The Thunderbird Way: 5 Principles for Successful Teams


“Millions of people have witnessed the Thunderbirds demonstrations, and in turn, they’ve seen the pride, professionalism, and dedication of hundreds of thousands of Airmen serving at home and abroad. Each year brings another opportunity for the team to represent those who deserve the most credit: the everyday, hard-working Airmen voluntarily serving America and defending freedom.”
—Thunderbird History Page

Across the years, one profession has remained at the top of every prestige or respect poll: military officer. The Harris Poll recently reiterated 78% of Americans see Military Officer as a Prestigious Occupation. This prestige reveals the highest levels of respect and admiration. Our American military has never fallen outside the top five most trusted professions. The men and women of the Armed Forces work tirelessly for one goal, to protect their country and those who live in it. Their job teeters on the dangerous side daily, all in a dedicated effort to protect their country. They’re also one of the most successful teams we can look to for inspiration.

As we strive for success in our chosen professions, the principles of the military are a strong foundation upon which to base our leadership style and personal development. Among the many military professionals, few rise to join elite teams such as the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs or Air Force Thunderbirds. These men and women collectively, are the epitome of high performing organizations and teams. Groups don’t become teams because that is what someone calls them. They become teams because they have a deliberate development process and share a common passion greater than themselves.

Since the inception of the USAF Thunderbirds, only 325 officers have earned the honor of wearing the distinguished emblem of “America’s Ambassadors in Blue.” Each demonstrated a constant commitment to improvement, channeling their efforts into making the Thunderbirds what they are today. This team experiences 50 percent turnover each year. Each team consists of three experienced demonstration pilots and three new demonstration pilots who recently earned their patch.

So, in a world where many businesses have been around for decades and yet their employees still can’t function together, how is it possible for six Airmen to rebuild this high performing organization each and every year?

By achieving success The Thunderbird Way.

Each pilot has earned distinction as a combat aviator in another fighter aircraft before being considered to join the elite Thunderbird Team. This training develops the skill required to function at over 1,000 miles per hour. Each pilot is technically competent and proficient in the skill set of being a pilot. This same principle can be applied to every person you hire in business. Basic skill must be an assumption of employment, and it must have been deliberately developed either before the member joins your team, or through training the Thunderbird way while on your team.

New Thunderbird hires, while technically proficient in their airframe, need deliberate and focused training to develop the skillset required to execute precision maneuvers the Thunderbird way at hundreds of miles per hour, just 75 feet above the earth. This is done in a highly structured four-month training season that involves, on average, three flights per day, five days per week. Do you train your business team with the skills expected in a similar manner? If you want to be part of a high performing team, the proper attention must be paid to developing the individuals who are expected to perform at an above average level.

In elite teams, each member must approach their task with discipline. They must understand that the team is always worth more than the individual and that together they can achieve more through individual attention to detail. In their book, The Wisdom of Teams, McKinsey partners Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith reveal the essence of a team is shared commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.

The best teams invest a tremendous amount of time shaping a purpose that they can own. The best teams also translate their purpose into specific performance goals. And members of successful teams pitch in and become accountable with, and to, their teammates.

In the Thunderbird way, each demonstration pilot trusts that the skilled aviator flying 18 inches from them, or the opposing solo closing directly at them with over 1400 MPH of combined speed, will execute their maneuver with extreme precision and detail. This disciplined attention to detail enables a team to consistently produce precision.

Look around at the next meeting you attend. How many people are on their phone? How many are mentally checked out? How many are focused on the task at hand? For an Air Force Thunderbird, climbing the ladder of the Mighty Red, White and Blue F-16 leaves every problem, concern, and thought behind on the airport ramp. Each team member’s mind, their definitive focus, is on the performance at hand. These aviators compartmentalize to guarantee laser focus.

Compartmentalization has been recognized as the secret behind successful entrepreneurs and leaders for years. Recently, Ryan Blair revealed in Forbes his five-step system for dealing with adversity and extreme challenges while running a business:

Compartmentalize it. Isolate the issue from all the other challenges you are dealing with.

  • Apply extreme focus on each compartment, but only for a short period of time.
  • Move forward in incremental steps. And once you see progress…
  • Close the compartment and open the next one.
  • Say “no” to things that don’t deserve a compartment.

Afterburner’s Team Building Consultants Can Help Your Organization

Earning a position on any elite team is about making the team better. Thunderbird aviators fly 18 inches from another aircraft. Their actions must be proactive, not reactive. To execute a precision demonstration the Thunderbird way, they must not only react to what is being said, they must know every move, and work as one. Although the Thunderbirds fly a front-line fighter aircraft, the show is executed by watching the ticks of an analog stopwatch and listening to the inflection and tone of the person talking on the radio. Each pilot must know what the other pilots are thinking and how they will actuate the controls of their multi-million dollar aircraft.

Few people experience what a high performing team actually feels like. The Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, SEALs, and a handful of other military teams know what it is truly like to put their lives in the hands of others, to have the skill and training to develop the discipline and focus to achieve ultimate teamwork, and to function as an elite, high-performing team.

From these individuals and teams, we can learn much that is applicable to the business world and to our own personal growth and improvement. The Thunderbird Way is about a shared purpose that allows, permits, and demands a high level of precision. It is about demonstrating the pride, professionalism, and dedication of the individual as well as the team. Most of all, it is about representing those who deserve the most credit: the men and women who voluntarily serve America and defend our freedom.

Contact our team building consultants if you’re interested in learning more about building successful teams for your organization.