10 Lessons On Leadership from Top Gun

A few months ago I watched Top Gun: Maverick in theaters. I truly did not have high expectations since action movies aren’t necessarily my favorite to watch. Leaving the theater, I was shocked just how much I enjoyed it. And the reason wasn’t because of the action or the characters per se, but the leadership principles so clearly demonstrated in the movie. I’ll share a few of my favorites below (hopefully without spoiling anything for you).

  1. There is no rulebook – One of the first things Maverick does when teaching the group how to do this impossible mission is to make sure they know the rule book by asking a verbal confirmation and then he throws it out. He recognizes that leading well and navigating into the unknown isn’t based on a set of rules and checklists. It’s more than that.
  2. It starts with trust – Faced with what seemed like an impossible mission, Maverick recognizes that the team needs to trust him but they also need to trust each other. The final crew was chosen based on trust, not based on ego.
  3. Learning opportunities are everywhere – Rather than just sitting in the classroom to teach the crew and have them build trust, he got them outside the classroom and doing something fun. This can often seem like it’s not giving an immediately tangible result, but it’s planting seeds for trust and teamwork in the future.
  4. You get better with a coach – Maverick coached these pilots on how to do the impossible. He taught them valuable lessons time being your greatest enemy on a mission like this and not to overthink – to just do it.
  5. Competition can be healthy – Maverick doesn’t let competition take over among the pilots who are competing for the spot on the crew. He gives opportunities for healthy competition to challenge the others to become better. But he also knows to temper that competition with teamwork and trust.
  6. Leaders lead by example – Maverick showed them that the challenges he set up for them were achievable. He went first. He wasn’t completely on the sidelines, he showed them the way and then provided them the space to step up.
  7. Give people a safe space for practice – Maverick set up scenarios where the pilots could practice various skills and techniques prior to the mission date. He didn’t just hang out for a few weeks and then go. They spent time in (mostly) safe environments without enemies where these pilots could refine their skills.
  8. Help people train their limits – When these pilots began training, they had limits. Maverick intentionally expanded those limits and helped them generate belief in themselves that they could continue to expand those limits.
  9. You need people – Throughout the movie, you continuously hear “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” Missions are carried out by people. It’s not our systems that make us great, it’s our teams and our leaders.
  10. Leadership development is a journey – In the original Top Gun, Maverick is still learning what it’s like to be a leader and teammate. In the recent release, we get to see a version of Maverick who is humble, driven, passionate, and experienced. He uses all of the lessons he’s learned up to this point in his career to helping develop the other pilots.