Warning—spoilers ahead—if you haven’t seen Top Gun: Maverick. But if you’re interested in some leadership tips, read on! I recently watched the long-awaited Top Gun sequel and in addition to cinematography and stunts that will simply take your breath away, the movie’s engaging plot makes for major development of the main character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s leadership skills. In the first movie, Maverick is a young, reckless pilot, who despite his impressive aviation skills, isn’t trusted by the other pilots to make good decisions while they’re in the air. Effective leadership requires trust that goes both ways; a team must trust their leader to guide them in the right direction, fight for them, and make good decisions, and a leader must be able to rely on his/her team. Maverick eventually does prove at the end of the original Top Gun that he can be a good wingman. However, it is revealed early in Top Gun: Maverick that even though his age and experience should have allowed him to become a highly ranked officer, he has not advanced past the position of Captain. By clinging to his independence, he has prevented his own career advancement.
In spite of this, the second movie emphasizes the point that there is always a possibility for growth, especially in leadership. Maverick shows at the beginning of the movie that he is capable of being responsible for others, when he risks his career to keep his test pilot program alive and ensure his coworkers’ jobs. He demonstrates his potential for leadership by protecting his team. However, the real test begins when he takes on the huge challenge of training a group of young top gun pilots to prepare for a top-secret bombing mission. After initially rejecting the job, stating that he is not a teacher and doesn’t want to take the risk of responsibility, he realizes that this mission will occur with or without him, and chooses to focus on positively impacting the chances of the young pilots’ survival and the success of the mission. Maverick demonstrates that believing in yourself, taking responsibility, and having a clear vision for the impact you want to make, are important qualities for an aspiring leader.
The speed and accuracy with which these top gun pilots must learn to fly has never before been done and Maverick must balance instilling confidence in his team, with preparing them for the dangers they will face. The exercises he designs challenge the pilots’ limits, as well as their teamwork skills, bravery, and instinct. Seemingly unimpressed with his training efforts, the Navy decides to take over the program and allow more time for the mission to be accomplished, thus putting the pilots in greater danger. Frustrated that the Navy is not prioritizing both the safety of the pilots and the mission’s success, Maverick flies a plane through the entire mission sequence by himself, proving not only that the faster timing is possible and necessary, but that he is the person to lead the team. Maverick exhibits once again that to be a good leader, one must advocate for one’s team; in doing so he increases both the Navy’s and his pilots’ faith in him.
In the end, Maverick flies the actual mission with his pilots, risking his life alongside them in order to be the most effective leader he can be. While this leadership approach is not always feasible, it was important to this mission that he was able to assess the situation and provide support in real time. With Maverick’s leadership, the entire team returned home safely, having successfully completed the mission. Maverick’s growth into a resourceful and effective leader over the course of the Top Gun movies is one of the things that makes them so compelling. From an arrogant, risk-taking hotshot to a strong, smart, and trustworthy leader, Maverick’s character inspires us to continue to learn, trust, and grow into the leaders we want to be.
Top Gun: Maverick. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, performances by Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, and Miles Teller, Paramount Pictures Studios, 2022.
Top Gun. Directed by Tony Scott, performances by Tom Cruise, Tim Robbins, and Kelly McGillis, Paramount Pictures Studios, 1986.