Justice and Compassion – Two Peas in the Trust Pod

Part 5 of our Building Trust Series

When I feel strongly about something – something of which I want to convince others – I often find myself constructing a rational case.  I lay a sturdy foundation of facts, data, and evidence.  I erect a beautiful case built upon objectivity, logic, and rationality.  I can argue with the best of them and I wait with anticipation to see my stunning arguments make converts of the most stalwart opponents.

Guess what?  Despite the robustness of the foundation and the quality of the arguments, I make far fewer converts than I would like.

I’m a psychologist, and therefore often a little slow on the uptake – so it took me awhile to learn an exceptionally valuable lesson – and it was a lesson learned from the research of a fellow psychologist, Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt studies moral psychology and has determined that people on the political left and the political right value and prioritize different moral “channels” – meaning they have different moral principles that guide their thinking and decision-making.  People on the political right typically are influenced by five moral channels: care/concern for others, justice for individuals, respect for authority, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity/purity.  People on the political left are typically only influenced by the first two moral channels: care/concern for others and justice for individuals.

Political divisions in our country and around the globe are deep and becoming more caustic each and every day – and I have NO interest in wading into that discussion.  Let’s focus on the similarities, not the differences.

Haidt’s research indicates that virtually all people find moral arguments persuasive that focus on caring for people (and not doing harm to them) and treating people fairly (however that might be defined).

The medial prefontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for both rational judgment and moral judgment – tends to give priority to moral information over rational information.  In other words, we find moral arguments more persuasive than rational ones – and moral arguments focused on care and fairness are the ones that are most likely to reach the widest array of people.  Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle and his notion that we should start with “why” is largely based upon this idea that statements of values garner greater attention and are more persuasive than statements of fact. 

In fact, according to Haidt’s work, moral judgment precedes moral reasoning.  That is to say, we encounter moral information, make a quick, intuitive judgment about something being right or wrong, and then go in search of reasons for why that thing is right or wrong.

As leaders, we can most effectively build trust and exercise influence by maintaining a laser-like focus on caring for our people and treating them fairly at all times.  By doing so, we demonstrate our general benevolence and trigger automatic judgments of us as “GOOD/RIGHT” as opposed to “BAD/WRONG.”

In the previous installment of this series, I described some simple ways to demonstrate care/concern for people – but what about treating people fairly/justly?

It’s actually fairly simple.  But simple doesn’t mean easy…


Up Next: Unpacking Fairness/Justice in the Workplace


Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who engage people, dignify work, and inspire excellence. Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 100 companies. In addition to running Impavid, Daniel teaches at Vanderbilt University and Belmont University and serves as a pro-bono advisor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.


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Focus on Impact, Not Intentions

Part 4 of Our Building Trust Series

The other day, some guy cut me off in traffic, forcing me to slam on the brakes.  I was, to say the least, annoyed.  I immediately began making judgments about his character – he’s rude, inconsiderate, selfish, aggressive, and just a plain jerk.

The very next day, I was about to miss my exit on the freeway, and had to squeeze in front of a car in the exit lane.  The driver honked at me and I could see in the rear view mirror, he was waving his arms and using some choice words.  My immediate thought: What’s your problem?  Calm down.  Geez, I was about to miss my exit.

Interestingly, I didn’t judge myself to be rude, inconsiderate, selfish, aggressive, or a jerk – even though my actions were identical to those of the “jerk” who cut me off a day earlier.  Why the different reaction?

Because we tend to judge ourselves on intentions whereas we judge others ON their actions.

When we do something that undermines trust – that hurts someone, embarrasses them, or creates an obstacle to their happiness or success – the natural tendency is to defend ourselves and our actions with an intentions-based argument. 

“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“It wasn't my intention to take credit for your work in that meeting.  The boss gave me the credit and I didn’t want to correct him in front of others.”

But it isn’t our intentions that build or violate trust – it’s our actions

If we want to build and sustain trust in our workplace relationships, we should judge ourselves on our actions, not our intentions.  We should take ownership of the impact our actions have rather than hide behind innocuous or even benevolent motives. 

Our intentions rattle around in our heads – but they aren’t tangible or real to others until they’re expressed through our choices and actions.  It isn’t enough to think to oneself or even to say to others, “I care about my employees.” 

Meaningful benevolence-based trust is built by behaving in ways that prove the statement above to be true.  What are you doing that shows people you care about them?  Here are five actions that provide evidence of care and concern for employees:

  1. Listening: Not every situation requires a fix.  Be intentional about listening, asking questions, understanding, and empathizing.
  2. Mentoring: Millennials are three times as likely to select an employer based upon the opportunity for personal development than for pay rate or salary.  Develop people’s talents and grow their careers.
  3. Supporting: Position people for success rather than failure by providing them with the information and resources they need.
  4. Defending: If something goes wrong, don’t blame the employees.  Be a leader.  Take responsibility.  Protect them publicly and redirect them, as needed, privately. 
  5. Rewarding: The optimal ratio of praise-to-critical feedback is 5:1.  Look for every excuse and reason to reward, recognize, and praise people -- and then do so.

In order to build and sustain relationships of trust, we can’t allow care and concern for people to merely reside within our intentions.  We must breathe life into our intentions by expressing them in our choices and actions – each and every day.  When we do, people won’t think we care about them…they'll know we do.


Next time: Justice and Compassion – Two Peas in the Trust Pod


Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who dignify work, engage people, and inspire excellence. Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 100 companies. In addition to running Impavid, Daniel teaches at Vanderbilt University and Belmont University and serves as a pro-bono advisor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.


If you enjoyed the post above, like it!  If you have something to say, comment!  If you think others might enjoy this post, share it!  If you want to enhance leadership and culture in your organization, contact Impavid Consulting today!

Trust Me, I Know What I'm Doing!

Part 3 of Our Building Trust Series

Unfortunately, the words above are often spoken immediately prior to a catastrophic and largely avoidable failure.

In previous installments of this series, I described the tremendous value of building trust in organizations and factors that contribute to leader trustworthiness (one of which is the focus of today's post - competence).

Many of the hundreds of managers and executives with whom I've worked strove to achieve competence-based trust by knowing everything and by having all the answers.  However, thumping one’s functionally or technically expert chest is actually apt to have opposite the desired effect.  The more a manager or executive makes decisions unilaterally, micromanages people, and desperately clings to power and control, the less leader-like she is perceived to be.

The manager or executive perceived to be confident and competent is the one who recognizes her limits, values involving others in problem-solving and decision-making, and who believes most problems have more than one possible solution.

I have two pieces of advice for a manager or executive who wants to be perceived as a leader – who wants to build trust through competence…

First, focus on developing insight rather than knowledge.  In other words, be process-oriented rather than content-oriented.  This isn’t to say that subject matter expertise isn’t important – but a highly effective leader practices intellectual curiosity, strives to minimize personal biases in her thinking, seeks input and perspective from others, and doesn’t settle for the first answer, the easy answer, or even a single answer.  Her default setting is to assume that someone else has a better idea than she does (while the middling or poor manager tends to think she has a monopoly on good ideas).  The aforementioned practices help a leader development perspective and insight and help her to ultimately generate better solutions and make better decisions – and that contributes to perceptions of her competence.

Second, focus on managing stress reactions.  When a leader feels stressed or threatened, cortisol is released in her system and that triggers fight and flight reactions.  These reactions, while adaptive in many situations, are largely counterproductive in modern work environments.  When the people around a leader see her lose her composure, yell at people, make impulsive decisions, or avoid stressful decisions, they lose confidence in her.  A highly effective leader demonstrates poise and composure; she’s at her best when people need her most.  Her steadiness in the face of challenge or threat signals to others to remain calm and focused, and encourages others to be resilient.  A clear-minded leader leverages insight (as described above) in critical situations – and nothing builds confidence in a leader more than being the port in the storm.

Developing insight and demonstrating poise – if you want to be trusted, both are far more important than having all the answers.


Next time: The Two Essentials of Building Benevolence-Based Trust


Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who dignify work, engage people, and inspire excellence. Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 100 companies. In addition to running Impavid, Daniel teaches at Vanderbilt University and Belmont University and serves as an advisor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.


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A Bit of Them and A Lot of Us

Part 2 of Our Building Trust Series

Why does trust matter in organizations?  Simple – because trust is the foundation of influence and influence is the essence of leadership.  Great leaders motivate rather than direct; they gain commitment rather than settle for compliance; they inspire people to give blood, sweat, and tears; they cultivate a degree of trust that empowers team members and colleagues to take risks…the kinds of risks that produce innovative solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.

Trust is what undergirds relationships – and people and relationships are at the heart of every great success story.

So how is trust built?  Essentially, there are two factors that contribute to trust in a leader: propensity to trust and trustworthiness.

Propensity to Trust

Some people are naturally trusting and inclined to look for the good in us.  Their default setting is to believe we have good intentions and good capabilities (until proven otherwise). 

Other people are naturally inclined to be skeptical and mistrusting – perhaps even cynical.  When confronted with an ambiguous situation, such people tend to assume the worst.  They assume we’re out to get them, to take credit for their work, to embarrass them, or to harm them.  When something goes wrong, they assume it’s because we, the culprits (and they generally assume there are culprits), are incompetent, selfish, or unethical.

They experience negative feelings more frequently and more intensely than do their more optimistic counterparts – and these negative feelings color their perceptions of the world in ways that make trust-building extremely difficult.  Psychologists call this coloring the hostile attribution bias.

So, what’s the implication for us and our organizations?  Simple: when possible, hire optimists. Composing an organization full of people (with the requisite skills and experience, of course) who see opportunities instead of obstacles, who assume mistakes are innocent rather than malicious, and who are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt will allow radically effective communication, conflict resolution, and collaboration to be rampant – and that allows for a healthy and functional organizational culture.


So, earning trust is much easier when employees and team members are naturally inclined to do so.  Not much of a revelation, is it? 

Here’s the more challenging piece – the piece that’s about us, the leaders.  We must demonstrate to people that we’re trustworthy.  We must earn trust.  What does it mean to be trustworthy?

Essentially, it means three things.  First, it means people must believe we’re competent.  Would you trust a leader who seemed poised to lead you off a cliff?  Our people must believe that we know what we’re doing, that we’re capable of making sound and effective decisions, and that we can lead them toward success. 

Second, it means people must believe we’re benevolent.  They must believe we care about them – both as employees and as people.  They must believe we’ll take into account their well-being when making decisions and when asking them to commit to our decisions.  If a leader doesn’t demonstrate care for her people, then her people will necessarily need to focus more of their time and energy on self-preservation and self-protection and less time and energy doing their jobs.  They won’t take risks, innovate, or speak truth to power – for fear of standing alone.

Third, it means people must believe we have integrity.   They have to believe that our competence and our benevolence will be translated into actual action in a consistent manner.  We may be skilled and we may care – but if we’re not reliable and consistent in our expressions of our skills and care, we won’t be trusted.

Competence, benevolence, and integrity – these should be the priorities of our trust portfolios.  They should be our focus each and every day – because they’re the standards our people are using to judge our trustworthiness.

Next time: The Two Essentials of Building Competence-Based Trust

Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who engage people, dignify work, and inspire excellence. Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 500 companies. In addition to running Impavid, Daniel teaches at Vanderbilt University and serves as an advisor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.

Building Trust: A Competitive Advantage (and Just a Really Good Idea)

Part 1 of Our Building Trust Series

As a manager, have you ever failed to follow through on a commitment you made?  Ever made a choice that was self-serving and self-protective rather than in the service of others?  Ever been in over your head or lost your composure in a critical moment?

I hate to admit it, but I have – and each time, I contributed to the deterioration of the greatest competitive advantage an organization can enjoy: trust.

Employees in high-trust organizations experience 106% higher energy, 50% greater productivity, 29% greater life satisfaction, 74% less stress, 13% fewer sick days, and 40% less burnout than employees in low-trust organizations (Zak, 2017).

Additionally, trust in one’s leader is related to subordinate performance, commitment, collaboration, and expressions of citizenship behavior (i.e., going above and beyond what’s required; Dirks & Ferrin, 2002).

Step out of your manager shoes for a moment and step into the shoes of a person you manage.  Are you going to take risks, innovate, speak truth to power, challenge the status quo, make sacrifices for others, or in any other way expose yourself to vulnerability for a leader who doesn’t keep his word, protect his employees, or demonstrate the capacity to lead others toward success?

As leaders, we must earn the right to ask people to give us their best – to give us their everything.

Too often, we wait for the big moment (which always seems to be tomorrow, never today) – the big moment in which we can demonstrate to our people just how much courage and integrity we have. 

The problem is that the big moments rarely come along…and while we’re waiting for the big moment, a hundred little moments come and go each and every day – and our people judge us on those moments.

Everything we say and everything we do communicates something to people about what we believe, what we value, and what we prioritize.  Everything we say and do.

Leadership is a hundred little decisions each and every day – and we’re either there for our people or we’re not. 

Over the next few months, I’m going to dedicate my blog to describing how we, as leaders, can and should earn trust from our people.  How we can and should build our “trust credentials” each and every day – so that we, our organizations, and the people we lead can thrive.

Stay tuned!

Four Steps for Avoiding Professional Derailment

When we sense danger or threat in our environment, the amygdala releases cortisol and adrenaline into our systems.  Glucose floods into our muscle cells and our bodies prepare to fight or to flee.  While our fight and flight reactions are exceptionally helpful during life-and-death encounters, they're largely counter-productive in modern organizational settings.

Neither aggressively barking at people nor hiding in one's office is an effective response to crisis.  Both fight and flight reactions undermine our thinking (and therefore the quality of our decision-making), strain our relationships, and, ultimately, stall or even derail our careers.

So how can we avoid stress-induced derailment?  How can we remain poised, composed, and grounded when we most need to be at our best?

First, manage baseline stress.  Lowering baseline stress allows us to absorb more work-related stress before we’re triggered into fight and flight reactions.  Curative care eliminates stressors (e.g., distancing oneself from an unhealthy relationship).  Palliative care is an on-going stress reduction process (e.g., sufficient sleep, proper diet, exercise, decompression time, work-life balance).  Curative measures are more enduring but harder to implement.  Palliative measures are relatively easy to implement, but must be ongoing or else the benefit is lost.

Second, reframe threats as challenges.  A situation that is perceived as a threat will increase anxiety and continue to trigger fight and flight reactions.  However, when we frame a situation as a challenge to be overcome rather than a threat that will defeat us, we are much better positioned to be successful.  Framing setbacks as challenges, failures as learning opportunities, and obstacles as opportunities to accomplish something meaningful can and do create solidarity among people facing a significant challenge.

Third, short-circuit stress reactions.  Our physiological reactions to stress and threat precede our behavioral reactions.  Our bodies serve as an early warning system.  What happens to you when you feel threatened or anxious?  Heart rate increase?  Begin sweating?  Face becomes flush?  Breathing rate increases?  Break out in hives?  All of these reactions signal what’s coming next – some kind of fight or flight reaction.  Learning mindfulness and developing self-awareness can give us a brief window of time in which we can make conscious and deliberate decisions to not fight or flee.

Fourth, develop a substitute set of behaviors.  It isn’t enough to know what we won’t do.  It's critical to develop a healthier, more effective set of habits to display in critical moments.  My prominent stress reaction is to become argumentative and overly assertive.  I have a hand-written note in my office (prominently displayed) as a reminder of my substitute behaviors – a set of heuristics to guide my interactions with others.  The note reads, “1. Keep your mouth shut, 2. Speak last, 3. Start with questions.”

My substitute behaviors are a reminder to literally keep my mouth shut (when my mouth is open, I’m just waiting for the other person to stop talking so I can interject), to listen, and to seek to understand other people’s perspectives and ideas.

Stress-induced derailment is insidious – creating bad habits that slowly erode our judgment and relationships.  The tactics described above will help you to stay grounded, thoughtful, and effective when the people around you need you most.


Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who dignify work, engage people, and inspire excellence.  Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 500 companies.  In addition to running Impavid, Daniel teaches at Vanderbilt University and serves as a mentor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.


To learn more, contact Daniel at:




Is the Propensity to Trust Genetically Influenced?

Longitudinal twin studies have demonstrated that 30-50% of differences between people in terms of cognitive ability and personality traits are attributable to genetic causes -- a fascinating set of findings, to be sure.

What about trust in others?  It sure seems like some people are naturally trusting and willing to be vulnerable while others are naturally skeptical and self-protective.  What causes such differences between people?  

Unlike cognitive ability and many personality traits, trust in others does not have a significant genetic explanation.  It appears the propensity to trust is better explained by stable belief structures established through our developmental experiences (i.e., Were you loved and nurtured by your parents?) and by relationship-specific characteristics (i.e., Does this person behave in a manner worthy of trust?).  

If a team member doesn't trust you, don't blame their genes.  Instead, focus on the dynamics of your relationship and what you need to do to earn their trust.

I Have Wells Fargo-Induced Nausea

There are several levels of severity to Wells Fargo-Induced Nausea (WFIN). 

Any company that creates 2 million, fee-generating sham accounts unbeknownst to customers is a company that should make one feel a bit ill.  Apparently, the pressure to cross-sell (i.e., to sell multiple bank products and services to customers) was tremendous within the “community” banking division of Wells Fargo.  I put “community” in quotes to denote sarcasm because the 5,300+ account managers who violated their customers’ trust and privacy probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about the community or the people who comprise it.  Or, at the very least, they valued their bonuses and jobs more than obeying the law and protecting their customers.

WFIN Level: 3 (I feel a bit queasy)

This morning, the Wells Fargo fraud was being discussed on NPR.  An attorney called in and claimed to be representing a former Wells Fargo employee who was terminated after attempting to blow the whistle on the wrongdoers. 

A few rogue account executives?  That would be understandable, though not acceptable.  Fifty-three hundred account executives violating customer trust (and likely the law)?  That’s symptomatic of a poorly designed compensation system that incents unethical behavior.  (Allegedly) firing someone for shining a light on such deplorable behavior?  That’s more than a structural issue – that's a cultural one, and it’s downright sickening.  That’s an organization that isn’t just willing to accept fraud but seeks to protect it.

WFIN Level: 7 (I feel clammy and I need to sit down)

But don’t worry.  Wells Fargo takes ethical standards seriously (ha!).  Wells Fargo is going to fix the problem (ha-ha!).  Wells Fargo has terminated 5,300 account managers (ok, that’s a start – holding people responsible) and is reimbursing the affected parties more than $5 million (ok, that’s good too).  Wells Fargo is also going to pay a $185 million fine (ouch, that’s gotta hurt – or not, since Wells Fargo had more than $20 billion in revenues last year). 

Finally, Carrie Tolstedt, the senior executive in charge of the division, will retire next year and earn $125 million on the way out the door (I’m sorry, I must’ve misheard that last part -- I could've sworn you just said the executive in charge is going to make a cool $125,000,000).

Fire the thousands of front-line employees but send the “leader” out with a nine-figure golden parachute???

WFIN Level: 10 (I just threw up in my mouth)

Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, describes leadership and followership as a social contract – one in which we don’t mind that our leaders make more money than we do because we get something in return.  Our leaders are supposed to protect us.  Executives are supposed to protect employees.  Employees are supposed to protect customers.  It seems that at Wells Fargo, there are no leaders -- except perhaps the whistle blower who was shown the door for blowing the whistle (allegedly). 

I’m a staunch supporter of free enterprise.  It’s done more good for the most vulnerable people in the world than all other forms of aid combined.  It has lifted billions of people out of starvation-level poverty and allowed millions of people to align their passions with their talents – and thereby pursue their dreams.

However, a free enterprise system requires more than a few regulatory contraints in order to work.  It requires leaders who behave honorably and ethically – who earn trust by protecting the people they're obligated to protect.

There is a dearth of trust-based leadership in our world.  My professional mission is to develop leaders who dignify work, engage people, and inspire excellence.  My mission is to help leaders lead in a manner worthy of followership.  Here’s what, I believe, we need:

1.       Leaders who approach everyday as an opportunity to earn the trust of others – not through clever rhetoric or sleight of hand but rather through authenticity, courage, and a properly ordered set of priorities.

2.       Specifically, leaders who are focused on earning three kinds of trust from the people they lead and the customers they serve: performance-based trust, integrity-based trust, and benevolence-based trust.  In other words, we need leaders who are dedicated to being competent, consistent, and caring.

Trust-based leadership is one part finding people with the right make-up and one part helping leaders develop the skills and habits necessary to be effective – even in environments of tremendous pressure.

We need leaders who embody the 3 C’s.

Competence: We need leaders who think objectively, lead humbly,  demonstrate insight, inquire curiously, look ahead, and who demonstrate self-awareness, self-discipline, and poise.  We need leaders who never think they've arrived, and who look in the mirror and ask "how can I be better tomorrow than I was today -- for the people I lead?"  

Consistency: We need leaders who not only know what the right thing to do is but who will actually do it.  We need leaders who are courageous – who will speak truth to power, take risks, stand up for their people, walk the talk, and challenge those who transgress core values.  We need leaders who integrate their values and the mission into everything they say and do in a way that is authentic and that resonates with others.

Care: We need leaders who value fairness and justice – leaders who seek to reward not only excellent performance but also excellent behavior (i.e., achieving results the right way).  We need leaders who have empathy and compassion – leaders who are thoughtful of the needs of customers, employees, managers, board members, and shareholders.  People who make decisions based upon organizational mission and values – not upon some psychopathic self-interest.

Improved leadership is not the entire answer, of course.  Wells Fargo, to return to our earlier example, suffers from tremendous structural flaws as well -- flaws that reinforce disgustingly self-serving choices by employees.  However, ultimately, it’s people who make decisions.  It's people who choose to practice the values they espouse (or not).  It's people who determine organization culture.  It's people who make the difference.  Every great success story begins with people and relationships -- and it's within the domains of intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning that the primary solutions must arise.

If you believe our world can be made a better place -- one leader and one organization at a time -- I hope you’ll share the More Than Foosball blog with others and continue to tune in to learn more about how we can cultivate more trust-based leadership, build more virtuous organizations, and create a more fulfilling and dignifying experience for employees and customers.

I was a TOPGUN instructor...and no, I wasn't like Maverick.

If you ever have the opportunity to meet a TOPGUN instructor, don’t make the mistake I made.  Don’t reference the movie.  It’s like going to a music concert and wearing the t-shirt of the band you’re going to see – don’t be that person.

When I first met LCDR Robert Hortman (that’s Lieutenant Commander for those of you, like me, who don’t have a military background), I had to press him before he admitted to being a TOPGUN instructor. Our first conversation went something like this:

DL: So you were in the Navy?

RH: Yes.

DL: What did you do in the Navy?

RH: I was a pilot.

DL: What kind of aircraft did you fly?

RH: Um, F-18s.

DL: Cool.  Where were you stationed?

RH: A few places – Japan, Florida, Nevada.

DL: What did you do in Nevada?

RH: I was an instructor.

DL: A flight instructor? Like the TOPGUN movie?

RH: Yes, that’s where I was an instructor.

DL: You were a TOPGUN instructor? Like Maverick.

RH: Yes, I was a TOPGUN instructor…but none of us were like Maverick.


In case you weren’t counting, it took six questions to get Robert to admit to being a TOPGUN instructor.  If I was a TOPGUN instructor, I’d probably find all kinds of ways to work that into a conversation long before anyone asked me about it – but Robert, despite his elite accomplishments of being a TOPGUN graduate and a TOPGUN instructor, is an incredibly humble person.

I asked Robert if I could buy him lunch and interview him regarding his time at TOPGUN.  As an organizational psychologist and consultant, I’m exceptionally interested in high-performing organizations and teams as well as the processes associated with meaningful professional growth – and perhaps no one grows and improves more than TOPGUN students.  Robert graciously accepted my invitation – and here’s what I learned about him and his experience at TOPGUN.

Robert is a 2003 graduate of the Naval Academy.  He spent 12 years in the U.S. Navy and is now a Navy Reservist.  In addition to being an instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (i.e., TOPGUN) from 2010-2013, he was deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and in the South China Sea.  They all call it TOPGUN – but he teased me that I owed him $20 for referencing the movie.  So – calling it TOPGUN is fine – referencing the movie is to be avoided! 

Here is some of our Q&A:

DL: Describe your experience as a TOPGUN student.

RH: It isn’t like the movie.  There’s no trophy.  There’s no point system.  You either pass or you fail – and every student just wants to pass.  We weren’t competitive with one another as students.  We all helped each other.  We ate, slept, and talked tactics non-stop.  We constantly focused on what we messed up during our training flights and tried to help ourselves and each other learn from our mistakes (of which there were plenty).  TOPGUN was very intense.  A ton of information.  The instructors were exceptionally smart and exceptionally knowledgeable. 

DL: How did you become a TOPGUN instructor?

RH: I was selected.  It was an honor to be selected, to be sure.

DL: What was the philosophy and process of TOPGUN training?

RH: Well, we began with the assumption that the pilots who come to TOPGUN are competent.  They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t good pilots.  We took a crawl-walk-run approach.  Their first two weeks were lecture – covering the hardware of the aircraft and then focusing on tactics.  We used briefing labs to allow the students to ask questions.

Then, we would get in the aircraft and get them flying.  We fail them a lot.  One of the keys to succeeding at TOPGUN is learning to fail and learning to learn.  Most of these pilots hadn’t failed before.  They were accustomed to success – but we wouldn’t pass them until they were nearly perfect.  The real area of growth was in how quickly they could process information and make decisions.  That’s really the key to being an effective fighter pilot – it isn’t so much a matter of physical skill, but rather one of mental skill. 

At the beginning of training, they don’t even know what they’re doing wrong.  In the middle of training, they begin to develop keener self-assessment skills.  They’re more capable of understanding their mistakes.  By the end of training, they’re correcting their mistakes and doing it right. 

The self-assessment piece is a key learning objective.  A perfect flight isn’t perfect – it’s one in which they understand their mistakes and we (the instructors) don’t have to point the mistakes out to them.

DL: What kind of pilots succeed at TOPGUN? What kind of pilots struggle?

RH: Successful pilots have a mentality similar to a successful athlete.  They’re self-confident but humble.  They know their shortcomings.  They’re decisive yet teachable.  No one shows up with the ability to pass TOPGUN.  No one. There is tremendous learning that must occur first.

They must absorb and apply feedback.  They need to be quick, analytically speaking.   

We begin their flight time by shocking them with the speed.  We show them what they don’t know.  Then, we slow things down and progress forward. 

Pilots who were unsuccessful at TOPGUN – and it was about 10% of them – typically struggled with the mental processing piece.  They simply weren’t able to absorb the training, process information in real-time, and execute the tactics they were being trained to execute as quickly as they needed to execute them.  It was unfortunate, but a reality. 

DL: I’m a big believer in the role of trust in effective leadership.  Specifically, the importance of building trust based upon integrity (walk the talk), benevolence (I care about you), and competence (I know what I’m doing).  Was trust an important part of the training process and the influence you had on the students? 

RH: I think so.  We definitely walked the talk.  We focused so much on evaluating and learning from mistakes – and during briefing sessions with instructors and students, we would evaluate the instructor’s mistakes as well.  We didn’t pretend to be perfect.  They saw us practicing what we preached.

With regard to caring about them – we were there 14 hours per day and on the weekends.  We made ourselves available to our students A LOT and our top priority was their success.

With regard to competence, a student’s first flight at TOPGUN involved them being in the saddle – in a perfect firing position with a bandit (flown by a TOPGUN instructor) in their crosshairs.  We would tell them to engage and 20 seconds later, the instructor was behind them and the student was in their crosshairs.  After that, we had students’ full attention. 

We weren’t able to do that because we were more “talented” pilots than the students.  We were able to do that because we had received the best training in the world.  We were simply better trained, more experienced, and had been training against other instructors – and steel sharpens steel.

DL: What was the culture like at TOPGUN?

RH: We were there to make sure the fleet was prepared for any scenario.  That was our job.  We would develop tactics that would be disseminated to the entire fleet.  Internally, we had a lot of opinions about what should happen.  We would have knockdown, drag out debates – all behind closed doors – it was great.  But it was always respectful.  We took our responsibility of preparing the fleet very seriously and we all knew that our disagreements were not personal and were only helping us to develop the best possible tactics and pilots.

DL: It sounds like innovation was important.  Process improvement – how would that happen?

RH: Tactics are based upon pilot capabilities and software capabilities – as those changed, so do tactics.  We were constantly refining tactics.  That really occurred during the TOPGUN course.  During large plane exercises.  We would watch, listen, evaluate, learn, and innovate.  We had lots of discussions with students.  “What would’ve happened if you had gone left instead of right?”  We would discuss and learn.  Expert fighter piloting isn’t “free form” – it’s based upon exceptionally quick and anticipatory decision-making, leading to effective tactics, based upon mountains of situational data and decision-matrices. 

DL: It sounds like a quarterback learning to read defenses.  

RH: Yes.  More data, more experience, and better training helps pilots react more quickly and more effectively to more situations.

DL: How does the school remain ahead of the competition?

RH: We had a competition with the Air Force Weapons School.  It was a lot of fun and a lot of pride involved.  However, at the end of the day, we’re on the same side – and we would share ideas with one another. 

DL: What did you find most challenging about being an instructor?

RH: Every person is different.  Developing teaching techniques to fit the various students was a challenge.  Also, I had to be on my game 100% -- literally all of the time.  I could never take a flight off.  Three years was my limit.

DL: What did you learn about leadership, training, and people that you’ve carried with you?

RH: I learned the “why” behind what we did.  That makes me want to understand the “why” in the work processes of the work I’m doing today.  I want to explain the “why” to others – it helps team members see the big picture and how their work relates to it – and it helps me understand better as well.

Today, I explain the why and then challenge my people to improve how we do it.  They’re the experts and I want to leverage their expertise.  When people offer ideas, I try to be responsive to them.  I explain what will and won’t work and why.  I try to encourage more sharing of ideas.

DL: What else would you like to share about your TOPGUN experience?

RH: I loved it for the people and the team atmosphere. Everyone was bought in.  People were very supportive.  Each instructor had a role and an expertise.  We were all passionate and opinionated but respectful of one another and one another’s expertise. 

I loved being pushed each and every day to be excellent.  I knew if I brought my A- game, I’d get whupped by my fellow instructors – it was so much fun.

Also, the process of becoming a TOPGUN instructor was so much more difficult than graduating from TOPGUN as a student.  It was six months before I was allowed to speak to a student – that was tougher than being a student.  The instructors brought me up and taught me how bring others up – it was fantastic.

Finally, our Admiral backed us up 100%.  He empowered us, trusted our expertise, and supported us unconditionally.  

DL: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, perspectives, and experiences.

RH: My pleasure.