Six Leadership Lessons from ‘Top Gun’

Paul Butler: Going the Extra Mile

My wife and I had been deliberating whether to go and see the recently released “Top Gun: Maverick” movie. Both being children of the ’80s, we figured it would just be a pale imitation of the 1986 classic, with a predictable plot and obvious ending. Browsing through social media on Sunday afternoon I came across a post that summarized why this was a “must-see” movie and it listed many reasons why it breaks the mold of much of the mess we see coming out of Hollywood. So, we decided to take a trip to our favorite local movie theater in Newhall to check it out ourselves.  

Not only was it a thoroughly enjoyable film that was incredibly well-made, but also it threw the spotlight on six top leadership lessons which I’d love to magnify, without spoiling the story if you haven’t yet ventured out to see it: 

  1. Top leaders challenge the status quo. 

Part of the likeability of Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick is his boyish and rather cheeky way of challenging the status quo. Just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. History is peppered with examples of leaders who broke with tradition to forge a new way forward. One of the best leaders I ever worked for always encouraged me to ask if today’s way will be the best way tomorrow. 

  1. Top leaders lead by example. 

The thrust of the tale is that the aviators need to be trained and ready to execute on a critical mission within a very short space of time. At a crucial stage the group is informed their timeline has been compressed so much so that it sets off a wave of despondency within the ranks. The slim possibility of mission success is now thought to be dead in the water. But Maverick proves it can be done, by doing it. He stretches himself almost to the breaking point to serve as an inspiration to his young recruits, who now see what’s possible.  

  1. Top leaders build teams. 

Maverick’s boss is flabbergasted one day to find him and his aviation team out on the beach playing football. Fun is being had by all. High fives abound, and running chest bumps in the ocean and playful wrestling while the top brass gets more infuriated. Maverick’s boss demands an explanation for the time-wasting. Tom Cruise’s character simply responds with, “Teamwork.” Maverick knows that to achieve the unachievable, these Top Guns must work as a team. Selfishness, grandstanding and arrogance have no place on top teams. 

  1. Top leaders recruit for competence and character. 

Maverick has to cut his final team down by half. On what basis does he decide to do this when each person is already top of their game? Does he choose people for the job based on their gender? No. Does he select based on skin color? No. Does he make his final cut based on someone’s sexual orientation? No. Tom makes his choice based on two factors — competence (the proven ability to achieve this specific mission) and character (the proven ability to manage yourself and work with others). I think it’s a sad state of affairs and somewhat patronizing to award jobs or vendor contracts on any other factors than competence and character.  

  1. Top leaders are teachers. 

My observation has been that the best leaders are teachers are heart. Conversely, I’ve noticed that mediocre managers hoard knowledge, but like sand slipping through their fingers they soon lose talented individuals who want to grow under top leaders who will teach them well. This principle plays out wonderfully in the movie. When he’s first assigned the mission, Maverick wants to reject it mainly because he doesn’t see himself as a teacher. His students prove him wrong.  

  1. Top leaders are authentic. 

There’s something deep down within our engines that repels us from leaders who lack authenticity. We all know the stereotype of the slimy political leader who pleads for our vote. We all know the hypocrisy of leaders on high who fall mightily, often because of a moral failing, lured away by the lust of eye, the lust of the flesh and the boastful pride of life. There’s a line used a few subtle times throughout the movie when someone says to Maverick, “Don’t give me that look.” Tom’s response is so sweet — so genuine and so endearing, when he simply says, “It’s the only one I got.” See, top leaders are single-faced: They’re not two-faced. 

In short, go see the movie.  

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected]. 

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