Call Sign Viper

Unless you’ve been living in a cave you’ve no doubt heard the hype around and probably seen Top Gun Maverick – the sequel made over 30 years after the original movie debuted. I was skeptical but came away impressed – the movie captured the “vibe” of the original, used modern technology to make even better action scenes than the original, and paid just the right amount of tribute to the original. No surprise at the dollars it’s racking up at the theaters.

Like a lot of people, I re-watched the original [not that I really needed to ;)] before going to see it. Something stood out to me this time that I hadn’t picked up on before. The movie is known for young, hot shot, clever lines from arrogant pilots, action scenes, bravado and even a little bit of romance and one unexpected, dare I say, tearjerker. But what I hadn’t picked up on before was some of the aleadership displayed by Viper – the aviation instructor to the class Maverick is in at Top Gun. I actually debated writing this because the movies weren’t meant to be taken too serious but here’s what’s on my mind: Five leadership lessons from Commander Mike Metcalf – call sign “Viper”.

  1. Difficult Truth – One of the things that can be challenging is to share difficult truths with someone you’re responsible for or otherwise care about. In the scene after Goose dies when Maverick goes to Viper for advice, he’s direct and candid with him. Not cold. Not rude. But honest even when it’s uncomfortable. He explains to him how his feeling of guilt over Goose’s death is giving him a confidence problem. It’s not clear that has an immediate impact but one thing that’s needed to help someone overcome or grow is a wiser, more experienced mentor who will share honestly with them.
  2. Re-engage – Maverick is naturally grieving when Goose dies. But Viper knows that he must get “back in the saddle” again if he’s to move on. That’s why he tells the assistant instructor Jester to “get him flying again soon”. As a mentor, he doesn’t want to see this become a permanent problem for Maverick. Sometimes when things aren’t going your way, you have to keep your foot on the gas and trust that you’ll come around.
  3. Faith – Once Maverick does start flying again, he’s having an emotional time with engaging in combat. Jester complains to Viper about it and shares that he thinks Maverick might not make it back. Without hesitation, Viper tells Jester “it’s only been a few days, keep sending him up”. He stayed optimistic that Maverick could come back.
  4. Availability – When Maverick was debating what to do after Goose’s death, Viper invited him over to his home on a Sunday afternoon to talk. They don’t make much about it in the movie but it occurred to me that given the hardship and decision Maverick was facing, Viper made himself available to be there for him and help him make sense of his options even at an inconvenient time.
  5. Vulnerability – I’ve written before about Patrick Lencioni and one of the traits he describes in a healthy organization is the ability to be vulnerable. If everyone is holding back their thoughts and ideas on a subject for fear of being shunned or ridiculed, then effectiveness is lessoned and progress is slowed. Viper routinely has conversations with Maverick about his past, the way his dad flew and the his ideas on strategy never holding any of it against him but looking for spots to teach and make him better.

The great thing about leadership traits is they almost always apply to relationships in general – managers, mentors, spouses and significant others, peers and pals. Have a great weekend!

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