, right? And I think that’s why it moved into aviation where I just felt natural there. I felt like I’m in the right spot.
Number one, I could have never been a SEAL. Man, you guys are intense. I say that in the fact that I guess if I wanted to, and I worked hard enough… but my goal was more airborne, fast twitch… I just love that, and I know it’s in both.
I also want to echo what you said about VUCA. That’s how we got connected, that documentary that’ll be coming out… they said, “oh man, Mark Divine.” I said, “oh cool, I haven’t had a chance to talk to him.”
So it all came through the VUCA, but exactly what you’re talking about – and I think what’s really cool is that your experiences and our experiences, they do relate to what’s happening out there in the real world.
Mark: We may have touched on it, but let’s kind of close off with what do you think that the biggest challenge is for leaders right now – coming out of this kind of pandemic and all the confusion and lockdown stuff.
And how can they respond positively?
John: Yeah, it’s very simple in my mind. We all need to connect, align and commit. And that’s the challenge we have whether you’re a leader… it’s number one connecting, it’s been hard – let’s be real… virtual has helped a lot and I think we’ve learned a lot… I don’t know about you, but when we’ve done our trainings virtually, we learned that we can go deeper. We can use different technology, so we’ve adapted and actually now have a whole new revenue stream that we didn’t have before.
So connection is still the number one thing that I’m seeing out there. How do we get our people connected.
But then connecting is not enough. That’s a nice thing… how can we get aligned? And you and I talked about that – the brief, the center point alignment that we like to talk about… but again that’s not enough.
It’s the commitment, it’s actually the commitments to execute. So, I think that’s not only the most challenging point now, it’s really all the time. Let’s stay connected, aligned and committed.
Mark: I love that. So speaking of connected – your website is johnfoleyinc.com… anywhere else that someone can learn more about you? And about your work?
John: Oh yeah. I appreciate that. The best thing they can do is go to the website and you can sign up on our list. I put out these weekly impact videos – by the way, I love the videos that you put out. I think those are the best for people. So you can sign up for that.
But here’s the thing, Mark, I think you make such an impact on so many people and I just say to people “continue to take this message, take the glad to be here.”
And if that’s one thing I could leave them with – and my hope is you use it in your company – the idea is to bring that gratitude into the operational excellence piece.
Mark: Hooyah to that. And I’m glad that you’re here, and I’m super stoked that we had this conversation, and we got to meet each other. I’d love to do it in person someday, so let’s visualize that.
John: We’ll make it happen…
Mark: And yeah, so appreciate you and thanks again, John.
John: Thank you, Mark.
Mark: All right folks. That is the Unbeatable Mind podcast. I’m your host Mark Divine.
Go check out johnfoleyinc.com. What a great message, and what an incredible organization the Blue Angels are. So terrific conversation. Thanks again.
All right everyone. Go out and be unbeatable. Stay focused and be glad to be here.