Top Gun, the United States Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, is synonymous with excellence.
It exposes Navy and Marine Corps pilots to the most demanding training scenarios in fighter aviation, led by some of the most talented pilots in the world. Top Gun instructors are the very best in naval aviation, hand-picked to teach at a legendary school and charged with preparing pilots for air combat.
They must master a rigorous training syllabus taught by the most experienced instructors on the staff, and are expected to execute their mission flawlessly.
Only they don’t. Flawless execution is a myth.
I knew about Top Gun long before I instructed there. Like most aviators of my era, the movie inspired me to become a fighter pilot. I joined the Marine Corps, and my dreams started becoming reality when I began Naval Aviation Flight Training. I selected to fly the F/A-18 Hornet in Miramar, California, and Top Gun stood then, as now, at the pinnacle of my craft. I didn’t know a single pilot that didn’t want to earn that patch.
Attending Top Gun as a student is highly competitive and the most sought after qualification in a fighter squadron. Selection to return as a Top Gun instructor is even more exclusive, especially for Marines. As a student, I convinced myself that I had to be flawless if I was going to become one of the three Marine Corps pilots on the staff. I thought what made the instructors exceptional was that they never made any mistakes.
Top Gun brought out the best in all of us. I reached my peak as a fighter pilot during my last six months there when I was the training officer responsible for the conduct of the course. At that point, I’d been completely devoted to flying fighters for nearly three years straight. I was dual qualified in the F-18 and F-16, and routinely spent 15 hours a day either in simulated combat or studying it. Every day I instructed, flew with, and learned from the best fighter pilots in the world. If anyone could achieve flawless execution, it was them.
But in three years at Top Gun I never once witnessed flawless execution, and I never once heard anyone mention it as an objective. In fact, we didn’t even focus on the things we did right.
At the debrief that followed every hour-long flight, pilots and instructors alike would spend up to eight hours together, acknowledging and openly dissecting their every mistake. We did this because we knew that although good pilots make mistakes, the best pilots are the ones who recognise and fix them. This is the skill that matters most, that saves lives in combat, and ensures we win.
I left Top Gun in 2006 to become a forward air controller in Ramadi, then the most dangerous city in Iraq, where I conducted urban combat operations alongside SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser led by Jocko Willink. Although we were engaged in what many believed to be an unwinnable fight, I was once again surrounded by the best.
And while Top Gun’s training was replaced by combat, and pilots were replaced by SEALs, the takeaway was exactly the same: There is no such thing as perfection.
It’s a lesson all elite organisations understand. Perfect execution cannot be achieved. Instead of searching for it, they define perfection as finding and fixing every mistake. Perfection is setting your ego aside and explaining to your team what you did wrong. Perfection is building a culture where your team is willing to expose every error, even those that could be hidden or ignored. Perfection is a creating a team that competes over whose fault it is when a project fails or when goals aren’t reached.
It’s time to redefine perfection. Perfection is about mistakes. You must teach your mistakes to others so they learn them in the classroom, the boardroom, and the debrief. You must teach your mistakes to others so they don’t make them in combat, on a sales call, during a negotiation, or when fighting a fire, running a business, or leading a team.
That’s what happens at Top Gun, that’s what happened at TU Bruiser, and that’s what your objective as a leader must be.
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