Leadership lessons from top naval base at Whidbey Island

Last week, the Next Jump leadership team and I had the incredible privilege to partake in a three-day offsite with the top commanders and leaders of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state.

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The Next Jump leadership team at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington

Last week, the Next Jump leadership team and I had the incredible privilege of partaking in a three-day offsite with the top commanders and leaders at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state. NAS Whidbey has been consistently ranked within the top-three naval bases worldwide each of the past five years, and a group of leaders from Whidbey had participated in our Next Jump Leadership Academy this past November. To return the favor and continue the exchange of ideas around building high performance cultures, they organized an exclusive-access visit for our team.

From witnessing (up close and personal, as the picture above shows) EA-18G Growler pilots practice touching down in a one foot target to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of flying an EA-18G Growler in a flight simulator (which only proved my ineptitude at being a pilot), we spent three full days touring NAS Whidbey, discussing and sharing lessons in leadership and high performance.

During the stay, my Talking Partner (Tom Fuller, Next Jump’s Head of Engineering) and I shadowed two of the Growler Squadron leaders (Matt Wright and Dave Harris) and their senior team. Our discussion quickly turned to the topic of the difference between high performing teams and low performing teams. Their take was this: in a low-performing squad, it is “death by a 1,000 cuts.” Little things go wrong all the time. By contrast, in a high-performing squad, you ask someone to do something and you know it will get done.

This is similar to what we believe at Next Jump. We have found that the two main components that lead to an elite performance culture are

  1. GAS (people/team that “give a shit”), and;
  2. Radical Transparency – “nothing I know or feel, is withheld from relevant people. (Limiting the culture of lying, hiding, faking).”


Here are the top four takeaways from our discussion of high vs. low performing teams:

#1: Communication & Transparency

From top-to-bottom in the squad, everyone knows what is happening. The intentions of the leaders are known by the most junior people, and the issues of the junior people are known to the leaders.

I love this insight from one the Master Chiefs: “When there isn’t good communication, there are problems. When the leader is not approachable and the attitude is ‘the boss will only talk to me if I am in trouble’, that is when planes break and there is poor advancement – people don’t get promoted.”

#2 Feedback to increase self awareness (Top Gun process: plan, brief, execute, debrief)

For every “sortie” (training mission), an individual stands in front of their peers and team, and starts with a self-assessment score: rate 1-4 how you did, and how to do better. Their best ranking is an “OK.” It’s an attitude of “no rank in the cockpit” or people die. That is how you get better – having the humility to always learn.

Dave talked about how important it is for the leaders to have vulnerability. By sharing their own mistakes, it makes it okay for others. One area they struggle with is applying their debrief process to “non-mission” work. This is when habits and development can break down, and a culture of lying, hiding, faking can increase.

#3 Accountability: What a leader tolerates becomes the culture

I loved this phrase: “Everyone will suffer if you leave a problem in place.”

Matt shared a great story about one sailor that had 18 years of experience but was disengaged and had a poor attitude. He was waiting to hit the 20 year mark and then retire.  Matt and his leadership disciplined him – they hung demotion over his head, which would have effectively kicked him out of the Navy with just 2 years to go, effectively ruining his retirement. Where others could have let it slide, for the good of the unit they had to do the right thing and set an example. And it totally turned him around! Yet most leaders would ignore and let him slide out, establishing a bad precedent that erodes the younger sailors’ ethics.

#4 Challenge & empower 

A common phrase among these leaders was to “challenge & empower” their team. They take young people, challenge them with something that is totally over their head, train them, then test them until they can do it. Then empower them to “own” that challenge. For example, they take the “plane captain,” who is often the lowest qualified person coming into the squad, and give them the incredible responsibility to prepare the plane for flight. If they mess up, people die. While the process has multiple checks, they lean toward adding pressure. By the time the plane passes inspection, the young sailor’s name is painted on the plane. Confidence & pride swell – they look back and can see a transformation. At Next Jump, we created various practice grounds in “culture” where young individuals can practice their leadership in stressful situations, get critical feedback, and develop early-on into their tenure. It was inspiring to see ways to challenge and empower even further.

whidbey team pic

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