Top Gun Leadership

We fly as a team, all responsible for accomplishing the mission.


Imagine you’re at an air show. It’s a crisp spring day and you’re waiting in anticipation for the next fly-by of aircraft. Next on the list is the famous Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. Suddenly, you hear the distant roar of jet engines as a quartet of F-16 jet fighters approaches the horizon. Within seconds, the sound becomes deafening as they scream by at 1,000 feet in absolute perfect formation, their wingtips separated by only four feet!

How do they do it? What kind of intense training, discipline and skill does it take to fly these $30 million, technologically advanced aircraft at such high speeds with such precision? What does it mean to be what fighter pilots call a Top Gun?

As a combat-decorated former fighter pilot, I am intimately familiar with this world. I know firsthand that while flying fighters is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have, it also can be unforgiving. One small mistake could be disastrous. Operating in such a demanding environment requires constant training, attention to detail, focus and commitment. There’s simply no room for error. This is the world of the Top Gun.

You may be asking yourself, what does the world of the Top Gun pilot have in common with your world? Well, if you look closely, the similarities are more common than you may think. You see, it’s what goes on behind the scenes that guarantees a successful mission, regardless if you’re on a combat mission, on the factory floor or in the office. It’s the training, teamwork, discipline and commitment to excellence that together create an environment that fosters mission success—an environment with zero mishaps, safe working conditions and a loyal, enthusiastic workforce.

Training, teamwork, discipline and commitment to excellence create an environment that fosters mission success, with zero mishaps, safe working conditions and a loyal, enthusiastic workforce.

And if there’s one thing above all else that contributes to success in the air and on the ground, it’s trust:

  • Trust in Yourself.
  • Trust in your Wingmen.
  • Trust as a Leader.

As we explore these traits of a Top Gun Leader, take a moment to explore how they relate to you as a leader. More important, examine how striving to become a more trusting leader can foster a safe, healthy and productive environment at your workplace.

Trust in Yourself
  • Prepare relentlessly for every mission. You understand the procedures, study the threat, analyze the environment and contingency plan every emergency.
  • Chair-fly every mission before doing it for real. This mission rehearsal process is critical to troubleshoot and overcome the fear of failure or change.
  • Focus first and foremost on your organization’s mission. You are 100 percent accountable to this mission and have the courage to own the results!
Trust in Your Wingmen
  • Know who to go to for help! No fighter pilot flies a mission solo, and neither should you. We always fly with wingmen, our trusted and reliable partners in the air and on the ground who help us to win.
  • Promote an environment of mutual support. By backing up your wingmen and being another set of eyes, you provide perspective, guidance and feedback to your wingmen. This improves safety and mitigates the inherent risk that is often present when accomplishing the mission.
  • Brief and de-brief every mission and continuously work with your wingmen to improve training, standards and processes. You set objectives, assign responsibilities, hold everyone accountable and plan contingencies as a team.
Trust as a Leader
  • Develop a focused vision for the future of your organization, for yourself and for your wingmen. When you take the time to see the world through the eyes of your wingmen, you promote loyalty, which leads to performance, which leads to results.
  • Establish values that are the core of who you are. Integrity, reliability, service before self and a commitment to excellence are the fuel that powers your behavior.
  • Practice excellent communication skills. Above all else, you listen to your wingmen and allow them to say the three most important words when it comes to safety: “I need help.” “Mayday” is the wingman’s call to action.
  • Have a Train to Win attitude. You sharpen your sword every day by relentless study and practice. You reward and encourage those who do the right thing at work by promoting health and safety in the workplace.
Mission Done Right

We have a saying in the fighter pilot world: “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” Getting the mission done right so that every wingman makes it home to dinner is not easy. And it’s definitely not all the glory you may see in the movies. It’s the consistent sacrifice and dedication that lay the foundation for mission success when our country calls us to action.

Each day, you too are called to action by your company, your co-workers and your customers to accomplish the mission safely. You must ask yourself if you’re willing to sweat and sacrifice to get this mission done. While it’s not easy, the rewards are well worth it. This is the mindset of a Top Gun Leader, and you don’t need to wear a flight suit or fly an F-16 to live it each day.

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92b_waldmanwaldo Meet the Author
Waldo Waldman, a combat-decorated former Air Force fighter pilot with 65 missions in hostile territory, is a leadership consultant located on the Web at