The real-life inspiration for the blockbuster films Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick, the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School trains the top one percent of our nation’s fighter pilots. Over the course of twelve weeks, these pilots are drilled on aerial tactics, combat, and skills required to win in any organization. Ordinary people are transformed into world-class leaders. Pilots, like Commander Snodgrass, who remain on staff as TOPGUN instructors, are held to even higher and more demanding standards.
In TOPGUN’s Top 10, Commander Snodgrass distills some of the most important lessons he’s learned and taught over the course of his career into a taut, engaging book for readers of all ages and experience levels. It’s the perfect gift for anyone looking to change careers, excel in the workplace, or find their way in the world after college graduation. Smart, practical, and direct, Snodgrass’s account of real TOPGUN experience will inspire a new generation of leaders.
What is the backstory behind “TOPGUN’S TOP 10?
I grew up reading books about Chuck Yeager, James Stockdale, and other leaders that pushed the envelope to create significant (and positive) change for their organizations. There’s a fundamental reality that reading widely and about topics outside your own area of expertise is critical for long-term success. Doing so opens you up to a larger perspective and ideas outside your own experience base. Much like my first book (Holding the Line), the intent with TOPGUN’S TOP 10 is to share leadership insights gleamed from an incredibly unique experience, in this case as a TOPGUN instructor.
What experience caused you to see a need for “TOPGUN’S TOP 10?”
America will always need talented leaders who put service before self, lead with integrity, motivate their teams to new heights, and aspire to make a lasting impact. I knew from the moment I walked in the door at TOPGUN that I was surrounded by men and women dedicated to achieving their fullest potential—each and every day. The lessons learned from that experience made all the difference in my career, and when an earlier version of these lessons resonated with the Sailors in the fighter squadron I led in Japan.
There’s no doubt that we also face significant challenges in our country. The time felt right to provide a positive story about key leadership attributes that men and women from all walks of life can learn from TOPGUN, an organization dedicated to helping service members reach the top of their game.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
Each chapter focuses on storytelling drawn from my personal experiences as a fighter pilot. In some cases, the story revolves around a seemingly insurmountable challenge. In others, times where I failed miserably or was nearly killed while flying. What’s important isn’t the outcome as much as what I learned from it. Whether it’s “Never Wait to Make a Difference,” “Anticipate Problems,” or “Always Have a Wingman,” each chapter culminates with how these lessons impacted my career – and how they can impact yours as well. Remember: the best lessons in life are those learned by reading about someone else’s experience – we can all grow by leaps and bounds when we use other’s experiences to reinforce our own knowledge base.
What advice would you have for a mid-career military officer who is considering writing a memoir?
Have a clear understanding of who you want your audience to be and what you intend to convey to them. Everything else will fall in place once you’re identified with your audience and the key messages. I’d also encourage aspiring authors to consider the positive outcomes that can be generated by leaving behind breadcrumbs for others to follow.
What are you reading now?
I tend to read two books simultaneously—one fiction and the other non-fiction. At the moment, my fun read is “Burn In ” by P.W. Singer and August Cole. My non-fiction read is” Writing to Compel” by former New York Times Opinions editor Trish Hall.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
In middle school, it was Tom Clancy and Isaac Asimov books, which led to a love for the military and technology. As I entered the U.S. Naval Academy, I gravitated towards memoirs by leaders like Gen. Colin Powell and Adm. Ernest King. As I increased in seniority, I began to read books with historical application to senior Navy and American leadership, which included books like Kissinger by Walter Isaacson, What I Saw at the Revolution by Peggy Noonan, The Nightingale’s Song, among many others. One of the best acquisitions I made while working in Secretary Mattis’s front office was a complete set of books about the entire history of the Department of Defense. While I used it as a resource when writing speeches for Mattis and President Trump, I now look forward to reading the series in its entirety once I make some time this winter.
What are your favorite books to give — and get — as gifts?
My favorites to give others are books paired with a purpose. Perhaps you’re mentoring someone facing a particular challenge or you have a friend interested in a particular subject. There’s always a way to pair a book with a person who can benefit from it.
As for the books I like to receive, I’m open to almost any subject matter. Some of the best books are the ones that challenge my existing beliefs or about subjects that are brand new to me.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you.
The first “fun fact” is that I’m a firm believer in the positive impact we can all make in the lives of others. My career—and my life—was rescued by a receptionist at the U.S. Naval Academy’s on-base hospital. As a college senior, I learned that I had a heart condition that disqualified me for flying. The receptionist wouldn’t take no for an answer, reminding me of the importance of “never giving up on my dreams.” When a medical consult to Bethesda Naval Hospital didn’t pan out, she sent me to Walter Reed for a second opinion. In short order, I’d had corrective surgery and was able to become a Navy pilot, which put me on the path for fighter jets, a role as a TOPGUN instructor, commanding officer, chief speechwriter to Secretary Mattis, and beyond. If she hadn’t intervened, my life would have turned out very differently. As I write my TOPGUN’S TOP 10, never wait to make a difference!
Second, seek out diversity in your life. Pursue a wide variety of mentors and experiences. One of the coolest—and most random—experiences was working at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory while working on my master’s degrees. It was incredibly fun to be there during the early stages of advanced robotics designs and algorithmic approaches to problem-solving, and it’s paying dividends now that AI is the hot new tech.
Finally, and this really is just a fun fact, the fastest I’ve flown is 2.3 times the speed of sound (Mach 2.3). At TOPGUN we maintained some slicked-down F-16 fighter jets for use as adversary aircraft. If time and airspace permitted, you could climb above 50,000-feet, break the speed of sound, then start a steep “Mach dive” to achieve your fastest speed. Tons of fun.
How did your leadership and ethical philosophy develop?
I’m a fan of being thoughtful and deliberate with your actions. I’m also an even bigger fan of breaking the mold, purposefully taking a unique path to pursue even greater impact (a lesson I learned from Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath). I created most of these lessons included in TOPGUN’s TOP 10 back in 2014 while contemplating life as a commanding officer. What did I stand for? What would I want my Sailors to embrace to find their own success? Thinking deeply about these questions led me to compile a long list of attributes that successful people tend to follow. I forced myself to down-select to the ten I felt were the most impactful.
As for how these philosophies developed, they’re an amalgamation of direct experience from the very best (and very worst) leaders, incredibly meaningful insights from leaders I respect, and the upbringing I received from family, church, and community. On that note, perhaps the most powerful lesson I learned came from my father when I was eight years old. He said, “Son, never forget: time is your most precious resource. You can always find a way to make more money or pursue a different job, but time is the one resource you can never get more of, and once you’ve spent it you can never get it back. Always be mindful of how you spend your time.” I think of this often—am I using my time wisely? More importantly, am I making the best possible impact each and every day? My father’s insight led to the lesson I’ve already mentioned—never wait to make a difference.
What is next for you?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when transitioning out of uniform, so I threw a lot of spaghetti against to wall, expecting one or possibly two options to stick. I found that everything stuck: I started a consulting firm to advise multinational corporations, have published two books, started a podcast, and became a TV commentator on national security and foreign affairs. I’ve met some incredible people along the way, which is another reminder to remain open to new experiences—you never know where an opportunity will lead.
Pre-order TOPGUN’S TOP 10 Here
Guy Snodgrass is an author, public speaker, and the founder and CEO of Defense Analytics, a firm specializing on the intersection between technology, innovation, and public policy. He is the author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis and TOPGUN’S TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit. He also hosts Holding the Line, a popular national security and foreign policy podcast. He has appeared as an expert national security commentator on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, and others, and is a contributor for Forbes.
Previously a career U.S. Navy F/A-18 pilot, Guy led combat sorties in support of forces on the ground during OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM, served as a U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) Instructor, and completed two tours of duty in Japan as part of the Forward Deployed Naval Force in the Indo-Pacific region.
Guy served on the U.S. Navy’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review team; as Speechwriter to Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. Navy’s 30th Chief of Naval Operations; and as the Pentagon’s Director of Communications and Chief Speechwriter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (B.S., Computer Science, 1998); MIT (M.S., Nuclear Engineering and M.S., Computer Science, both in 2000); and U.S. Naval War College (M.A., National Security, 2012). He is a 2018-19 MIT Seminar XXI program graduate and a former Term Member with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Guy currently serves on the board of directors for the U.S. Naval Institute, CIMSEC, and Candorful; on the National Small Business Association’s Leadership Council, and as a member of the Council on Competitiveness. An Eagle Scout, Guy was also recognized in 2020 with the National Outstanding Eagle Scout Award by the Boy Scouts of America.