Familiarity breeds awesome: a leadership lesson from the USAF Thunderbirds

By Tim Spivey

There’s an old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I don’t know who coined the phrase or what the circumstances were, but they were wrong for the most part — at least with regards to leadership.

From nearly entry vantage point of church leadership, I’ve found familiarity to be an asset.

usaf_thunderbirdsPositive familiarity brings efficiency, trust, and actually enhances creativity by allowing more room for innovation because time isn’t burned in search of familiarity. At the highest levels of successful teamwork, familiarity is nearly always an asset: pitchers / catchers, infield double-play combinations, QB / Wide Receiver, rock bands, or the military. I’m blessed to work with people I know well, and in some cases I’ve known either personally or professionally for a decade or more. This makes us more effective as a team — not less.


The Thunderbirds are an elite flight squadron of the United States Air Force heightens awareness of the Air Force and helps recruit the next generation of fighter pilots. They are not just show pilots; each is a trained fighter pilot … and both planes, weapons and pilots can be war-ready in a matter of hours.

However, their specialty is traveling the world doing ridiculously amazing air shows during which pilots fly in sync a mere two to three feet from each other at MACH 2. Doesn’t that just sound awesome?

I got to go to Nellis Air Force Base (home of the Thunderbirds) and hear some observations on leading teams and team cohesion from Kevin Walsh, Chief Operations Officer for the Thunderbirds. When asked by a member of our group his opinion of what it takes to get everyone to live and fly in sync (keep in mind the Thunderbirds live together much of the year), he responded: “Trust — and that comes with familiarity.”

You can certainly “do team” another way, but you’ll never be able to fly together two to three feet away from each other doing spins at MACH 2.

Dangerous things (both attempt and execution) require trust that comes only from working well together — a lot. Staff continuity and chemistry will limit or open many, if not most, possibilities for your church. Continuity born of trust, respect and familiarity is one of a Church’s greatest assets.

In general, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds awesome.

TimSpivey-blogTim Spivey is lead planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, CA. Tim is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University and purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting-edge insights on leadership and theology. He is the author of numerous articles and the book: Jesus, the Powerful Servant.


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