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  • Writer's pictureShandy Welch

Leadership from Top Gun

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

If you haven’t seen it, go! It is fun to be back in the theater and relive the movie of 30 years ago.

Much of this film is based on true events, one of which is Commander Becky Dowling Calder, the first female pilot to graduate from Top Gun in 2000, In this interview, she discusses how the Navy capitalizes on the talent and wisdom of Top Gun pilots to train and support other Navy Pilots. The expectation of Top Gun graduates is to teach others, many times this means training F18 squadrons that are older and have more years of experience.

It is easy to imagine how tactical training could get lost in the hierarchy, ego, and gender differences. Commander Dowling Calder makes a great point, the Navy and Top Gun are dedicated to excellence, leadership, and mentorship, and “the jet does not care about your gender.” The only goal and focus are to be the best, continue to learn, and safely complete your mission in support of the Navy.

I work with many clients who are dedicated to their organization and team, but at the end of the day, if they are being honest, are in it for themselves, for their advancement, for their ego, and for their personal gain. I wonder how that translates to the team? Knowing you will be dropped and left if the promotion is offered. Where do loyalty and commitment to the team as a whole come into play? Can we have both?

For most of my career, I worked for a large organization and as I “climbed the ranks” one thing became very evident, most people were jockeying for positions, vying for the next title, and seemingly less interested in the wake they left behind. The “team” clearly felt like a stepping stone for their advancement.

Honestly, I felt myself and other team members retreat and disengage. Many of the executive leaders were only focused forward looking for the next promotion and gold star. The focus was not the work but what the work could get them. Respect and trust quickly diminished.

Are you and your team spiraling up or down?

This very issue is tackled by Patrick Lencioni as he is interviewed by Andy Stanley in a discussion titled: The Motivation of a Leader. Lencioni, who wrote The Motive, puts a fine point on the importance of clarifying WHY you want to be a leader. Is it the title, the money, the notoriety or, is it the drive to serve others and be a part of something bigger than yourself. To mentor and pull out the best in others? Great leadership is having the inherent skill of seeing where the puzzle pieces belong and allowing the picture to emerge as a collective, it is not doing the puzzle yourself.

Advancement is a natural and exciting goal, but how do we harness and retain the wisdom and learnings and use this to engage, challenge, and unite the whole team so both the team and the work are elevated? It seems that Top Gun and the Navy have figured this out. They have created a loop of knowledge and insight which is quickly re-invested into the team. An upward spiral of growth and development. You don’t rise unless others do as well.

Remember, your success is intimately tied to others’ support and collective wisdom, if you leave them behind you will never recognize your potential.

As a leader, you not only have an opportunity to live this concept but also impact it. If you think of individuals as data points that hold wisdom but there is no connection or integration of that data, it is useless in terms of developing institutional insights but, if you harness these data points (people) and organize their wisdom through storytelling, mentoring, and teaching you to develop a collective intelligence which serves not only the individual but the team and the organization.

My Challenge to You

  • How are you approaching your own advancement and the advancement of others? Is your team being left behind?

  • How is institutional knowledge being transferred and retained for the betterment of the organization?

  • How are you capturing knowledge? What opportunities do people have to teach others and share their strengths and insights?

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