University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 103: John Foley Gives His Expertise in High-performance Teams and the Importance of Gratitude.

December 23, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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John Foley is a former lead solo pilot for the Blue Angels, a Sloan Fellow at the Stanford School of Business, a top-rated keynote speaker, a best-selling author, and an expert of high-performance teams. In today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast, Foley explains how the Blue Angels' practical model can benefit an organization's performance and shares his advice for students wanting to Be EPIC in all they do.

Episode Transcript


00:06 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today, John Foley, who is a former lead solo pilot for the Blue Angels, a best-selling author of a book that I really like, Fearless Success. He's a best-selling author, of course. His expertise is really in high performance teams and he has a system called The Fearless Success System and it's transformed thousands of organizations globally. So I'm very fortunate to be able to have him here. John, I'm honored that you would take time to visit with me. Thank you so much.

01:07 John Foley: Well, thank you Matt and I'm glad to be here. Now, those four words, "glad to be here." and you'll see this throughout our conversation, meant something very special to me when I was a Blue Angel. They actually mean more to me today and they actually are the heart and soul or the secret sauce of this Fearless Success System.

01:27 Matt Waller: Well John, just looking at your background, you went to the US Naval Academy and graduated in '82, that means you're probably four years older than me. I don't know for sure but I can tell by looking at you, you're in a lot better shape than I am.

01:46 John Foley: Well, we got the same head, I can tell that. That's for sure.


01:51 Matt Waller: So I do... I wanna talk a little bit about your routine at some point.

01:55 John Foley: Yes. Yeah.

01:55 Matt Waller: In the discussion 'cause you clearly are... Well, you're fit, which is something I'm trying to do more of. I think it's a part of leadership, being healthy. I had a big setback. I used to be a big runner and into lifting weights. I actually... I power-lifted in high school and then I stopped until I turned about 49 and then I started doing power-lifting and I won the Oklahoma State Power-lifting Championship as squat, bench press and dead lift.

02:26 John Foley: Wow!

02:27 Matt Waller: When I was 52 for the 50 and older range but then I got sick with cancer for a year and I lost all my strength and endurance and I'm just now building it back but I've never looked as good as you do but... So I do wanna talk about that 'cause I think it's something that students sometimes overlook as an important part of being a good leader.

02:53 John Foley: Yes.

02:53 Matt Waller: And so I wanna get to that but you went to the Naval Academy.

02:57 John Foley: Yup.

02:57 Matt Waller: And you also got a Master's Degree, a couple of Master's degrees from Stanford and also from the Naval War College but you were a commander in the Navy. So John, your book, Fearless Success is really interesting but I'd like you to... And I do wanna talk about it because there's something in the book in particular I'm wanting to talk about and that is your Diamond Performance Framework but before we do, would you spend just a few moments telling us about who is John?

03:31 John Foley: Great, great question. I was actually born in Germany. My dad was an Army officer and I loved my dad. He was like my hero. I looked up to him in every way I could. Being an Army family, we moved around a lot. I think I lived in over 12 places by the time I graduated high school. All over the United States, a lot on the East Coast. I remember one day, my dad took me to an air show. I happened to be 12 years old and at the time I just wanted to grow up to be an engineer, 'cause he was an engineer and an Army officer and then I'll never forget this day Matt, I'm looking up in the sky, it's in Newport, Rhode Island and these six magnificent blue jets go overhead and you could feel it. I mean, you could see the smoke oil, the visceral sound and I could feel it in my heart and I turned my dad that day and I said "Dad, I'm gonna do that."

04:23 John Foley: But I bring that up because I think it's so important to live our dreams. To go for whatever we choose in life and it took 18 years later, it took a whole lot of obstacles. I got rejected by the Academy three times. It took me three times to get in there and they said I was not physically qualified, which is kind of funny because as you said, we're in pretty good physical shape, both of us right now. I mean, it's kind of a metaphor in life. You can't control everything but what you can control is your reaction and my reaction was not just... It was disappointment at first and I was like "Okay, we'll come up with plan B and come up with plan C and get the waivers and do whatever it takes to make things work."

05:02 John Foley: Basically worked my way up, flew jets off aircraft carriers, that was my dream. Played football at Annapolis. I liked to play football, I was a defensive back and got my mechanical engineering degree, which by the way, I've never used but at least I got it and then we created that career, one of the things. I got a rare chance. You ever see the movie Top Gun?

05:24 Matt Waller: Oh yeah.

05:26 John Foley: Yeah I got to do some of the real flying in the movie. Yeah.

05:28 Matt Waller: Did you really?

05:30 John Foley: Yeah and that's just being in the right place at the right time. I just happened to be flying jets off the carrier enterprise, they came out and started filming the movie and so a lot of those scenes are myself and my friends, my buddies, just doing everything our normal life but after that, my dream was always the Blue Angels and I happened to get that opportunity and that planted a seed in my heart and my head on high performance. Not only how do you reach a level of high performance but how do you sustain it. How do you sustain it under change, like we're all going through today, right? But I realized that I wanted to have more than one career in life and I went to... I needed the bridge and the bridge was business school.

06:10 Matt Waller: So how did your experience in being a lead solo pilot for the Blue Angels, influence business, entrepreneurship and leadership?

06:24 John Foley: When I got selected for the Blue Angels, the very first thing I remember is I walked into that room, briefing room for the first time, not as an applicant but as a selectee. They call it... They call us a newbie, kind of like a rookie and we went through this process that's called the debrief and I'm sure you're familiar with that concept but what I just witnessed blew me away. I mean, it was people I looked up to, the best of the best and they were demonstrating some of the qualities that I always looked up to such as humility, openness, honesty, accountability, laying it on the table. It was the most open and committed organization to continuous improvement.

07:07 John Foley: Every day, we tried to get better and we had a process to get there and that was with new people under changing conditions and the other thing I learned from the Blues that is so relevant in the business world is having a center point, which is larger than self. A purpose. On the Blues, we actually called ourselves ambassadors. Ambassadors of Goodwill. We always realize the most important thing we could do was be a good example and inspire someone else.

07:35 Matt Waller: So John, you of course, really started getting into business for yourself almost 20 years ago...

07:43 John Foley: Yes.

07:45 John Foley: And since then, you've done lots of public speaking, lots of consulting and influencing, what led you to want to write your book and then I wanna ask you some questions about that but what led up to you deciding to write a book?

08:02 John Foley: Well, exactly. Writing was one of the hardest things for me and it still is. I needed some support but speaking wasn't. I'm more of a verbal communicator but what happened for me was back in '97, so I had flown with the Blue Angels, did some leadership roles in the Navy and I got out. I needed the bridge and I ended up... Fortunately, I got selected, went to Stanford Business School and I had just gotten out of the Naval War College, which is a wonderful experience about strategy and policy and that year I was a Sloan Fellow. So it was a one-year program, not a two and we were the older people. I mean we were mid-career and I learned so much from not only my professors but from my classmates and it was a whole new vocabulary. A whole new world out there.

08:51 John Foley: So I'm getting out and I think I'm gonna go work for a very good friend of mine, a guy named David Price, who ran an American golf Corporation and then it tanked. They had a problem, so I'm sitting there and I'm talking to a buddy of mine and he says "Hey, how's that job going?" I said, "Well, it just blew up. I don't have one." and he says, "Oh, that's interesting." and we chatted. Then he called me back five minutes later and he says, "Hey, I got a crazy idea. Why don't you come work for us?" And this is what I said Matt, because I look at Philip, and Philip was a venture capitalist and I said, "Philip, wait a minute. I know nothing about venture capital, I know nothing about technology and they were an early stage VC firm in San Francisco and in Silicon Valley and he goes, Well, you know what, John, you know how to win, we can teach you all that other stuff." And I had the greatest experience. They brought me into the partnership. This is like '99, 2000. Remember what was going on in Silicon Valley at that time? Tremendous change, right? And I'm sitting there and I'm learning, I'm soaking it all in.

09:51 John Foley: And then the bubble hits, the first internet bubble and it burst and I remember a thought hit in my head. My question wasn't, how come the bubble burst? My question was this, how come some people outperform others and some don't How come some teams consistently outperform? How come some organizations no matter what the market, no matter what the economy, outperform and some don't and that question has been driving me for the last two decades and what I did is I basically went back and reverse engineered what worked on the Blue Angels because here's an organization that is in constant change, half our leadership is new every year, the pilots. A third of my support team is new every year.

10:33 John Foley: The reason that is, is we rotate. The Blue Angels was a part of the Navy, you constantly are getting new people in and rotating. I looked at that and I said well, wait a minute, what would transfer? And over the last two decades, I've had a chance to now have a thousand case studies of organizations and we've really started to refine it and that's what actually comes into what we call the Diamond Performance Framework.

11:00 Matt Waller: So the Diamond Performance Framework, it starts with belief and then it goes to brief and then it goes to trust and then it goes to debrief. Would you mind just spending a few minutes, John, talking about that framework?

11:14 John Foley: Yeah yeah. Let's unpack it real quick 'cause those words may not mean too much to everybody right now but here's where it comes from. I remember sitting in my Strategic Management class and the professor was talking about the theory and I think we're all aware of this vision, plan, execute, feedback loop. Okay but very simple, right? What's the vision? Come up with the a plan. Execute on the plan, hopefully you have a feedback loop and I said okay, I get that. That works, I get that. Maybe the 1% really understand that and we call it operational excellence and I thought but at the Blue Angels, we actually go to a whole new level, there's something else that takes it well beyond that and the Blue Angels to just... We fly at the one-tenth of one tenth of 1% of all the pilots in the world so something is happening at that elite level and I said well, what's the difference?

12:06 John Foley: And so that's what you now have as what I call the Diamond Performance Framework but it's really more of just a Fearless Success System but here's what it is. It's not about vision, what it's about is commitment and buy in to a vision. We need commitment and buy in to a vision, so that is beliefs. I like to break them down into two systems. I do workshops with CEOs and leadership teams and we just did one with Papa John's and we were breaking down, what's the limiting beliefs and what's the liberating beliefs?

12:34 John Foley: So to me, limiting, that's what causes stuck-ness. By the way, they're fear-based, you watch. It's usually fear and there's a lot of fear going on in the world today but I wanna focus on liberating beliefs. What's our potential? What's our opportunity? So for me, the starting point is not the how, the starting point is the beliefs. How do we get people aligned and then ready for those beliefs, so that's just the first facet.

13:02 Matt Waller: And I think for those of you listening to this, it's one of the reasons why understanding this is important because John's talking about alignment and that is; learning to get people aligned is one of the most important functions of what a leader does. So this is an important point. Sorry to interrupt, John. I just thought I'd...

13:23 John Foley: No, no, no, I got a tool on the alignment piece. Let me give you a tool real quick, alright, for the people listening. First off, two major points you made, Matt, that I think are critical and that is, what we take in, what we learn, it's why it's so precious right now for the students who are in business school. I mean, I learned so much from not just the professors but my classmates and the people that were brought in to talk about real business leaders on how things are happening, in the case studies and you're in a incredible time of your life to absorb this and take that in and it is important to be aware of who you surround yourself with and I think what you just said earlier is the first three things I teach any team, any leadership, is connect, align, commit, okay?

14:06 John Foley: First, we have to connect as human beings and that's one of the things we're doing right here. Then we have to get that alignment in as a business, as an organization and then you need those commitments and those commitments is how you execute with high trust.

14:20 Matt Waller: So when you talk about connecting, what do you think are the keys to that?

14:28 John Foley: Well, it's being vulnerable. There's strength and vulnerability. Too many times we hear, "Oh, I have to know everything or I have to be the leader or I have to... " No, I mean, you have to try. I think there's four Cs to trust. So we need to build trust. Here's the four Cs, competency, commitment, character but the fourth one is the most important, at least on a high performance team and that is consistency. I need to know you're gonna show up with your A game every single day if you're gonna fly 36 inches off my wing tip.

15:02 John Foley: Now if you wanna go and not be at that level, fine but if you wanna be part of my team or a high performance team, you've got to bring your A game and the way you do that is you're constantly learning, we're in a growth mindset, we're constantly teaching each other and that's why you have to have a process that is, what I call, the briefs and debriefs, where we plan... It's not about planning, we prepare, we focus, we align and then we debrief and we learn and we do this every single day and that iteration that allows the belief levels then to continually grow. It's a spiraling up process.

15:38 Matt Waller: You know, when you're flying that close together, you need to know that people are showing up with the A game every time but if you're leading an initiative that has high visibility, high potential for a huge ROI but also a high investment or cost, it's gonna be hard to trust people that you don't think are gonna show up.

16:05 John Foley: Right. Here's the thing you really wanna know, Matt, is when things are smooth... Okay, that's fine. Here's what I wanna know. I wanna know how someone's gonna react under turbulence? I wanna know how they're gonna react in the change? See and that's what we're all going through right now. This is why it's the metaphor, COVID, social unrest, all the things we're seeing, right? Are absolutely incredible, because I wanna know how are you gonna react when the pressure's on? And one thing we learned was, we're gonna go through it together.

16:35 John Foley: When you're flying in formation and I don't care if that's in airplanes or if that's in an organization, we're gonna go through it together, alright? And what I've also learned is when turbulence hits, you actually need to take a little bit of a pause. You need to respond and not react and the difference there is, let's say we're in a jet. Everyone's flown commercial, right? And so, if you're in an airplane and you hit turbulence and the jet were to drop, what's the natural reaction of the pilot, usually would pull back on the stick. If it would raise, you'd push forward and we realize that we're in tight formation, you can't do that at the same speed, because you'll get out of sync and you'll actually hurt somebody.

17:15 John Foley: So you actually have to dampen your response. We fly through the turbulence together and then we bring it back in and I think that's a good metaphor for what we're all going through today.

17:25 Matt Waller: So something you mentioned that I had not thought of before and I've been studying leadership. The first time I read a book on leadership was 1982. My father, when I started my undergraduate program, gave me a book called In Search of Excellence.

17:44 John Foley: Oh yes.

17:46 Matt Waller: And I read it and I loved it and I've always been interested ever since and done lots of reading but I just learned something, I've learned several things from your book but from our conversation, I... 'Cause when I think about setting direction and providing motivation, I know lots of tools for that but for gaining alignment, I feel like that's a hard one. You just connected something in my mind I hadn't thought of. I know it's in your book and that is using your values as the center point. So for the Walton College, for example, our values are represented by the acronym EPIC.

18:26 John Foley: I love it.

18:26 Matt Waller: Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality. Within those, the way that we define those four, it includes things like, an inclusive environment and business ethics and these kinds of things but we narrowed down to four. When we did that back in the '90s, EPIC had the meaning of... Like it does now, technically, of a long heroic story or a poem, right?

18:55 John Foley: Oh yes, I love that.

18:58 Matt Waller: So we created that back then but today it means something, another meaning.

19:06 John Foley: Yes.

19:07 Matt Waller: And the colloquial sense, it means great.

19:10 John Foley: Yes.

19:10 Matt Waller: And so but I never thought I could use my values as the center point.

19:16 John Foley: Yeah. I'll walk you through this model in a way that I think will make real sense, right?

19:22 Matt Waller: Okay.

19:23 John Foley: So it's the combination of the good to great and in search of excellence, alright? When you pull these things together, here's what I think you have. So I agree with you that a leader's job is to paint that picture, right? That inspiration, that motivation and that's the same thing I do with every organization I go into. You first gotta paint the picture of what does it look like, what does excellence look like?

19:44 John Foley: Where are we but let's really define clearly where we wanna go, then I believe this closes the gap and that's a pretty bold statement, 'cause there's a lot of good frameworks out there, right but it's not about the framework as much as it's about what is... What I would call the excellence tied in with appreciation and gratitude to... Glad to be here. We gotta get that in here, you paint the beliefs first and we talked about that, right? Then you have the process. Excellent.

20:08 John Foley: To me, the brief is about process, that's about focus. That's about preparation. I actually take inside our briefing room and you get to see how we get aligned and focused and ready to go, alright, then what you have to do is actually you have to go out there and execute. To me, that's the execution piece that's... And we do that what I call high trust contracts, which to me are the verbal and non-verbal agreements that are in within organizations and you make them verbal and you get people to say "I'll bring my A game, you can count on me." The key is this debrief though, we haven't got to the debrief yet, the debrief is the differentiator.

20:44 John Foley: Okay, this is the weakest point I've seen in all organizations and it's actually your biggest leverage point okay? And that is, can we learn? It's the growth mindset. Right, so what I actually show is we go inside our debriefing room, not the briefing room, everyone does briefing really really well. Okay, that's supply chains. That's preparation. That's plans. All that stuff, right? The key is, "Okay, what did I learn?" So you go inside this room and here's the five dynamics that I've seen are critical. You get these five dynamics in any organization, it will change the organization. The first is you need a safe environment, I don't just mean physical safety, which we're doing now, it's psychological safety and that comes though from respect.

21:23 John Foley: Number two is, you check your ego at the door. I need humility. I'm looking for humility. Are you good? Of course. We wouldn't have hired you. Right, this is about the "We" not the "I" Third one is about openness and honesty and you can say, "We want openness and honesty." but we gotta show it and the way we show it is you lay it on the table, the fourth one is the classic word accountability but I think there's actually a more powerful way to achieve accountability and I call it the ownership mentality.

21:54 John Foley: If you want personal responsibility, 'cause that accountability becomes a given and then the last and the fifth dynamic is the glad to be here and this changes everything 'cause now you get appreciation and gratitude and gratefulness which actually we know now through science is actually changing our brains and that's what pulls everything together and then you get the spilling up process, so I just walked you through, I guarantee you, that will change any organization for the better.

22:21 Matt Waller: Wow! Well John, if you had a piece of advice for our students in particular, what would you say to them?

22:33 John Foley: Well first off, I'd say glad to be here. Make that part of your DNA. Every morning I wake up, I have a meditation practice, I have a physical focusing practice, I have a gratefulness practice, I have a SEAL training practice but the key is I can do them quickly but it's living in the moment and being appreciative. That's the number one thing. I mean, we all can appreciate something, especially the students. I mean that wasn't the funnest part of my life, I mean am I having fun now, of course but I mean, come on man, you're in school, you're learning, you're surrounded by great people and friends, appreciate the moment is the first thing I would say.

23:09 John Foley: And the second thing I'd say is, go for it. You know, it's one thing to appreciate it now, you gotta go for your dreams. I've had such incredible challenges in life and I love them. I love them because it's where you find what you're meant to do and the way I do that is always with giving back first. I believe, if you gotta give, to receive and if you're in the mindset of how can I help somebody that will come back to you. That's what I would say.

23:39 Matt Waller: John, how do you exercise? What do you do to exercise? And tell me a little bit more about your routine.

23:48 John Foley: Well, I think my routine starts with the moment my eyes open, I wake up happy. I've trained my brain to wake up happy and I trained it through a gratitude practice, which is very simple. Everyone could do it right now. The moment I wake up, I just say, "What am I grateful for in the present moment?" For today, I woke up, I'm back in Sun Valley, that's where I live. I was on the road for six days prior to this and I said "Wow, I'm just home. I feel healthy. I'm strong." It's just whatever it is, right?

24:15 John Foley: But then this is very key, go back 24 hours and I say "What happened yesterday that I have something to be grateful for and I think of other people and other faces and I was just with the leadership team Papa Johns and we had such an incredible experience and my wife is doing a paddleboard, she's out in Lake Powell and so I just... I reflect back and I remember people's faces and I just...

0:24:37 John Foley: I smile and then here's the key, I go forward in my day and I say "What do I need to do today and who can I help?" And you came to mind right away. You were the first thought that hit me. I said, "I'm gonna hit the real privilege to talk to Matt." and hopefully this message will get out to a lot of people and I'm just grateful for that opportunity. So I've trained that into my brain where I do that every single day then I actually hit the floor and I always hit it with my left foot first and that's a trigger to me to tell me that today is not normal, today's magical. I always try to tell myself that today is magical.

25:13 John Foley: Then I hit... I go right outside and it was below freezing today here in Sun Valley and I go outside and I do a physical routine. It is a combination of stretching, bowing, it adds in some SEAL training but I do it very quick... It only takes me seven minutes, a strengthening routine where I strengthen my body but I also... All about flexibility. Then I come in and I go through a meditation and a focusing routine. So I do that every single morning and I've learned that I can get this thing done in 15 minutes but if I have more time, it's better right and to me, I start my day getting myself into a state of focus of preparation and then the rest of the day goes great.

26:00 Matt Waller: That is... I think that's great advice. Well John, I've really enjoyed visiting with you and again, thank you for your book, hopefully we can continue this conversation later.

26:12 John Foley: I would love to.


26:18 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes or look for us, wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpicPodcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast and now be EPIC.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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