3 Secrets to Breaking Barriers and Inspiring Others

What we can learn from a former U.S. Air Force officer and pilot about taking a leap of faith.

By Andrii Oleksiienko/Shutterstock
By Andrii Oleksiienko/Shutterstock

As I was reflecting on the inspiring words of Nicole Malachowski, a true trailblazer (“sky blazer” feels more fitting) a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but feel vindicated by her three secrets to breaking barriers and inspiring others: courage, vulnerability and trust. 

I have long touted all three as essential to great leadership and having effective relationships in life. Whether coming from a superstar top gun (as the first female Thunderbird pilot, Nicole really is), extensive studies by the world’s leading researchers, or an ordinary HR gal who lives every day for life lessons, these three traits come up over and over again.

Flying through the skies at nearly 700 mph doing mind-bending acrobatics requiring precision measured in inches tests a human’s limits to be courageous, vulnerable and trusting. Fascinatingly, Nicole described being all three as being most difficult on land, working with individuals and teams. Here’s how she breaks it down: 


Having courage to believe in yourself can be extraordinarily difficult, especially if you dream big and listen to negative voices in your head and those around you: “You can’t do X. That is for ‘other’ people.” 

As Nicole professes – and I know Cy Wakeman endorses – stop believing everything you think, UNLESS you believe you can do what you are setting out to do. The human spirit is an amazing superpower and you are lucky enough as a human to possess it. Don’t discount it, don’t hold it back. Be courageous and bold and amazing things happen. Nicole is proof. She eventually refused to stop settling for other people’s definitions of what she was capable of and let her courage lead the way.


A powerful, under-rated strength humans are hesitant to use. I didn’t understand why, but thanks to Brene Brown explaining it one can see how it becomes a great asset. Being vulnerable – even when uttering those three words no one likes to say in the business world (“I don’t know”) – is freeing. It fosters the courage to take risks, be bold, reject rejection and ask for help. 

Nicole’s counsel to those hesitant to let themselves be vulnerable: “I don’t care who you are or where you are in your career. You are never too good or never too experienced to ask for help.” In her case, asking for help with an aerial maneuver she was struggling to grasp literally was a life-and-death matter for her entire flying team. Most of us aren’t playing that type of high-stakes poker in life, but even in the smallest of circumstances (“I really don’t understand this, can you help me?”) can be game-changing for you and your teams.


Building trust is darn hard. Hard to earn, easy to burn. Nicole has the answer. “Build trust by being trustworthy.” As you build deep levels of trust, you will find the courage to be vulnerable. 

As I reflected on my own experiences with these three elements of leadership, I recalled a recent life example. Coming into my current role I learned I would be a member of the Pension and Investments Committee of our company. Investments – like Wall Street stuff? Yikes. In my personal life I leave that to my capable financial advisor as this is so beyond my capabilities. Yet now I’m part of a Committee that governs this for our entire company. I froze in fear. “Should I fess up now?” 

I remember confiding in our leader of Compensation and Benefits as I read the agenda for my first meeting, realizing I’d have to face the music. “I am way over my skis. I will need your help and some private tutoring.” What happened? Her reassuring response, “We are surrounded by a team of experts and other Committee members who are here to help; you will learn from them, I promise. It’s very technical stuff at times – we all learn something new at each meeting.” I trusted her and the process. I was whisked off for several private sessions with our experts, who seemed almost appreciative of the opportunity to teach me. It felt as if opening up about my vulnerability in this space made them want to help me in a sincere way. 

That was nearly 20 months ago, and while I likely would not volunteer to lead the portfolio review segment of the P&I Committee Meetings on my own, I’ve grown by learning more and more as my confidence builds with each meeting. (A lot of offline self-study and endless questions for our experts has helped, too). 

I hope Nicole would agree with me as I sum it up: Don’t try to be perfect. Try to be the perfect version of you by being courageous, vulnerable and trusting/trustworthy. Let the world see how amazing you are. 

Originally published on LinkedIn.com

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