Some things never change. Even though it’s been 36 years since Top Gun debuted as a cinematic tour de force, the film’s campy dialog remains deeply entrenched in my day-to-day life. Only yesterday, a colleague poked her head into my office and asked if I had a minute to talk. “Talk to me, Goose,” I responded, without missing a beat. She chuckled, if only because she hears that line every day from her office across the hall.

I was a college senior when Top Gun first graced the silver screen, and in the 36 years since its dialog has been a permanent part of my lexicon. I’ve written at length about my liberal use of film quotes in daily office diatribe. I’ve reflected on the life lessons you can draw from the movie. I’ve even used the film as a metaphorical warning about the dangers of ego.

A Study In Style

What makes Top Gun so unforgettable? It’s a blockbuster film with an incredible cast and an even better soundtrack. It’s the source of more memes than just about any movie filmed since. In some ways, it’s campy to the point of being cringeworthy, but that doesn’t stop you from singing along with “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” with a pathetic group of off-key Naval aviators in the Miramar Officer’s Club. It’s a classic in every imaginable way.

But, 36 years later, I’m still learning from it. In anticipation of the long-awaited sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, I recently queued up the original for a long run on the treadmill. Thirty minutes into the film, I noticed something I hadn’t during any of the times I’ve watched it previously: the movie is a case study in leadership styles. No two leaders in the film share the same approach to leading.

Whether that was the intent of the screenwriters, it allows the characters to play off one another in a way that keeps the film engaging. The tension between leadership styles – something most leaders can relate to from experience – keeps things, well… interesting. Watch the movie closely enough and it evolves into an in-depth study in leadership.

words have meaning

The contrast of leadership styles plays out in both words and deeds. Maverick – whose callsign is perfectly suited to his approach to leading – doesn’t just fly by the seat of his pants, he speaks his mind in the same reckless manner. Viper is the calm before the storm in every sense, whether he’s mentoring junior pilots or flying a mission. And Iceman’s words are as precise as his flying. Make no mistake: he means what he says, and he says what he means.

Watching the movie, most viewers get caught up in the action, the music, or the story itself. The dialog is snappy to the point of distraction. We get so enamored with the quotable quotes that we lose the meaning behind them, the fact that those words are simply an extension of the characters and the styles through which they lead.

Lessons in Leadership

Those words offer a lesson in leadership. With just a few carefully chosen words, we get a window into the character and values of the leader behind them. What drives them? What matters to them? What kind of leader are they?

“You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.”

Maverick is an instinctive leader who trusts his gut – and his heart – to guide him. Intuition, however, can be dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced leader, resulting in as many questionable decisions and good ones. Something we see often with Maverick.

“Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.”

Stinger is the ideal data-driven leader, one who makes sound decisions based on the best information available at the time. He’s also that leader who always has the best verbal response to any situation, the one who fills your green notebook with notable quotes.

“I flew with your old man. VF-51, the Oriskany. You’re a lot like he was. Only better… and worse.”

Viper is the mentor we all wish we had. He never loses his cool, always offers sage advice, and leads with a calm determination that consistently sets the standard.

“His fitness report says it all. Flies by the seat of his pants, totally unpredictable.”

Jester is the rules-based leader. He’s the leader who will reliably quote policy and doctrine in every situation. Rules were made to be followed, not interpreted. These leaders usually suffer when the enemy doesn’t follow your rules.

“Maverick, it’s not your flying, it’s your attitude. The enemy’s dangerous, but right now you’re worse.”

Iceman comes across as the perfect antagonist, but in truth, he’s a reliable, team-focused leader. He sees in Maverick a loner who is dangerous to himself and everyone around him. You might hate him at first, but Iceman only wants everyone working together and focused on the same goals.

“Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.”

Everyone knows a leader like Air Boss Johnson, even if they don’t recognize him on screen. He’s the prototypical risk averse leader. Which is why everyone laughs when someone spills coffee on him.

“No. No, Mav, this is not a good idea.”

As a character, Goose is less a leader than a committed follower cast in the guise of comic relief. Unfortunately, he also has to die for Maverick to become the leader he needs to be. That’s the life of a back-seater.

a Top Gun kind of month

So, with a sequel finally on the horizon it’s a great time to blow the dust off your VHS player and find your old copy of Top Gun. Visit your local Starbucks and tell the barista, “This is what I call a target-rich environment.” The odds are good they’ll call 911, so make a quick getaway. When the police arrive, yell out your window, “The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies room.” That probably won’t save you from a weekend in jail, but you’ll all get a good laugh when you finally see the judge. Or you can just break out the callsign generator, stream the movie on 4K, and buy your advance tickets for the sequel. It’s going to be a Top Gun kind of month.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.