“Make your friends your mentors and your mentors your friends.” — Lt Col Waldo Waldman
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lt Col Waldo Waldman.
Known as The Wingman, Lt Col Waldo Waldman is a Hall of Fame leadership speaker, executive coach, and author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestseller Never Fly Solo. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he’s a combat decorated fighter pilot and expert in helping leaders and organizations overcome obstacles and accelerate performance in changing environments. His clients include Marriott, Siemens, American Express, The Denver Broncos, and Verizon. To learn more, visit here.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
My upbringing has been instrumental in developing my passion for performance, aviation, and relationships. I grew up in a very competitive, blue-collar, family on Long Island where I was the youngest of four kids — which included an identical twin brother, Dave…my ultimate wingman! I’ve always been an athlete and excelled in school but never knew what I wanted to do in life until my dad took me to Kennedy Airport in the Bronx where he was an airplane mechanic. I’ll never forget stepping onto the tarmac — smelling the jet fuel and hearing the rumble of the jet engines. Before we left for the day, my dad sat me in the cockpit of a 747 jumbo jet and I knew my destiny was set. I was going to fly jets!
I became maniacal about aviation and learned all I could about flying. Becoming a military pilot wasn’t part of my trajectory until a guidance counselor introduced me to the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The challenge and uniqueness of the Academy excited me. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to attend. However, gaining an appointment was extremely difficult and competitive, and you needed to be very well rounded with super high grades. As such, I committed to doing whatever I could to get accepted. I studied hard, got involved in sports, graduated at the top of my High School class, and earned an appointment! My trajectory was set, and I’ve never looked back.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am currently a leadership keynote speaker and executive coach. My mission is to inspire leaders to break their fear barrier, build collaborative cultures of trust, and cultivate courage and resilience in times of massive change. I’ve been delivering keynotes, virtual seminars, and coaching leaders and entrepreneurs on managing change, maintaining focus amidst adversity and nurturing trusting relationships to build more confidence during uncertainty. It’s all based on what I learned as a combat decorated fighter pilot, where peak performance, challenge, and handling adversity were a part of everyday life. But it also is based on years of real-world experience in business, as I was in high tech sales and business consulting before becoming a speaker/coach.
With the current crisis, people are facing adversity in so many ways and some are paralyzed to take action. They need direction, tools, mindset shifts, and a positive vision for the future. This is hard to do when there are so many “fear mongers” dragging us down.
I recently conducted a virtual program for several hundred sales managers and entrepreneurs who were experiencing massive downturns and working mostly from home. Some were laid off and struggling to find a way to pay their bills. We discussed tools and tactics to manage their new environment (cockpit) and to effectively deal with fear, isolation, uncertainty, and chaos.
One of my calls to action for them was to let them know it’s ok to ask for help from their “wingmen.” I also believe that humility, empathy, and compassion are needed more than ever. I challenged them to be extremely disciplined around their schedule and to be willing to get uncomfortable learning new technologies. Finally — I reminded them to re-evaluate their purpose, keep focused on their dreams, and to find “meaning in their mission.”
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I spent 25 years in the active duty Air Force and Reserve as a pilot training instructor and F-16 fighter pilot. I graduated the Air Force Academy, flew 2,650 flight hours and 65 combat missions in Iraq and Serbia. I’ve traveled all over the world, lived remotely in South Korea, and have earned multiple medals for valor in combat. I also spent time as an admissions liaison officer for the US Air Force Academy which was extremely rewarding. I love helping young leaders find their passion and go for their dreams!
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
When I was a young Captain, I rudely cursed out a 23-year-old crew chief (mechanic) for not fully fueling my jet before a training mission. I would be at a disadvantage with less fuel, so I became irritated. Instead of communicating like a professional, I was disrespectful and let my anger get the best of me.
My commander heard about our interaction and made me get up at 6 am the next morning to “walk the flight line” with the mechanics and weapons technicians. I never worked so hard in my life and discovered I really didn’t know what these folks did to get those planes to fly. It was humbling to say the least.
I learned that fighter pilots don’t just have wingmen in the air. They have wingmen on the ground. I learned that communicating with tact and mutual respect go a long way in nurturing trust and are essential to motivating others to work hard. Most of all, I realized that appreciating the unsung heroes at work and thanking them for their efforts is a powerful tool to build trust and support. After all, I truly believe the most important fuel of performance is appreciation.
Great leaders…and great companies…never fly solo.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
I was blessed to work with so many amazing leaders in my Air Force career. But the most compelling example of heroism happened in 1967 during the Vietnam War. It’s become known as “Pardo’s Push.”
In 1967 captains Bob Pardo and Earl Aman were flying a bombing mission over North Vietnam in their F-4 Phantoms. Both planes were hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire, but Aman’s jet was in bad shape. He lost 5000 pounds of fuel and as a result, would have to bail out over enemy territory. However, his wingman wasn’t going to let that happen.
Pardo did something that’s never been done before. He literally pushed Aman’s plane to safety! At 300 miles per hour, he dropped his plane below and behind Aman’s crippled aircraft. Then, with his own windshield, he bumped Aman’s tail hook, nudging the crippled plane forward. Foot by foot…mile by mile…he managed to push Aman’s plane over the Laotian border where they both parachuted to safety and avoided capture.
Pardo sacrificed his own aircraft and put his own life at risk to save another pilot. As he later stated, “If one of us gets in trouble, everyone else gets together to help.
He was the ultimate wingman — a true hero.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
To me — being a hero spans beyond a single act or a remarkable skill. It has to do with one’s heart and character. A hero embraces compassion, sacrifice, and service — not just when things are going well, but also when adversity strikes. As Pardo demonstrated, a hero goes above and beyond to help others, even if it is inconvenient or puts their own well-being (or life) at risk.
Heroism is normally revealed under pressure. But it’s also revealed behind the scenes when no one is watching. It’s revealed in the little things people do that make a big difference in others. These are our everyday heroes who show up and give others inspiration and encouragement to keep going when we’re running out of fuel. They lift us up, rather than drag us down. As I like to say, “Leaders Lift!”
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
I learned so much from my time in the military about performance, leadership, and most of all — relationships. It helped provide a significant foundation for my success in navigating the world of business, and I doubt I would be as successful today without the experience.
One of the biggest benefits from my time in the military was my ability to perform and stay focused under pressure. I learned how important discipline was in a peak performance environment where standards were very high. Today, planning each hour and having extremely high attention to detail helps me stay on track and navigate the precarious demands of the workday. This helps tremendously when it comes to preparing for sales calls, delivering a keynote presentation for a major client, or coaching an entrepreneur. BTW — I do my best to apply this discipline and attention to detail in all areas of my life — including my health and fitness.
Another major aspect the military helped me is my ability to connect and communicate with different types of people. Our squadron had an extremely diverse population with different religions, races, and backgrounds — but we all maintained a tremendous amount of respect for each other. We also trained with people from different countries, so it was critical for us to understand different cultures, norms, and communication styles. This has helped me in business in my international travels and has given me tools to nurture collaborative, trusting partnerships with many different types of organizations.
Finally, I learned the value of a strong and cohesive culture based on shared core values. As a leader, it’s ultimately up to me to set the tone for my team and to emulate the traits needed for growth and operational excellence. Character, integrity, work ethic, listening skills, and a constant drive to improve each and every day has made me a better leader at work and at home.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When I was a senior in High school, my history teacher Mr. John Brennan kicked me out of class for clowning around. I had never been kicked out of a class in my life, and I was shocked and embarrassed. I thought my excellent grades were enough to garner Mr. Brennan’s favor, but he simply wouldn’t tolerate disruptions in his classroom. He was old school and expected the best behavior from all of his students. Needless to say, I kept quiet for the rest of his class.
The next semester, my class schedule resulted in me being the only student in a study hall period right after lunch. I was thrilled at this opportunity for “free time,” until I found out the supervising teacher was none other than Mr. Brennan! I was aghast. For the next semester, I would have to spend 50 minutes each day 1–1 with my teacher nemesis. However, what I initially thought would be a long and tedious study hall, became a class in mentorship that would impact me forever.
I learned Mr. Brennan was a retired Naval Officer and Korean War veteran. So, we immediately connected when I told him I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy. He spent time coaching me on what to expect at the Academy and how I could succeed as a cadet and future officer. We discussed leadership, ethics, politics, values, and military history. But most of all, we talked about life.
Mr. Brennan became my friend, mentor, and coach. He gave me his time, wisdom, and values. He invested in me and helped prepare me for the tough journey I would experience in the military. Most of all, he taught me that a leader can be tough and demanding, but when done with love and compassion, it can help you grow.
To this day, I’ve never met another mentor like Mr. Brennan. I stayed in touch with him for twenty-five years and I’m honored to have had his influence in my life.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
Crisis is an emergency event that’s unprecedented and one you may not have prepared for or anticipated. It’s potentially very dangerous, can turn your world upside down and create chaos, fear, and anxiety. Ultimately, the ability to overcome the crisis is extremely difficult and takes tremendous resolve, focus, and effort.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
First and foremost, leaders should maintain high standards of excellence, invest in up-to-date technologies, and confirm the strengths and weaknesses of their team. Human capital is critical. Having wingmen who are resilient, adaptable, and knowledgeable in diverse components of business operations is a foundational element in dealing with a crisis.
The next critical key to planning for a crisis is without a doubt preparation. A major component of this preparation is getting together with your team and contingency planning. Many times, business owners and leaders struggle to deal with a crisis because they haven’t anticipated it, nor have they trained their team and partners on what to do in case the unexpected happens. Needless to say, they wind up “flying by the seat of their pants” which usually doesn’t result in success.
This is why fighter pilots are so confident when we go to war. We’ve already anticipated every “what-if” — every missile launch, engine failure, and weather issue. We’re used to being uncomfortable and operating under stress in training, so we are able to do the same in the crisis of war. Developing contingency plans with your team and then training around carefully developed emergency scenarios is a great way to alleviate the chaos that may ensure when a crisis strikes.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
In the Air Force, pilots learn four distinct steps in handling an emergency:
- Maintain aircraft control
- Analyze the situation
- Take proper action
- Land as soon as conditions permit.
The first step of “maintaining aircraft control” is the most important. Pilots don’t want to crash a jet and possibly die because they buried their heads in the cockpit trying to locate the source of a fire. And you don’t want to crash your business, relationships, or life while handling a crisis.
Maintaining aircraft control during a crisis means keeping your “wings level” and not panicking. It means maintaining focus on what’s important in life and not losing control of the fundamentals like your health, customers, and life-line relationships (i.e. Family and close friends.)
Next — you need to do your best to take emotion out of a crisis and properly analyze the entire situation. Ask — what’s at stake? What are the consequences if this crisis isn’t taken care of? Where are my resources? How can my team (co-workers, family members, friends, associates) help me handle this situation and help me think clearly despite the stress?
Part of this is realizing that as humans, we all have blind spots. Our limited judgment, skills, and experience may hinder our ability to see the big picture. Know that it is perfectly fine if you don’t have an immediate solution to your crisis. But make sure you reach out to others and ask for help before you spiral out of control and hit the ground.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
People who are able to survive a crisis stay calm, rational, and focused amidst the turbulence, “missiles” and uncertainty. They acknowledge their fear and doubt, but don’t let it overwhelm them. They are able to confront the harsh reality of the situation and not get so emotionally caught up in it that they fail to think clearly.
Another critical trait is the ability to communicate with candor. Don’t be afraid to share your fears and doubts with others as it can help release your anxieties and reduce your stress. Being around positive people who are solution-oriented and who can lift you up can also build the resilience needed to stay focused on a solution. In combat, we were all scared and stressed. But there were always a few “lifters’ who managed to brighten the mood and keep things positive.
Part of communication is the ability to ask for help and seek advice from mentors, colleagues, friends, and associates. Your network is key here, and you want to build that network before it’s needed. Successful people never fly solo.
Finally, focus on results, keep your energy positive, stay healthy, and have a can-do attitude. As a leader, your example and your attitude are contagious. It will set the tone for your team, customers, family, and loved ones. Others need to feel your vision, certainty, and confidence and want to work with you. Ultimately, surviving a crisis takes teamwork and trust.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My best friend Al Wansky truly emulates the qualities of a leader who can handle a crisis. I met him at the Air Force Academy and have been friends with him for over 30 years. Since the day we met, I’ve watched Al deal with crisis and chaos with steadfast resolve. He’s always able to remain stoic, reasonable, and committed to solving the problem at hand. Yet he still maintains a sense of humor and doesn’t take life too seriously.
For example, his elderly mother recently was diagnosed with dementia and became severely depressed. She was living in filth, unable to take her medications, and ultimately couldn’t live on her own. Despite having two young children and a tedious work schedule, Al quickly marshaled his resources, engaged social workers, and got his mom the help she needed. He eventually moved her into a retirement community where she is now stable and happy.
I have a saying: “Make your friends your mentors and your mentors your friends.” Al is one of those friends.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Two years into my active duty Air Force flying career, I went scuba diving for the first time in the Caribbean with some close pilot training friends. We participated in an abbreviated 30-minute crash scuba training course and headed for the open sea. I thought I was prepared for anything, but shortly after entering the water, everything went wrong.
I used improper swimming techniques and frantically swam with my arms instead of my legs. I became massively exhausted. Then, 35 feet under the water, my mask malfunctioned, and I inhaled an entire lungful of saltwater. My lungs felt like they were on fire as I desperately choked into my mask, worried that I would inhale even more water. Within seconds I became lightheaded and experienced something I never had before — a massive panic attack. I thought I was going to die. No combat mission in the F-16 ever came close to the fear and panic I felt. I freaked out, signaled to the scuba instructor that I was done, and made it to the surface, thankful that the traumatic experience was over.
However, the real setback happened a week later when I was back in the cockpit flying a standard training mission in Oklahoma. The weather turned poor with thunderstorms and thick massive clouds. My aircraft became enveloped by the clouds and I couldn’t see the sky, sun, or ground. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I experienced the same panic attack I had just a few days prior. But instead of being 35 feet underwater, I was now 35 thousand feet in the air. I became claustrophobic and thought — “I need to land this aircraft now!”
In all my years of flying, I had never experienced any type of claustrophobia. But that day was different. I landed the aircraft ~30 minutes later and shook off the experience as just another day of flying. Unfortunately, anxiety and claustrophobia never left me.
For the rest of my flying career, every time I strapped into an aircraft, I had to battle my anxiety demons and fight to defeat my claustrophobia and fear of having another panic attack. The anxiety would particularly rear its ugly head in bad weather or on long night combat missions. However, I never quit and worked extremely hard to get to the root of my anxiety and defeat it.
I recaptured my passion for the thrill of flying and learned to Focus my Energy and Accept Responsibility for the wings on my chest. I read books on courage, overcoming adversity, and mindfulness and became a student in personal development. I stopped fighting my fear and instead accepted it.
Most importantly, I learned to develop a secret weapon that helped me deal with the continuous anxiety crises — service. Whenever my anxiety threatened to paralyze me in flight, I would focus on helping my wingmen. I got out of my head, “distracted myself from myself,” and learned to focus on who needed me and how I could help them. I became their wingmen and this in turn gave more purpose and meaning in my life. Ultimately, this helped reframe my focus and essentially get me to forget about my anxiety.
By persevering through this struggle, I became stronger, more resilient, and confident. I also became more compassionate for others who experience anxiety, fear, and crisis. The experience established the foundation for my role as an inspirational leadership speaker and coach, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
First and foremost, one must face the stark reality of a crisis and get about the hard work and discipline to confront it. Vietnam War POW James Stockdale called it “facing the brutal truth.” Don’t “what-if”, second guess or spend energy resisting the truth of the crisis, as it can prevent you from coming up with a plan to defeat it!
I remember returning from a combat mission in Serbia after surviving four surface-to-air missile launches on my aircraft. The home field runway in Italy was shut down due to bad weather, so my wingman and I had to divert to an alternate airfield. Due to the distance to the airfield, we got very low on fuel and our options became limited. We would have only two chances to make that airfield. If not, we would have to bail out, which was an alternative we didn’t want to entertain.
Here’s the bottom line: We didn’t panic, and we didn’t “wish for more fuel.” We didn’t curse the weather Gods or complain to each other over the radios. We focused, applied our training, and dealt with the task at hand.
When crisis happens, don’t waste precious time in fear and doubt mode because it’s extremely difficult to logically plan in such a state of mind. Face the truth, set an objective, and execute. Be confident in your abilities and training, and “land the plane.”
Second — there is tremendous power in nurturing a trusted team and realizing that you’re not flying solo through crisis. A great team crushes fear and builds confidence. They provide a wealth of ideas, feedback, support, and encouragement. Most importantly, they help you plan and implement ideas quicker than if you were facing a crisis alone. Therefore, communicating with your team is essential.
I’ll never forget arriving at Aviano Air Base in March of 1999. 100 pilots from the 78th and 79th Fighter Squadron deployed to defeat the horrific regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Within minutes of in processing to the base, we gathered into a large auditorium and the intelligence officers briefed us on the threat. The maps were loaded with Surface to Air Missile batteries and radar sites. We had never seen anything so formidable like it in training. Everywhere we flew, we would be in range of a deadly missile!
My mind filled with anxiety and dread. How would I make it through this war? Would I get shot down, or even worse, killed? But then I looked around the room and saw Koz, Snag, Yoda, Trigger, and Hak. These were my squadron mates…my friends. They were my wingmen. We were well trained, confident, loyal, and trusting. I felt a sense of pride knowing I was part of the best fighter squadron in the entire world. These men and women would have my back and I would have theirs. I wasn’t flying solo. You shouldn’t either.
The third step any person should take when dealing with crisis involves asking for help. Many people get so bogged down in handling a crisis that they forget that others are available to help them. They fear showing weakness or vulnerability, but it truly takes courage to ask for help and admit your helplessness. And I’m not just talking about your co-workers or business partners. I’m talking about your friends, family, community, and others you have relationships with.
The most stressful part of preparing for a combat mission was often the time in between the flight briefing and departing for the jet. I would often spend quiet time praying or even listening to music. There was one particular mission where the threat was severe, and the weather was marginal. I became anxious and full of fear. Before departing the squadron, I made a quick phone call to my identical twin brother Dave. “Dave, I’m really scared.” He responded, “Rob, you’ve flown dozens of these missions! You can do this. Go out there, make me proud! I love you.”
Dave saw the greatness in me that I couldn’t see for myself and helped turned my fear into something so much more powerful — courage. He strengthened my resilience and pushed me to take action. He gave me wings to fly.
We’re all human. Sometimes we hit a wall and no matter how we try, fear can paralyze us hold us back. We get stuck. But someone else can help us to act. This is the power of asking for help.
Don’t isolate yourself in crisis. Be vulnerable and leverage your key wingman relationships. And remember that you can (and should) be that wingman or wingma’m for someone else. Make sure you’re a “comrade of courage” for others and lend your wings to those who can’t fly on their own.
The fourth thing you should do is to focus on what I call “the why before you fly.” What is the purpose of courageously facing this crisis and what is the ultimate force compelling you to overcome it? What is the outcome you’re seeking to achieve?
A major factor that drove this claustrophobic pilot to keep getting in the cockpit and facing my fears was my dream of being a father. I didn’t want to look back on my life with regret and have to tell my child that when dad faced a crisis, he quit. I had an innate desire to live my life as an example to my child and wanted to leave a legacy of honor, courage, and excellence, not of fear, weakness, and complacency.
Sometimes people lose sight of their goals or forget what it is they are fighting for. Crises forces us to dig deep and reflect on what’s important and why we make the sacrifices we do. It brings “meaning to our mission.” Perhaps you’re fighting for your children, your career, financial independence, a charity you support, or your dream home.
Whatever it is, keeping sight of your end goal and purpose will give you the power to persevere, step out of your comfort zone, and serve those who need you the most. And what’s most rewarding is that you’ll come out the other side more confident, capable, and resilient. You’ll grow.
Finally, when facing crisis, you must cultivate a deep-seeded confidence that you will overcome the crisis and emerge victoriously. In doing so, you will create a future of possibility and hope as opposed to one of doubt and despair. This is harder than it seems, especially when surrounded by naysayers, negativity, and chaos.
I remember while deployed in combat in Kosovo, we didn’t know when the conflict would end. Many days were filled with intense stress, as we fought an enemy that was ruthless, evasive, and innovative. It was easy to get overwhelmed as we never knew what to expect each day.
One day, our commander Lt Col Dave Goldfein (now a 4-star General and Chief of Staff of the entire Air Force) was shot down. We were shocked. Was he alive? Would he be captured? The energy of the squadron diminished. But only for a short while.
Instead of retreating to the danger zone of doubt, we rallied our troops and planned a daring rescue in the wooded mountains of western Serbia. We briefed the plan, assigned roles, and were confident we would save him. It worked. We rescued Col Goldfein within 24 hours of his shootdown! Seeing him the next day eating burgers at a barbeque did wonders for our morale and reinforced our confidence and faith. We saw a brighter future.
When facing crisis, focus on a positive, winning outcome. I call it “envisioning the victory.” Focus on how things will be once you’re “rescued from the woods.” Meditate on the joy you’ll feel when you’ve emerged victorious. Get around positive people, avoid negative news and focus on examples of those who fought hard to overcome their challenges. Create the reality of your positive future in your mind first and you’ll manifest the tools needed to win. It will propel your forward with hope, increase your capabilities, and give you the thrust needed to thrive through crisis.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to create a “Wingman Movement” where each and every human being chooses to mentor someone in need (even for a day.) To create a culture of support where nobody is left alone, afraid, anxious and unworthy. A world where we lift each other up, rather than drag each other down. With so many of us dealing with daily crises and seeking to break our fear barrier and reach new heights, we should realize we aren’t flying solo.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I would be honored to spend time with General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’ve always had such respect for his judgment, character, and leadership skills. He is truly a great American and emulates excellence.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.