Words of Wisdom from Top Gun

At first blush it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that Top Gun can provide guidance to those navigating their way through corporate life. However, as anyone who has worked with me will attest, Top Gun provides a true bounty of quotes to help us in our daily dalliance with the “danger zone”.

So, as we eagerly await the release of the long anticipated Top Gun sequel, “Maverick”, I thought it timely to reflect on my favourite Top Gun quotes and the wisdom hidden in those words. Although some haven’t aged well over the last thirty-six years, others seem entirely apt.

Top Gun provides a target rich environment (boom boom), so it was tough to trim down my long list of favourites.  After much deliberation here are my top 5 quotes that seem to be continuously on repeat at work:

1.   Your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash

Without a word of exaggeration, in certain organisations I have used this phrase on almost a daily basis.  It is an excellent reminder to keep your ego in check (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) and to remain humble, curious and respectful. You may not know all of the answers, and that is okay. The best organisations and the best leaders don’t expect you to.

Having enough humility to admit that you are just one part of the team is absolutely critical to success. You cannot possibly be good at everything and ensuring that the team has complementary skills is key.

Ultimately, no one likes working with or for an ego maniac. So, stay humble, keep learning and be respectful of everyone’s contribution. No matter how great you think you are, you can always learn from others.

2.   I feel the need, the need for speed

One of the best lessons I have learnt when delivering projects or complex pieces of work is that if you want to get a quick result, then either the quality will be impacted or the cost. If you feel the need for speed, then be prepared to pay in financial terms or quality terms. 

Put simply – speed, quality, cost. Pick two[1]. To have a fast result that is high quality, it will be expensive. To have a fast result that is inexpensive, the quality will be low. So, if you are after speed, be prepared to pay the price.

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Once you wrap your head around that concept, then you understand the consequences of moving at speed. And no matter how demanding your client (internal or external) is, you simply cannot cheat that triangle. You can only pick two! 

Image Credit: Digital Genius

3.   You can be my wingman any time

Like a lot of the language in Top Gun, the term “wingman” seems outdated in today’s modern world. However, the concept is invaluable. Everyone needs a second, or someone that they can trust at work. To survive and thrive in any workplace, having a person that you can confide in and seek advice from is critical.

I often think of myself as the wingman to those that I coach. You are a person that they can rely upon and provide guidance and feedback from the wing. Knowing that you have someone to help you from the side is invaluable and gives you an edge.

I am eternally grateful to those that have coached me during my career and provided advice and support from the wing. As I have grown in my levels of experience, it has given me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to pay that forward to others.

So, seek out your own wingman at work. But also remember to be that person for others.  

4.   You’ve lost that loving feeling

In the early romance of a new job, it is often hard to see the true culture or downside of an organisation. However, over time that rosiness disappears and the reality of how the organisation operates will become apparent. When there is a gaping chasm between what you thought the organisation was and the stark reality of what it is, you may feel like you have lost that loving feeling.

If you are loyal person like me, this can be particularly hard to stomach.  Ultimately, if the organisation’s true culture (not the neatly espoused values on their website) is not aligned to your own view of the world, then unfortunately it will be hard to recapture that loving feeling.  It is a tough one to confront, especially if you feel like you have made a mistake. 

In today’s global, post pandemic environment, there is less tolerance for cultural misalignment and more career opportunities for highly skilled people. So this is more of a cautionary tale for organisations that are not actively managing their culture and underestimate the importance of strong leadership and values. 

5.   I am going to finish my sentence Lieutenant

Having a voice at work is very important and having the courage to use your voice is even more so. Although mansplaining[2] is still too common an occurrence for my liking, that is not what I am referring to here.   Sadly, that is a whole other article!

I am a strong believer in courageous conversations and for everyone to feel psychologically safe enough to have a voice. When your people stop speaking up out of fear of repercussion, this is a dangerous culture signal.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as a culture of open candour. She explains how and why a culture of psychological safety promotes a willingness and courage to speak up, and how that in turn, is a strategic asset.[3]

Psychological safety means that the team feel safe to speak up, are generally more engaged, innovative and productive. You can achieve that through a variety of approaches, but most agree that these are a good start[4]:

  1. Show your team that you are engaged – be present in meetings, pay attention, listen!
  2. Let your team see that you understand – listen carefully and then recap what you have heard
  3. Avoid blaming to build trust – focus on solutions not people, talk about the problem as a shared problem
  4. Be self-aware and encourage the same from your team
  5. Nip negativity in the bud – negativity is contagious
  6. Include your team in decision making
  7. Be open to feedback
  8. Champion your team, always

I like to think that being able to have your say without fear of repercussion is the ultimate illustration of trust. As Patrick Lencioni explains in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, the absence of trust is the very first dysfunction – and without trust, you have no foundation.[5]   In my experience, without trust, you have nothing.

So, bring on Maverick and hopefully a new wave of quotes to utilise in the workplace. Although I think it speaks volumes that Maverick’s original love interest, played by Kelly McGillis, has been deemed to look too old to star in the sequel, I am still excited to see how the story plays out. Will Maverick still be flying by the seat of his pants, like so many leaders out there? I can’t wait to find out!

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[1] The Project Management Triangle, also referred to as Triple Constraint, Iron Triangle and Project Triangle, has been used since the 1950s.

[2] Mansplain: to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic (Webster)

[3] Professor Amy Edmondson, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth”.

[4] https://www.predictiveindex.com/blog/psychological-safety-in-the-workplace

[5] https://www.tablegroup.com/topics-and-resources/teamwork-5-dysfunctions/