I had the amazing opportunity to interview John Foley for my podcast. Foley is a former lead solo pilot for the US Navy’s Blue Angels. He is also an internationally-known keynote speaker who gives over 100 talks a year, helping organizations and individuals understand the keys to human performance. Foley also inspires audiences through his “glad to be here” philosophy and foundation.
During our conversation, Foley shares insights into going after your dream, and how having a high performance team can help you reach it. Below is an edited excerpt from the interview.
You have an incredible story about your dream to fly with the Blue Angels.
I used to tack model jets on my ceiling as a kid and sleep on the top bunk so I was closer to the planes. My dad took me to an air show in Rhode Island when I was 12 years old. The jets took off and the afterburners just rocked me. I could feel it in my chest. The little hairs were standing up on my arms. I turned to my dad, right then, and said, "I'm going to do that." It took me 18 years to pull it off, but one day I was sitting in the cockpit of a Blue Angel jet. I never let go of that dream to fly because a seed was deeply planted in my heart and not my head. It wasn't just an intellectual concept.
What was one of the earliest lessons you learned about achieving your dreams?
When I was at Annapolis, I realized that in order to get to the next level, you have to reset your beliefs. People often neglect to see that any vision you have for what you want to achieve is built around belief levels. What do you believe you're capable of? What do you believe your team's capable of? These beliefs determine the level of your performance. You have to ask, “how do I raise those beliefs?”
Tell us about the intensity of flying five feet away from another jet at 1,000 miles per hour and performing extreme manoeuvres?
It's a very calm environment. You reach a point, after hours and hours of practice, where everything slows down because your brain is speeding up. You're in a state of incredible flow and focus, where you can see the cracks in the paint on the plane next to you.
I remember when I first flew solos – that’s when you fly with one other jet to demonstrate the maximum potential of the airplane. My mentor said to me, “Okay, our two-mile checkpoint is going to be that three-story white house with the green shade on the northeast window.” I’m like, “Are you kidding? How am I supposed to see that?” But then I realized I was limiting belief. In time, with loads of practice, I learned to focus and I was able to see a tiny point on the landscape as we flew past. You get to a point where even when you are pulling 7.5 Gs in a roll-out, you are totally calm and focused. When you achieve that state, you can execute at the highest imaginable level.
When a team is trying to improve their performance, what should they keep in mind?
After every air show with the Blue Angels, we would debrief how it went. It was very professional but very intense. We would deconstruct the show in minute detail. But we would always start with asking, “In general, how did it go?” I teach this to businesses around the world – and you just don't see it enough. Start by connecting with people in a general way, before getting into the specifics of the project. That’s how people connect to a conversation. It’s also how you can find out what's on their mind. From there, you can get into the details in a positive mindset – it makes a big difference.
If you had to point to one thing that makes a team successful, what would you say?
Trust. That's the key. You have create a high-trust environment. I encourage people to have what I call “trust contracts,” agreements that you will be there for each other. Things like, “You can count on me.” For the Blues, those contracts were explicit and made it possible for you to fly head-on at another jet at 1,000 miles an hour and pass by only a wingspan apart. Trust is the difference for any team. If you know exactly what your contracts are with each other, you know what you need to do and you do it.