Three Lessons in Leadership from TOPGUN’s Top 10

By Dr. Marina Theodotou

Building leadership skills is important whether you are a recent graduate or a seasoned professional and critical in times of crisis. Examples of leadership abound in the military from Alexander the Great, to Wellington, to Grant and have been exemplified in all forms of art, including movies. One such example is the blockbuster movie Top Gun with Maverick and his leadership journey. In this article, I share what I learned about leadership skills from a real life TOPGUN instructor, US Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass (Ret.) and his latest book, TOPGUN’s Top 10. In the book, Snodgrass shares his life experiences as a naval aviator and TOPGUN instructor and distills ten lessons on leadership. From the ten leadership lessons, the three that stand out for me are: focus on talent, passion, and personality; never wait to make a difference; and nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Focus on talent, passion, and personality

Over 3,000 years ago Aristotle talked about ethos, logos, and pathos as three key elements in persuading others. In a work context, ethos is your ethical stance or values; logos can include your analytical skills and ability to use critical thinking, logic, and data to tackle problems. Pathos is your passion and enthusiasm you bring in the way you face your work. As I read this lesson from Cdr. Snodgrass I wondered whether he thought talent, passion, and personality are new traits. He said these are the three important traits we control, even in the most uncertain times like the ones we are living in now. We cannot control the outcome, but we can control the input and how we tackle adversity and respond to challenges. At TOPGUN, fighter pilots focus on cultivating their talent, passion, and personality because these are considered accurate predictors for successful leaders.

How to cultivate passion and talent

Several bodies of research address how to build passion and talent, including the book by Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. In this book, Cal Newport discusses the “craftsman mindset” with which you focus on what value you are producing in your job and the “passion mindset” which he defines as the value you derive from your job. Snodgrass alludes to a mash up of the two mindsets Newport discusses. Passion is the enthusiasm and engine driving you to learn more, practice more, and striving more to stretch your abilities beyond your comfort zone. As Snodgrass said, “passion is what will carry you through the tough times when you have few other resources left.”

How to build a growth mindset

In the way Snodgrass defined personality, Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research came to mind. A growth mindset is one where you believe that you can grow and cultivate through your efforts, your approach and by accepting help from others. In her seminal work, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck points out that people with a growth mindset embrace challenges and persist when crises and setbacks occur. Research shows that if you believe you can grow and evolve through your actions, hard work, and practice, you can actually grow your brain! So, how can you build a growth mindset? Follow the  four steps outlined by Carol Dweck. 

  1. Embrace your fixed mindset by simply accepting the little voice in your head that says “Ok, give up now, you’ll never get this.” 
  2. Recognize what triggers your fixed mindset? Perhaps when you are trying to get that new project or get a promotion. 
  3. Create a persona or avatar for your fixed mindset. You can give it a name. This helps you recognize, accept, and separate your fixed mindset from your potential. 
  4. Educate your fixed mindset. Dweck recommends saying: “Look, I know this may not work out, but I’d really like to take a stab at it. Can I count on you to bear with my effort?” This creates space for you to start exploring ways to build your growth mindset.

Never Wait to Make a Difference

Snodgrass says not waiting to make a difference is based on a simple premise: if not you, then who? If not now, then when? A key learning—one Snodgrass learned as a TOPGUN instructor—is not to confuse activity with progress. To do that, when tackling tasks and projects, he constantly asked: “What is my strategy?” and “What are we trying to achieve as an outcome?”

In his book, The 5 Levels of Leadership, John Maxwell asserts making a difference by making things happen and producing separates real leaders from wannabes. Producing results creates momentum. Maxwell identifies three types of people: “momentum takers”, or those who go along with the ride, never starting anything; “momentum breakers” who actually hurt morale, bad mouth the producers, and intentionally or unintentionally hurt the organization; and “momentum makers” who are leaders that make things happen and take on the responsibility and the extra effort of leading others in teams to deliver results.

How to make a difference

Be a momentum maker and make a difference with leading by example. Producing results builds leadership credibility. The sure way to produce results is to lead by example in everything you do, from the smallest task to the biggest and highest visibility project. So, take the time to plan your strategy. First, determine which actions provide the biggest impact. Second, based on those actions, define what success looks like and what results will come from each action. Third, take the actions and strive to get as close as possible to the success results defined in the second step. 

Nothing Worthwhile Is ever Easy

Difficulties abound especially in unprecedented times like the 2020 pandemic. In his book, Snodgrass discusses two critically important leadership attributes to tackling difficulties:  anticipating problems and remaining calm under pressure. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted just how susceptible organizations are to systemic shock. As a leader, you must remain calm under pressure, especially during times of crisis. Leaders are responsible for successfully navigating challenges while simultaneously caring for their team members. When you stay calm under pressure, those you lead will follow suit. 

How to make good decisions during crises

Ray Dalio, in his book, Principles for Success, examines the importance of making decisions effectively and outlines three important steps. 

  1. Understand the biggest threats to making good decisions are harmful emotions. Here, Dalio discusses the struggle between feeling and thinking. Feeling and emotions are controlled by our amygdala, a small almond-shaped gland situated in the core of our brain that unconsciously controls our behavior. Thinking is controlled by our prefrontal cortex and consciously controls our thoughts and behavior. 
  2. Remember the importance of learning and being open to new ideas. Dalio defines learning as the ability to synthesize information accurately and knowing how to navigate levels of depth so you don’t get stuck in the weeds and lose the big picture. 
  3. Balance the facts of “what is” with a broader understanding of the cause and effect framework that underlie what is. Then weigh first order consequences with second and third order consequences to make a decision that is viable both in the short and longer term. 

Building your leadership skills by cultivating your passion, talent and growth mindset, is important. Further, you must focus on producing results and making a difference while remaining calm under pressure especially at times like these when the velocity, volume, and complexity of change will only accelerate.

Dr. Marina Theodotou is a culture change and innovation leader at the Defense Acquisition University, Department of Defense (DoD). Currently, she is on rotation at NavalX at the Department of the Navy as Director of Learning Experiences.

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