Success Means Never Flying Solo

A Serbian surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery commanded by then Lt. Col. Zoltan Dani downed a U.S. F-117A stealth fighter and an F-16C. A SAM from the same battery damaged another F-117A.

It was 1999, and U.S. combat pilots such as USAF Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman were on the “kill” list. But thanks to his wingman, Lt. Col. Waldman’s F-16 escaped the SAMs that were locked on and fired at his fighter jet, because the pilot in the jet beside him, who was watching his blind spot, yelled on the radio, “Break right, now!”

Lt. Col. Waldman made an evasive maneuver and lived to fight another day. The concept of having a wingman has been close to his heart ever since that near-death experience.

He is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller, Never Fly Solo, which discusses his military life and how the things he learned in the cockpit can help people prepare for challenges and succeed in their careers. He is also a renowned motivational speaker with a simple message:

“Whether you’re achieving greatness as a fighter pilot or in business, the same qualities that drive success apply: disciplined training, dedicated teamwork, impassioned leadership and, most of all, unwavering trust,” explains Lt. Col. Waldman. “The key to building a culture of trust lies with your wingmen—those trusted partners in life who help you overcome obstacles, adapt to change, and achieve success.”

Lt. Col. Waldman is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller, Never Fly Solo, which discusses his military life and how the things he learned in the cockpit can help people succeed in their careers.Known as the “Wingman,” Lt. Col. Waldman uses his personal experiences as a combat-decorated fighter pilot and a businessman to teach organizations how to build trusting, revenue-producing relationships with their employees, partners and customers.

“In business and life, you should never fly solo,” he says. “The key to winning when the heat is on lies in the ability of every wingman in your organization, regardless of their role, to give 100 percent and support the team.”

In the following interview with COMMERCE, Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman discusses his path from fighter pilot to sales professional to entrepreneur to motivational speaker. In addition to being a very busy public speaker, he is also the founder and president of The Wingman Foundation, a 501(c)(3) whose mission is to raise funds and awareness for soldiers, veterans and their families.

A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Lt. Col. Waldman is a highly experienced combat veteran with more than 2,650 flight hours and 65 combat missions. His military honors include five Air Medals, two Aerial Achievement Medals, four Air Force Commendation Medals and two Meritorious Service Medals. Lt. Col. Waldman also holds an MBA with a focus on organizational behavior.

COMMERCE: What was the most difficult mission or assignment in your military career, and why?

LT. COL. ROB WALDMAN: On April 28, 1999, I was part of a four-ship formation of F-16 fighters, and we were tasked to support a formation of F-117 stealth fighters on a five-hour night mission over Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during Operation Allied Force. Intelligence briefed us that there were several highly active surface-to-air missile [SAM] sites in the area. In fact, one of the sites shot down the commander of the 555th Fighter Squadron—who was subsequently rescued—just days before, so we knew they were going to be a problem.

Sure enough, shortly after crossing the border into enemy territory, I was locked up by enemy radar and, within seconds, saw two fireballs—missiles—coming at my aircraft. I conducted some missile defense maneuvers and watched them explode about 1,000 feet from my aircraft, which is pretty close. Ten minutes later, I successfully avoided another two missiles. This mission really drove home the importance of training and being able to perform under pressure. Most importantly, it demonstrated how effective teamwork is. For without my wingmen supporting me during those encounters, I may not have made it back home.

Q. How did you and your wingman work together as a team?

Some of Lt. Col. Waldman’s military honors include five Air Medals, two Aerial Achievement Medals, four Air Force Commendation Medals, and two Meritorious Service Medals.

A. Mutual support in combat is essential for any formation of fighter pilots to succeed. For that reason, we never fly combat solo—always as a team. We constantly have our head on a swivel and crosscheck each other’s blind spots—normally, right behind our aircraft—for enemy aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. This concept of monitoring the blind spots is known as “checking six.” During the combat mission I just described, my wingman, Captain Mike “Pigpen” Hernandez, did a great job checking my six and was able to target the radar site that locked up my aircraft with his anti-radiation HARM missile. This missile is designed to damage or destroy radar sites by homing in on their radar emissions. Once the enemy saw the missile coming inbound, they turned off the radar that was tracking my aircraft, and this action forced the missiles to lose track of me. Without Pigpen, I may not have survived. He was a great wingman that day.

Q. What personality traits work in a cockpit? What makes a good fighter pilot?

A. As a peak-performance speaker and consultant, I have a passion for understanding what factors drive people to perform successfully in highly volatile and stressful environments. Fighter pilots are a perfect example of people who have to perform under these conditions. I think the three most important traits are self-discipline, skill and the ability to focus under pressure. Fighter pilots must exercise tremendous willpower and self-control, not only in combat, but in their training as well. We have a saying in the fighter pilot world: “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in combat.”

There is no room for complacency in the cockpit. Preparation is paramount, and to remain effective, one must constantly train and sharpen one’s skills. Moreover, it’s important to point out that the pressures of combat, along with the constant change inherent in battle, can lead to performance-crippling fear and fatigue. The ability to stay committed and focused and press forward despite these hindrances is the key to mastering the cockpit environment. It develops the confidence needed to adapt, overcome and perform when the heat is on.

Finally, the best fighter pilots are able to communicate effectively with their wingmen, both in the air and on the ground, and can process a tremendous amount of information. This ability helps build what’s known as situational awareness—“SA,” for short. SA is the ability to gather and process a multitude of variables in combat: weather; fuel state; location of the threat, your wingmen and emergency airfields; aircraft performance; and so on. The best fighter pilots not only have the highest SA, they also can successfully perform complicated maneuvers and work together with their wingmen.

Q. When did you discover that being a pilot could provide lessons for the workplace?

A. I left active duty after 11 years of flying and entered the business world as a sales manager and then as an entrepreneur. I became a relentless student of business and realized that the better I prepared for my sales and business “missions,” the more successful I was. I also learned that stress, although different from that experienced in the cockpit, was still present. My ability to focus under pressure was a key factor in my success. My fighter pilot training and passion for excellence began paying off. The more I witnessed how my peers and fellow businesspeople interacted with their coworkers, the more I could see how building trusting relationships was critical to success on the job.

Lt. Col. Waldman is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller, Never Fly Solo, which discusses his military life and how the things he learned in the cockpit can help people succeed in their careers.Q. What are some of the key lessons in your best-selling book, Never Fly Solo?

A. As I mentioned, no fighter pilot flies in combat solo. We always fly as a team with our wingmen. The mission is so complicated, and so much needs to get done, that we assign roles and responsibilities to everyone in the formation and hold them accountable. Never Fly Solo shows how to apply these methods in a workplace environment.

Q. What are some of the leadership tools that can help capture the “wingman” concept for business executives?

A. Shared vision—every wingman in your organization must know exactly what they are fighting for. They must be committed to the mission and understand exactly how their unique role in the organization is essential to its success. Values-based culture—integrity, accountability, mutual respect and teamwork must serve as the foundation for all relationships between employees and with partners and clients as well. Effective communication—leaders listen aggressively and communicate their vision with passion. They promote open communication and connect with the heart and soul of their wingmen. Train-to-win mindset—successful leaders demand flawless preparation, not flawless execution. They encourage their wingmen to expand their capabilities, and consistently reward high performers who take calculated risks and “push the envelope” in order to grow.

Q. What attributes do you think makes someone a good leader?

A. Leaders are inspirers and motivators. They bring out the best in people and know how to work together with multiple groups. They also realize that you have to communicate effectively with other members of your team, and be open to giving and receiving feedback to get a job done. Connecting with people from the heart, and not just the head, is also a key attribute of an effective leader. Finally, a good leader sets the example and is committed to excellence in their personal and professional lives.

Q. What is one of the lesser-known secrets to leadership success that often gets overlooked?

A. One of the things that allowed me to be successful in and out of the military was my ability to ask for help. When adversity or challenges arise, knowing that you have wingmen in your life that will support you will give you the confidence to take action and stay resilient. So, you have to be willing to ask for help and get others to assist you. If you’re in a silo and are afraid to ask for help, it’s going to be to your detriment. But the key is to build trusting relationships with others before you need them.

“In business and life, you should never fly solo,” says Lt. Col. Waldman. “The way to win when the heat is on lies in the ability of every wingman in your organization, regardless of their role, to give 100 percent and support the team.”Q. How would you suggest organizing a corporate culture based on the “wingman” concept?

A. You want to create an environment where others are going to have the courage to tell you what you need to hear instead of what you want to hear. Being open to giving and receiving honest feedback fosters collaboration, innovation and mutual trust. You also need to get out and “walk the flight line” with other members of your organization and appreciate what they do. Finally, you can’t fly by the seat of your pants in the business world. You have to prepare relentlessly and be up-to-date with relevant knowledge about your customers, competition and technology. Contingency planning and training builds confidence, confidence builds trust, and I believe that trust sells.

Q. In your book, Never Fly Solo, you talk about “chair-flying.” How does that apply to a business environment?

A. Chair-flying means rehearsing a mission. That is when we, as fighter pilots, before we fly, strap into a simulator or sit at our desk and mentally rehearse every emergency, radio call and procedure. We get it right in our minds first so that if, God forbid, we get shot at, lose an engine or have some other emergency, we’re confident because we’ve already rehearsed it in our minds. Now, if you can apply that to a sales environment, to a general contractor on a construction site or to a nurse in a hospital emergency room, you can see how chair-flying can impact results in a big way. How you perform when the pressure is on will ultimately determine success or failure.

Q. How can a leader empower a team to succeed, and get the most out of each team member?

A. A leader is someone who gets things done but doesn’t always have to take the credit for the wins. If you’re always present for the high visibility deals—and you are always the face and eyes and ears of your organization when those big deals are being negotiated —it may deflate some of the pride of the key stakeholder(s) who brought the deal to the table. I think an effective leader will make a decision and then say, “I support it, encourage it and give it my blessing; but you go and close it, because you made it happen!”

Q. So giving ownership to other stakeholders makes the difference?

A. People support what they help create. When they really feel ownership of a solution to a problem or a business deal, they will be further empowered to solve more problems and create more great deals. But if they feel the CEO and senior executives are only there to get a few more patches and ribbons on their chests, they may not be fully motivated to continue their efforts. Their passion and commitment will fade. However, if people are recognized and appreciated for their contributions, then they will put in more effort and get behind their leader. This ultimately builds loyalty and collaboration—two extremely valuable assets in business.

For more information or to hire Lt. Col. Waldman as a keynote speaker, please, visit www.yourwingman.com.

View all featured articles