Replicating the leadership strategy of the US Naval aviation’s best instructors & operators

Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Slider, Merlin and, of course, Jester. Within a single Hollywood blockbuster exists one of the leading fighter-pilot development programs in the world. While most recognize “Top Gun” from its namesake 1980s hit film starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer, the real-life Topgun program was developed in fall 1968. And the losing war in Vietnam—specifically the United States Navy’s air battle strategy—was the backdrop. 

While hamstrung by faulty strategy and misguided politics, Naval aviators using the F-4 Phantom aircraft (in theory, a technically superior aircraft to the Vietnamese MiG-21) were seeing catastrophic losses. One of the first errors was the decision to remove cannons and guns in favor of smart missiles, which resulted in Russian MiG fighter pilots greatly tilting the kill ratio in their favor (2:1). 

Enter “Top Gun.” The foundation of the film’s premise was formed from reems of data that supported the argument that U.S. air battle tactics in Vietnam were seriously flawed. 

Additionally, it took into account the outstanding leadership of a young lieutenant named Dan Pedersen. According to his book “Topgun: An American Story,” Pederson and his “original bros” developed this training program to retrain and ultimately equip naval aviators with the right tools to be successful. The proof of success came in the form of shifting the 2:1 kill ratio to 22:1 in favor of the U.S. Navy.

Through studying this incredible historical account of military might, ingenuity and perseverance, can the same lessons be applied to the built environment? How does a contractor develop the best operators in the business in a similar fashion?

Connecting the Right Resources

In Pedersen’s book, the foundation of the fighter tactics program (Topgun at Fightertown USA, in Miramar, San Diego, California) began with what might be described as a shoestring budget. While already fighting an expensive conflict in Vietnam, the tolerance for an expensive and pointless undertaking that might not launch (no pun intended) was nil.

In fact, Pederson said his team was not to be given money, facilities, resources, etc., and their budget was whatever they could scrap together on the base. This sounds like a losing proposition from the start—lack of any investment, but obvious expectations of a successful endeavor.  

However, in the book, Pedersen also explains the mission of Topgun. “Topgun was best understood as a graduate school. It essentially functioned like a teachers’ college for fighter pilots. Our job was not just to teach pilots to be the hottest sticks in the sky; it was to teach pilots to teach other pilots to be the hottest sticks in the sky.” Pedersen describes the program’s intent as following a multiplier effect, with the expectation of teaching more people through this distilled fashion.

Many organizations have new-associate training programs, in which the basics are covered, and team members are oriented in firmwide best practices. But what about that middle tier of managers and supervisors? What advanced techniques do they continue to hone? Companies often stress that the return on investment (ROI) of a new associate isn’t realized until they’ve been in the position for 1 to 3 years.

So, just about the time a manager is providing that ROI, the new employee becomes disenchanted, disenfranchised or simply burned out because they see the reinvestment in their future forsaken. Put another way, the group that should be the best cheerleaders and, in many cases, the developers of future talent, is not being leveraged appropriately. 

Whether it’s Pedersen’s or Hollywood’s version you prefer, in both scenarios, the best of the best were handpicked to become students and, ultimately, the instructors. Consider a firm that takes a handful of its best employees and instills in them a mission of capturing the best practices that should become institutional knowledge.

There are plenty of examples of firms that create a group of future leaders, with the hope of inspiring them and cultivating their skill sets, but never take it to the next level. Don’t fall prey to the unrealized great idea. Solving an organizational problem, or simply creating a new proactive operational mindset, is a true investment realization.

Appointing Subject-Matter Experts

Pedersen says that in the infancy of the Topgun program, he had an opportunity to network with an Israeli pilot and his team. They were engaging in a similar endeavor, and Israeli pilots explained that they designated subject matter experts on radar, weapons, aerodynamics, etc., and each subject had a designated expert/instructor.

As it is in the Navy, it is difficult for managers within a construction organization to be experts in everything (Consider a building contractor with 10 to 20 different trades, multiple products, installation approaches, etc.).

But, the industry is continuing to evolve, and it is imperative that organizations find an edge. One solution is to identify the right subject-matter experts and deputize those champions to gather the best practices in technology, the trades, software, scheduling, etc. Make those individuals the internal go-to subject-matter experts, teaching the rest of the firm what they know.

The practices that Topgun instructors imparted to the U.S. Navy created a massive strategic gain in a complicated war. Had the Navy stayed their original course, the casualty rate would have been exponential, and the overall outcome disastrous. In fact, it was during a previous war that the world embraced the concept of “learning from history or being doomed to repeat it.” CBO