How Leaders Break the Trust Barrier for High Performance

4 Elements to Creating A High Performance Team


Trust. Find any high performance team with sustained success and you’ll find it. It’s the glue of relationships. It’s the desire to serve the team over self.

As important as it is, you’ll receive little training on it in an MBA program. You may have experienced it, but it seems elusive. Few can describe it; fewer can teach it, and finding a leader who can create it multiple times seems like a dream.

Enter Colonel JV Venable. He’s a graduate of the USAF’s Fighter Weapons School. He commanded and led the USAF Thunderbirds and 1100 American airmen.



Teaching trust is crucial. Think about the trust needed to fly within inches of another yet at over 500 miles per hour. You just can’t imagine doing it without the highest degree of trust. JV’s new book, Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance, shares lessons from his experience as a Top Gun instructor with all of us. I recently asked him about creating this level of trust and how everyone can learn from his experience.



Harness the Power of the Thunderbirds

What drove you to write this book?

Book CoverAs you might imagine, the insights and sensations that came with flying on the point of the Thunderbirds were pretty special. More often than not I got the feeling my jet was being furthered by the five jets on my wing.  I was convinced it was an emotional surge until I felt the shift on a particularly smooth day, half way through my first year on the team. In the middle of the demonstration, an unexpected but very real surge of energy hit my jet and it began to turn the entire formation — like a giant hand lifting up my left wing.  During the debrief it became obvious the surge came from the rate of closure and end-game proximity of my left wingman.  He was so close that he caused that wing to become more efficient and produce more lift than the one on the right.  That was the moment I realized it wasn’t just a feeling I was being carried by the team around me; the surge was real.  Just like stock car racers on the track at Daytona, we were drafting. The more I thought about it, the more I could see drafting’s effects everywhere, and the thought would change the way I looked at the world around me.

I wrote Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance out of the passion borne from the physical and emotional surge that began that day on the Thunderbirds.  My goal is to share that passion with people just like you.  We need to spread the leadership bug, and this concept of drafting will make you a carrier.



Leaders and the Drafting Phenomenon

How can understanding the phenomenon of drafting help a leader?

In racing, the concept of drafting is based on a leader cutting a path through the air for those behind him, and a trailer being close enough to the leader’s bumper to shift the drag from the leader’s bumper to his own.  That same concept was alive on the Thunderbirds in the air — and on the ground.

Every unit within our organization was minimally manned, and each relied on the others to help execute its role. Our amazing people were lined up, bumper to bumper, taking the weight, the drag off the individuals and elements in front of them, while they plowed the path for those in trail.

Once you realize the impact closure can have on your team, you’ll see drafting everywhere you look.  Cyclists in the Tour de France, the V formations of migrating geese, even ducklings on a pond will make you realize how your actions can cause gaps to close or expand, and accelerate or slow your organization down.  That dwell time will give you an understanding of the positive impact, or the repercussions of your actions, before you put them in play.

Drafting makes leadership something you can see.


2000 Pilots

Rewrite Code to Create Trust

What’s the trust barrier?

As much as we’d like it not to be true, we all have biases that affect the way we see and deal with the people around us.  Biases come when we’re burned after putting our physical, emotional, or financial well-being at risk with someone we trust.  The moment that happens our minds capture every associated detail.  Every perceivable characteristic of the individual who scarred you – their shape, tone, facial expressions are all placed in an indelible line of subconscious coding that lays in wait for another person to match any element there-in.

Over the course of our lives we build in hundreds – maybe even thousands of lines of code that form layers of protection… layers built on events and individuals we may not even consciously remember.  If you think those sleeper cells are hard to predict in our own minds, it’s impossible to know what is lying in wait in the minds of our followers. Those lines of code – those biases are what form the barrier of trust.

Our job as leaders is not to try and analyze that coding, but to help our follower’s write new code that will allow them to place their trust in us.


Commitment, Loyalty & Trust

You talk about commitment, then loyalty, then trust. How do these three interrelate?

While we would all like to waive off the biases of another with a line like, “I know you’ve been burned in the past but, you can trust me…”, it never works.  As funny as it may sound, by conveying that out loud, you’re just as likely to bring another sleeping bias to life in the minds of your followers.

Helping another write new coding that will allow them to trust in you takes time and a methodical process.  By showing your commitment to the individuals behind you, by giving them the technical skills, traction, and social integration they need to come up to speed on your team, you help develop their commitment to you and lay the foundation for the next step in the process — loyalty.



Loyalty is fostered by your willingness to go the distance to support your team.  It comes when you find out what wants and needs are driving the individuals behind you, and then act to further those passions.  Their joys, dreams, and passions can be found in one of five areas of their lives:  their faith, family, friends, health, and their jobs.  Discover, and then help them further a deeply seated passion, and you’ll capture their loyalty.  From there, time and your actions as a consistent man or woman of character will pull them into trust.

This book delivers a methodical, repeatable plan that will help you build trust in your team through the process of drafting.


Leaders: Don’t Shy Away from the Personal

Many shy away from “personal” issues, but you have a different take. Would you explain how leaders should interact with people along these lines?

JV Venable
JV Venable

In a world that constantly demands greater and greater efficiencies, many leaders see people issues as messy and time-consuming.  Others believe that getting to know their teams too well can make laying off (or disciplining) individuals too emotionally challenging should the need arise.  Without a measure of your own discipline, any one of those fears can be realized, but don’t forgo this incredible accelerant over an exaggerated assumption or fear.

Make no mistake about it:  leading people is a hard and at times lonely job, but you can’t hide behind a curtain and expect your team to fire on all cylinders. Building a strong following relies on the people behind you knowing you have their best interests at heart.  Learning what those best interests are relies on us listening for and to the lives around us – listening for their passions. When you help them capture a dream or further their momentum within one of the central pillars of their lives, you’ll draw them into the furthest reaches of loyalty.   Drafting is based on increasing the momentum of those behind you to the point where their energy and proximity combine to accelerate you and your organization.  The joys and benefits waiting for you and your team here will far outweigh the risks, and once that surge hits your wing, you’ll never see personal issues in the same light again.



Recovering Lost Trust

What destroys trust in a leader? Once trust is diminished, can it be recovered?

Those flying on your wing have to carry the load associated with your stated goals and organizational values, and many will take risks on your behalf to support them.  If they get the sense that you are cavalier with your words, or watch you fail to live the principles you espouse, you’ll lose their trust.  The bank of trust is a tough creditor:  Write a bad check and your good standing is gone forever.

When you are flying in close formation like we did on the Thunderbirds, a failure in trust will cause those around you to back away from your jet.  The additional space will give them more time to crosscheck the available positional cues and enough safe separation to maneuver around your next failure.  With that, the very best we can hope to recover after a failure of trust is loyalty.  Come up short of your stated values a second time and your followers will slide from loyalty back to commitment – or even disengagement — and they will stay there only until they can find another draft worth following.

Everyone makes mistakes, but once its established, you’ll never lose the trust of those drafting in your wake as long as you live by the principles and character you convey.


Courtesy of the USAF Thunderbirds
Courtesy of the USAF Thunderbirds

How has cancer helped to shape and improve your leadership?

I think there comes a point in most lives when we realize that we’re not on a moving sidewalk that magically takes us from one pleasant experience to the next.   Cancer was that grounding moment for me – physically and emotionally.  There was no one to blame for my predicament, and no checklist for how to get back on track.  There was no one who could show me how to climb out of those dark days, and if I was going to beat the disease, I had to chart a course and marshal a team to make it happen.

I had a lifelong passion to command and lead the USAF Thunderbirds, and as unrealistic as it may have been at the time, putting that dream on the horizon gave my family and me hope.  To get there, I had to be the advocate, the expert on my disease as well as the goal setter and the coach that would drive me back into the kind of physical shape that would allow me to capture that outlandish objective.

Cancer made me embrace many of the roles and tasks of leadership that I had shirked or even belittled up to that point in my life.  Perhaps the biggest was a line I had read many years before that had been crafted by Napoleon: “Leaders are dealers in hope…”  Now that I know the depth of meaning in that line, I’ll never let it go.



How to Balance Between Tyrant and Pushover

Let’s talk about one of the gaps, the respect gap.  How does a leader’s motivation work between fear of loss of popularity and fear of failure? How does a leader manage to balance between being a tyrant and a pushover?

Without question, the two biggest joys or accolades we can receive as leaders are success and popularity.  Unfortunately, most of us are driven more by our fears than the prospect of rewards.  Those of us who have a more prominent fear of failure will act more like tyrants, while those driven more by the want for popularity will very often become pushovers.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you view yourself as a pushover or a tyrant.  The important thing to recognize is your center point, that place that lies between the extremes of the tyrant/pushover spectrum where you live and lead day by day.  Put yourself in the center of the graph below and think about the positions to the left and right of you.  If you strive to make the work environment enjoyable for your people, at what point are you willing to put your popularity at risk to improve your team’s performance?  If you see yourself as a nail driver, when are you willing to back off your drive for perfection to build morale and retention into your team?

No matter where your comfort zone lies, you must be willing to move off that center to maximize your team’s performance.  If you start off in a new position or role seeking popularity, you’ll find it very hard to lean into the other side of “you” when the need arises. You can always lighten up when your team begins to meet the markers and goals you set for them, so start off a little right of your center.

Copyright JVV Venable. Used by permission
Copyright JV Venable. Used by permission

Why Building Trust Takes Time

Stepping back from the gaps, let’s talk generally about trust. Is there a way to short circuit the process and create trusted relationships faster?

This is another great question, and the answer begins with the definition.  Trust is your willingness to put yourself or your organization at risk on the belief that another will come through on a task, in a role, or with a mission.  Expressions of trust that lack risk are merely expressions.   With that, you can make up your own mind as to when you should place your trust in another.  But remember this trust thing is two-way, and while you may willingly compromise the process and give followers your trust without a real foundation, it is their trust you have to develop.

It takes time to override the biases – the internal layers of protection in others that gives them cause to write new code that will allow them to put their trust in you.  While you might wish it away, there are no shortcuts. The only sure way to capture it is by giving and developing their commitment, then loyalty, and finally trust.  It takes a while to get there, but when you do, the surge of energy—the acceleration it will bring your team—will allow you to elevate your organization’s trajectory in ways you can now begin to imagine.



Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance

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