Are You a Top Gun?©

“I feel the need … the need for speed.” Most of you know this memorable line from the 1986 movie Top Gun starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis (and many other now famous actors). For the small percentage of you that missed the movie, here’s a quick synopsis. Maverick (Tom Cruise) is a hotshot Navy fighter pilot who is sent to Top Gun Naval Flying School, where the best of the best fighter pilots learn and compete. Maverick is cocky and arrogant, as are most of the other pilots. Already a trouble maker before Top Gun, he continues his rebellious and often dangerous ways at the flying school. Of course, there’s a love story in the movie, but more important is Maverick’s battle with the other pilots at Top Gun and against the old story of his father’s death in combat that also got other pilots killed due to his error. As in all good stories, the movie ends (I won’t give it all away) with Maverick’s redemption after experiencing and blaming himself for the death of his co-pilot and best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards). That’s all you need for now.

Early in the movie Maverick becomes a hero of sorts after defending an aircraft carrier from Russian MiG fighters and helping another pilot get back to the carrier. The following is the exchange between Maverick, Goose and their commanding officer after this air battle:

Commander:             Maverick, you just did an incredibly brave thing. What you should have done was land your plane! You don’t own that plane, the taxpayers do! Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash. … And let’s not bullshit, Maverick. Your family name ain’t the best in the Navy. You need to be doing it better and cleaner than the other guy. Now what is it with you?

Maverick:       Just want to serve my country, be the best pilot in the Navy, sir.

Commander: Don’t screw around with me, Maverick. You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot. Maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t. I got another problem here. I have to send somebody to Miramar. I’ve got to do something. I still can’t believe it. I have to give you your dream shot! I have to send you up against the best. You characters are going to Top Gun. For five weeks, you’re going to fly against the best.

Excuse the long quote, but it’s critical to understand where Maverick was at the beginning of the movie and of his personal journey. He was good – maybe even great – BUT he was living and leading in his ego, taking unnecessary and even dangerous risks. He was all about himself.

Maverick needed to be the best largely to feed his ego and to overcome the shame of the story of his father’s inglorious death (which is highlighted later in the movie). Maverick needed to be the best in order to see himself as having value or being worthwhile. This was Maverick’s major blind spot in his life and in his leadership.

The blindness his ego created was highlighted throughout the early parts of the movie as Maverick continued to take unnecessary risks to go for his own glory, and he most certainly was not a team player. Maverick cared only about Maverick, despite his protestations to the contrary. Indeed, Maverick was dangerous when living from his ego and false confidence.

And then it happened. Maverick had a life experience that shifted his perspective from inside to outside, from self-focused to other-focused. When his fighter jet crashed and Goose (his best friend) was killed, Maverick had to face himself (literally). If you saw the movie, you’ll remember that Viper (Tom Skerritt) comes to tell Maverick that Goose is dead, and Maverick is standing in front of a mirror when he receives the news. Maverick is now beginning to face himself for the first time in his life.

The movie portrays that Maverick lost his confidence as a result of Goose’s death, but the deeper truth is that Maverick actually lost his way. All of his bravado and ego fell away with the reality of Goose’s death. As a result, Maverick went from a man who was driven by fame and credit to a man who was committed to helping others and leading from behind by supporting others.

At the beginning of the movie, Maverick’s single goal was to be recognized as the best fighter pilot in the Navy, and the key word was recognized. By the end of the movie, I would argue that Maverick was indeed the best pilot in the Navy even without the recognition. Maverick always had the gifts and skills of a great fighter pilot, but only when he was humbled and brought to his knees did he integrate his gifts, skills and heart to become the very best. And by the time he got to this point, Maverick no longer needed to be seen as the best.

Yes, it’s just a movie … or is it really a metaphor about life and leadership? When we lead from our ego, we achieve only that which we alone are capable of achieving, we fail to build a team (and instead breed mistrust), we have no influence (just self-generated outcomes), and we are dangerous (to ourselves, to our families, to our teams and to our businesses).

In contrast, when we are willing to be humble (or even if we are humbled against our will like Maverick), we can step into a powerful form of leadership and livingshipTM that will transform businesses, teams, families, relationships and communities. This is leadership and livingshipTM founded on a firm foundation of authenticity, vulnerability, trust, respect, support, collaboration and a commitment to the team’s goals and objectives (however that team is defined).

Here’s a key reality – most of us will not have dramatic humbling experiences like in the movies, so don’t wait for them to come to you. Being humble and stepping outside of your ego is a purposeful and conscious choice you can make every day (indeed, in every moment) in order to step up and into your more conscious and powerful leader. Will you make that choice today? Just know that this important choice will make you a top gun leader in all parts of your life.


  1. Jonathan Lamb says:

    Jeff, I could not agree more.

    A true “wake up call!”

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