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Top Gun, Top Leaders: Leadership Lessons from those under fire, literally!

Ever wonder what it would be like to have to make a decision in a life threatening situation?  Although I have not been in that situation myself, I met with two men who have faced that scenario many times and are still around to tell about it.  The first of the two great men I am referring to is retired Rear Admiral Roger Box.  Admiral Box was the first commanding officer of Top Gun, the Navy’s elite Air Combat Maneuver training school.  This was only one of many other distinguished accomplishments in his career, and I am proud to say he also happens to be my father!  The second man is Bill Driscoll who was half of the first and only team of Navy Aces and one of the most highly decorated living Naval Flight Officers.   Sitting with these two for a couple of hours was humbling and awe inspiring.  They reminisced about various flying missions and caught up on fellow Navy friends.  I sat and absorbed a conversation that inspired me to reflect on what it must be like to lead in the most extreme adversity.

Driscoll attended Top Gun while Box was leading the charge.  They talked about training flights they flew together, Box at the helm, Driscoll in the rear cockpit.  Driscoll reflected on flights they did together as Box was training him and how it was instrumental in his success in live combat missions.  It occurs to me that you would never send a fighter pilot out into combat without intensive training to ensure he or she is ready.  They learn to fly and they simulate the duress they will be under through simulated dog fights and other tactics.  They do this over and over again to ensure their skills are honed to a level of the elite status that they deserve.  While I won’t make a parallel that the business world needs to train for death defying circumstances, I will point out that gaining the necessary skills to accomplish a given tasks is essential and not to be underestimated.   Box made the following analogy, “Air Combat is much the same as business.   You study and learn the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses; you compare them to your strengths and weakness; and in the end you put your strength toward the opponent’s weakness.  As the situation develops you adjust to stay in the dominant position.”

Leadership lessons I learned from these elite naval officers:

Skills - they need to be perfect at what they do or it could cost them their life

Focus – they cannot be distracted for even a millisecond from their mission, they live in the moment or there may not be another moment

Collaboration - they need to count on one another in the heat of the battle, it is paramount to survival

Adaptability – they adjust dynamically to get through any obstacles and stay in the dominant position to achieve their goal

Know your opponent – you must study your opponents and their ‘weapons’ to be ready when the competition comes

Pride – they are proud of their work, their accomplishments and their fellow fighter pilots

Enjoy the Journey – this was not just a job it was a passion that defined and consumed them, they loved the work they did and showed up every day with intensity to give all they had to succeed

Although our meeting was not intended to be a lesson on leadership, it was definitely a welcomed outcome.  It was an honor to sit with these two men and listen to them reminisce about their time at Top Gun.  I could feel their excitement over the experiences they had and how they flew together amongst the elite pilots in the Navy.   I appreciate the inspiring experience!

One Response to Top Gun, Top Leaders: Leadership Lessons from those under fire, literally!

  1. Kim I posted a note on your facebook page about having flown with your father in Pax River. I was an enlisted man and only one of a few who flew in F-4′s. Your father always treated me kindly and I appreciated it. He was a true professional and a great Test Pilot. It was an honor to serve with him.

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