Combat Veteran: Facing Headwinds as You Reach for the Sky

Nicole Malachowski, the first woman pilot on the Air Force’s Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, discusses navigating change and adversity.

Leaders across every industry and experience level share one understanding: To be successful, they need to effectively navigate failure, organizational change and the unknown. Like headwinds to a pilot, these perceived barriers can force you to change direction, cost you momentum and even take away options.  

“Blue skies and tailwinds are the best weather you can get,” said retired Air Force Col. Nicole Malachowski, a keynote speaker at NAR NXT, The REALTOR® Experience, who shared Wednesday how REALTORS® can get in the right mindset to harness the energy of headwinds in their personal favor—and to the favor of their teams and organizations. “Wouldn’t it be great if there were always blue skies?”

Malachowski, a combat veteran and the first woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, experienced her fair share of adversity and bias as she rose through the ranks. In her experience, headwinds come from three main sources:

  • Self-doubt
  • Organizational or cultural change
  • The truly unexpected

In a riveting presentation, Malachowski described her journey as one that required overcoming fear of failure and quieting the voice in her head that said, “People like you don’t become Thunderbird pilots.” Her path had many bumps, bruises, mistakes and failures, she says.

She almost didn’t apply for the Thunderbird training after a senior-level colonel discouraged her from taking the risk, telling her it would be a waste. The reality was, the odds were stacked against her, and he simply hadn’t seen a woman rise to the role yet during his tenure. “It was the unconscious bias,” she said. “What was coming out were the cultural paradigms of the U.S. Air Force at that time, and the expectations about what I should or should not be doing. I removed that application and said, ‘You’re right, I’m so sorry for bothering you.’”

It took a higher-ranking general to get her into the right mindset. He introduced himself to Malachowski while she was sitting at the officer’s club, feeling defeated, having just withdrawn her application.

“Gen. Mark Matthews said, ‘Nicole, nobody wants to lead a scripted life.’ He left me in the most awkward silence. He told me it was OK to go against the status quo, to risk failures. Don’t ever write yourself out of the script. And as leaders and teammates, don’t leave anyone else out of the script either,” she says. “Consider in the workplace: Where are you looking for talent and ideas? Nobody saw me coming.”

Malachowski’s application was accepted, and she entered a rigorous training program that led to some bumps and lessons along the way. One main lesson her teachers instilled: trust. It didn’t come naturally to put her life in others’ hands, letting other experts conduct the plane walkaround for safety checks or letting another person snap her into the ejection seat that would mean life or death in the case of an emergency.

“You build trust by being trustworthy,” she says. “Avoid the idea of, ‘That guy needs to prove I can trust him.’ Trust never comes to you; trust emanates outward to a team from your behaviors.”

The Wingman Contract

When in doubt, always honor the wingman contract. What does that mean?

“That phrase means everything,” Malachowski said. “It is the gentleman’s handshake. It means: We have an expectation of the professional execution of this mission. I promise you I will hold myself accountable to that standard, and you will hold me to that standard. That wingman contract is the culture. It’s the principles and values that drive you.”

Malachowski likens the relationship among fighter pilots to having cultural buy-in across all channels of an organization. “It applies to the senior officers down to the junior recruits, and everyone in between,” she says.

Having a social contract, a formal loyalty and understanding, allows for agile decisions to be made at the exact time and place they need to be made, and they fluidly will be in alignment with where the industry is going. “We don’t have time to stop and call a meeting every time a decision needs to be made,” she says. “At NAR, you already have a wingman contract—it’s the Code of Ethics.”

‘I Need Help’

Malachowski concluded her presentation by emphasizing the lessons of humility and interdependence, as well as the importance of saying thank you.

“The Thunderbirds taught me nothing of significance is ever accomplished alone,” she says, recounting the time she tried and failed, multiple times, to master an extremely difficult air show maneuver requiring the jets to move from diamond formation into trail formation, putting the wing tips within inches of one another. Ultimately, getting it right required her to take a deep breath and admit to her teammates: “I need help.”

Instead of criticizing her, they patiently worked on the maneuver. Malachowski said she believes the standard you are willing to walk past is the standard you are willing to except, and she wanted to get it perfect. 

“What happened is, we did it over and over until I got it right. It was the right thing to do by our customer and client [the audience on the ground]. My teammates helped me from a place of kindness and commitment,” she says. “It’s never beneath any of us to offer help, too.”