Fans of the movie "Top Gun" won't find Tom Cruise mentioned in "TOPGUN's Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit," but they will find authoritative and practical lessons in leadership that can be applied in everyday life.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, a former TOPGUN student and instructor, wrote his book because he knew the excitement surrounding the forthcoming "Top Gun" movie sequel, "Top Gun: Maverick," would captivate audiences. But the book is more about learning from his life of service and the extraordinary training he received in the Navy.
"There's plenty of great leadership books out there, but I hadn't run across one from the vantage point of a U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School Instructor," Snodgrass says. "I felt this would give the book a truly unique vantage point from which to share leadership lessons that we can all relate to."
It's important to remember that TOPGUN, the popular shorthand for the U.S. Navy's Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, isn't just a feather in the cap of a lucky naval aviator. It's a difficult, disciplined training regimen born out of necessity.
"Some lessons are learned from a single instance of incredible failure or heartbreak," says the former naval aviator. "In the aviation community, we refer to these as 'lessons written in blood.' You never forget them because, typically, failure to learn them could result in loss of life or severe injury."
During the Vietnam War, American pilots didn't have the air supremacy they once enjoyed in the skies over Germany, Japan and Korea. American pilots were not only downed by skilled North Vietnamese pilots flying the latest Soviet aircraft, but also took fire from anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles.
The Navy alone lost 532 aircraft and 401 naval aviators. In previous wars, skilled aviators maintained a kill ratio of 10 enemy aircraft for every Navy plane shot down. Over Vietnam, that number dwindled to 2 to 1.
To find out what was going wrong, Capt. Frank W. Ault was tasked with reviewing the Navy's dogfighting plans for the war. The result was the 1968 Ault Report, which ultimately recommended a fighter weapons school that would teach Navy pilots to fight and win in the skies -- soon to be known as TOPGUN.
By 1973, when the North Vietnamese Army rolled into the South in the largest invasion since the 1950 Chinese intervention in Korea, U.S. Navy and Air Force fighters hit back. The Air Force barely managed a 1.78 kill ratio. But the Navy's kill ratio was a much more impressive 13-to-1, and TOPGUN was the key.
Part of TOPGUN's success is its training in critical leadership, which starts from day one. Snodgrass' new book talks about that leadership training in detail. He shares lessons learned from his victories and his successes.
"Other lessons come about from experience and repetition," he says. "That's the critical importance of reading a wide variety of books and developing a diverse network of friends -- you have a broader vantage point from which to learn lessons and plenty of resources to reach back to when you face adversity or new challenges. That's where this book fits in."
Though he admits he doesn't have all the answers, Snodgrass believes learning from one's mistakes and failures can add new skills to your repertoire and can make anyone stronger. The biggest obstacle keeping people from a world of future success is their own arrogance.
"Arrogance can be as insidious as believing you're the smartest person in the room, that your own judgment and decision making supersedes those with more experience or insight than your own," he says. "We find this in a great number of large organizations, and especially in the military, where 'rank makes right.'"
Everything you've ever wanted to know about TOPGUN (short of flying aircraft) is in this book, from the "Rush Ride" -- an initial dogfight with an instructor -- to handling an overwhelming amount of information as an instructor. More than learning about the career progression of naval aviators, however, it offers some sincere thoughts on how to handle the failures and successes of one of the Navy's most critical jobs.
"We can all use a healthy dose of humility," Snodgrass says. "And a constant reminder that there is always something new to learn each and every day."
In 10 chapters, each one based on the lessons learned by Snodgrass as both TOPGUN student and instructor, he describes eminently useful and tangible tips for life and leadership that are applicable to any would-be leader. The lessons Snodgrass writes about are ones we could all -- military or civilian -- learn the hard way.
But now we don't have to.
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