For me, like thousands of others around the world, the 1986 blockbuster ‘Top Gun’ was the start of a long journey towards becoming a fighter pilot. I watched the movie many, many times…until I started flying military aircraft myself. At that point, I realised the movie was so far removed from reality, that it became virtually ‘unwatchable’. The complete disregard for rules and procedures, combined with the ultra-competitive nature of the pilots was nothing like the hyper-professional and humble environment you find in real fighter squadrons.
So, fast forward more than 30 years to the release of the sequel; how did ‘they’ do?
Well, I haven’t heard of a single fighter pilot who didn’t love ‘Top Gun 2’! (I’m going to call it Top Gun 2…rolls off the tongue so much easier than 'Top Gun: Maverick') I am not a movie buff by any means but, let me provide a few brief comments from two different perspectives; that of a fighter pilot, and as a performance consultant.
As a fighter pilot, I loved the flying scenes; they accurately depicted the physical intensity of flying a high performance fighter and the immense workload during an engagement. The tactics and manoeuvres themselves were loosely based on reality but were understandably modified for the screen. One of the highlights for me was the movie audio! The sound of the engines and the thumping bass as chaff and flares were deployed was fantastic!
Now from the perspective of a performance consultant; the biggest difference between Top Gun 2 and reality was culture.
For organisational culture to be effective, it must be strong AND aligned with purpose. History is littered the carcasses of major corporations whose culture was very strong but misaligned; it created behaviour at odds with stated values and purpose, ultimately leading to the organisation's death.
In Top Gun 2 we clearly see that United States Navy fighter pilots have a STRONG culture; as an outsider we may assess their behaviour as strange, but to them, it is simply ‘the way people like us do things’. Examples are uniforms, traditions (ringing the bell in the bar), and the unique fighter pilot language.
But…was the culture aligned? Did the culture direct behaviour in a way which supported the core values of the organisation? Military values are attributes like courage, sacrifice, honour and duty. For MOST of the movie, we do see the culture aligned with these values; probably the strongest example is Maverick’s willingness to repeatedly put himself in danger to achieve mission success.
However - there is one area in which the culture is at odds with these values; the cocky, arrogance of the pilots. I can tell you unequivocally that ‘Hangman’ would have lasted about one week in a real military flying training school. Nothing is more dangerous to an elite military unit than a team member who focuses on his or her own glory. The team matters, self is nothing.
For sure, fighter pilots are confident, but this usually manifests as a deep self-belief, awareness of personal shortcomings, and a constant desire for improvement. Of course there are outliers, but the arrogant guys are NEVER the best.
It’s worth reflecting on this last statement, because it has big ramifications for our organisations. One of the hallmarks of high performance teams all over the world is the humility which runs through them, but this is not coincidence. Consistent high performance requires a perpetual search for weakness, and actively seeking out weakness is not coherent with an arrogant attitude. It is for this reason that the arrogant never rise to the top (or not for long anyway).
So, the movie was fantastic! Despite the few unrealistic bits which were 'hammed up' for a wide global audience, it enabled a little bit more of the amazing world of fighter operations to be enjoyed by millions. It showed the intensity of both the machine and the mission, and reminded us that for some lucky individuals, work and sacrifice is for something bigger than self.