Muscle-bound guys. Volleyball on the beach. Fast jets. It’s gotta be an 80’s movie. And it is!
Top Gun, the classic Tom Cruze, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, and Meg Ryan movie is jam-packed with leadership lessons. With Top Gun 2 releasing soon, I thought looking at the leadership lessons in Top Gun would be a fun experiment.
You cannot walk away from Top Gun without thinking of the ways you can lead better.
Top Gun will help you become a better leader… If you watch it with a Reel Leadership eye.
I know you. You can do this. You will do this!
So, let’s dive into the leadership lessons in Top Gun.
Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Top Gun
1. Shiny objects can blind you to the dangers around you:
Cougar (John Stockwell) and Merlin (Tim Robbins) were pursuing a MIG fighter plane. They were on its tail only to lose the plane.
Why did they lose it? They lost it in a shiny object, the sun.
Before Cougar and Merlin knew what was going on, the MIG fighter was on their tail. They were in trouble.
Shiny objects can cause us to lose our concentration on the target, our mission. Shiny objects will entice you to look for something else.
We’ve got to learn how to ignore or see through the shiny objects that try to distract us. We cannot constantly be distracted by something shiny.
2. Great leaders go back for their struggling team members:
After Cougar’s encounter with the MIG fighter, he lost it. He couldn’t concentrate and he couldn’t pilot the jet back to the flight deck.
Cougar and Merlin were running low on fuel. Maverick and Goose had already touched down on the flight deck when Maverick pulled the jet back into the sky.
Maverick knew he was low on fuel. He also knew he had to help his dazed and confused team member.
Because he went back, he was able to safely talk Cougar down from his ledge. He was able to lead Cougar and Merlin back to the flight deck and land, roughly but, safely.
Great leaders can see how their team members are responding to the situations around them. They know they can’t leave their struggling team members behind. They are willing to offer their team members the help and encouragement to get through the challenges around them.
Don’t be a leader who leaves their team members struggling. Be a leader who is willing to go back from those who are struggling.
I’ve lost my edge.
The MIG fighter encounter left Cougar visibly shaken. He had trouble returning to the flight deck and keeping his RIO (radar intercept officer) alive.
This experience killed his edge. He no longer had the desire or drive to be a fighter pilot.
We see him go into his commanding officer’s office and turn in his wings. He was done. He was out.
We have to be aware of how we’re doing like Cougar was. We will face situations that may throw us for a spin. The situation may even kill our edge.
If your edge is gone, you have to consider turning in your leadership wings.
It’s okay to stop leading. You don’t have to lead forever. Lead until your edge is gone.
4. Great leaders aren’t always the first ones picked:
Because Cougar quit, his spot in the Top Gun training opened up. This gave Maverick and Goose a chance to go to the prestigious Top Gun school.
These two were not the first choices to go to the Top Gun school. They were the 3rd or 4th tier choice.
However, despite their choice position, these two men were talented. They deserved to be in the school.
Over the course of the training, these men proved themselves to be great pilots and RIO.
You may think you don’t have what it takes to lead because you weren’t promoted and others were. Don’t buy into this lie.
Just because you weren’t chosen doesn’t mean you’re not leadership material. You can lead if you have it in you.
Not picked? Begin to show them you’re leadership material by standing out among those you work with. Go above and beyond. Do the hard work.
They will notice. You will get picked.
5. Be confident:
Maverick was cocky. He was also confident. We saw this displayed when Viper (Tom Skeritt) asked the Top Gun cadets if they think their name will be on the “Best Of” plaque.
Only one name would be added. That name would be the best.
The only cadet to speak up and say they believed their name could be added to the plaque was Maverick.
Cocky, yes. Confident, yes.
Confidence will go a long way for a leader. A confident leader is a leader that is easier to follow.
You may not know everything. You may be scared. This doesn’t mean you can’t lead with confidence.
Confidence comes from knowing you don’t know everything. It also comes from knowing where to find the answers.
Be a confident leader.
6. Failure doesn’t make you any less great:
Cougar left the academy. Iceman commented that Cougar was a good man. His insinuation was that because Cougar dropped out of training, his goodness was gone.
Maverick heard this. He had to respond. He let Iceman know Cougar was still a good man.
His dropping out didn’t change his goodness. His freakout didn’t change his goodness.
You’re going to face failure. Your failures are going to tell you that you are no longer a good or great leader.
Don’t listen to the lies of failure.
You can still be a great leader. You still are a great leader.
7. Great leaders constantly communicate:
Jester (Michael Ironside) was performing a training exercise with Maverick and Goose. He was dogfighting the pair.
Throughout the dogfight, Goose and Maverick were communicating with one another. They would share the enemy’s location and what he was doing. There wasn’t a lapse in communication.
Great leaders know the importance of great communication. They are willing to share pertinent information with their teams.
Be a leader who shares what needs to be shared. Don’t hold back on what needs to be communicated.
Your team needs to know what is going on. You can share it with them.
You’re everyone’s problem. That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.
Maverick wanted to know what Iceman’s problem was. Iceman didn’t hold back. He let Maverick know exactly what the problem was. The problem was Maverick’s attitude.
Maverick’s attitude and actions put everyone in danger. He could cause an accident or a crash. People were in danger because of him.
Unpredictable, volatile leaders are dangerous leaders. They’re also unlikable leaders. Their actions put the people they lead in danger.
Be careful about being a volatile leader. It’s a danger to you and to your team.
It takes more than fancy flying.
Charlie became a love interest of Mavericks. She was also a teacher at the Top Gun school.
In one of their conversations, she reminds Maverick being a Top Gun pilot is more than fancy flying. It’s caring for those he was flying with and taking care of business.
We have to remember leadership is more than fancy methods and words. Leadership is more than looking good.
Leadership is about influencing people to become better than they are today.
Let’s stop worrying about the fancy methods (or shiny objects, wink wink). Let’s begin to focus on what works and what helps others.
10. Stop chasing every opportunity:
In a dogfighting exercise, Maverick and Goose were Hollywood’s (Whip Hubley) wingman. Maverick saw an opportunity to pursue Viper, one of their opponents in this exercise.
As they pursue Viper, Maverick leaves Hollywood open to attack. He also leaves himself open to an attack.
Jester sees this and takes the opportunity. He swings around and takes down Maverick.
There are going to be opportunities all around you. They’re everywhere.
This means opportunities are a dime a dozen.
We can’t chase every opportunity that presents itself to us. This will distract us and leave us in the danger zone.
The danger zone is where we can’t see the dangers flying towards us. We’re blinded by the opportunity and then we’re taken down.
Chase the right opportunities.
11. Failure will make you question whether you can lead:
In the saddest moment of Top Gun, Maverick and Goose are caught in the jetwash of Iceman’s jet. Maverick loses control and the duo goes into a flat spin that leads to an engine stall.
Maverick couldn’t regain control. The jet is going to crash and Maverick cannot reach the eject button. He asks Goose to eject but Goose is slammed against the glass of the cockpit after hitting the button.
They hit the water. Upon reaching Goose, Maverick realizes Goose is in bad shape. Goose dies shortly thereafter.
This shook Maverick to the core. He struggled to get back into the cockpit. When he did, he wasn’t his old self. He questioned whether or not he should continue to fly.
Our failures will do to us what Maverick’s failure did to him. They will make us question our ability to lead.
Know that failure isn’t a mark of a bad leader. Failure is the mark of a leader.
Leaders will fail. The good ones will continue on. The bad ones will see failure and choose to quit.
To be the best of the best means you make mistakes, and then you go on.
Charlie encourages Maverick to continue in the Top Gun program. She knows that failures will come. She knows they will happen to good pilots.
What she also knows is that mistakes don’t stop the best. The best keep going on.
Once again, don’t let mistakes stop you from leading. Great leaders make mistakes.
To be the best of the best, you will make mistakes. Then you go on.
Is that why you fly the way you do? Trying to prove something?
Viper noticed Maverick’s crazy antics and the way he did things. They were out of control. He confronted Maverick on this.
He wanted to know why Maverick did what he did. In reality, Viper already knew. Maverick flew the way he did to prove that he was a good pilot.
Leaders can lead in erratic ways because they believe they have something to prove. They can push the boundaries, make bad calls, and choose to go to the extremes.
We have to learn how to temper our desire to prove that we’re worthy to lead with the ability to lead well.
Pull yourself back if you’re pushing the boundaries too much. You don’t have to prove anything. You’re a leader and you deserve to be there.
A good pilot is compelled to evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he’s learned.
Good and bad situations happen. Maverick had a bad situation occur with Goose’s death.
Viper counseled Maverick in this. He encouraged him by telling Maverick to evaluate what happened. Learn from it. Then apply it.
Great leaders know this routine. They are in a situation and there’s an outcome. They evaluate what happened and why. Then they see what they can learn from the situation. Lastly, they begin to apply what they’ve learned.
This is how great leaders grow. They experiment, they learn, they apply.
I’m not leaving my wingman this time:
Maverick learned from his mistakes in training. Where he would have left his wingman before, he chose to stay with his wingman in the real battle.
This allowed the Top Gun fighters to win the fight.
This showed growth on Maverick’s part. He learned not to be a hotshot. He learned to have his people’s backs.
We need to learn this as well. We need to learn to stick with our people and not go off on our own.
When we do this, we cover not only ourselves with protection, we cover our team members.
Stick with your people. They need it. You need it.
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