What TOPGUN Taught Me (article 1): Purpose of TOPGUN

TOPGUN’s Mission Statements

“Gentlemen, you are the top 1% of all Naval aviators, the elite, best of the best….We’ll make you better.” TOPGUN 1986. (https://youtu.be/p890hIa1w9k)

“The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) course produces graduate-level strike fighter tacticians, adversary instructors, and Air Intercept Controllers (AIC) who go on to fill the critical assignment of Training Officer in fleet units.” NAWDC, N7 Mission Statement. (https://www.cnic.navy.mil/regions/cnrsw/installations/nas_fallon/about/nawdc.html)

Most people who know about TOPGUN know the first quote from the 1986 movie.  It takes place when the students are introduced to Jester and Viper at TOPGUN.  The second is less know outside of military circles.  The second quote comes from the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center’s website and describes the mission of TOPGUN.

Almost all companies and organizations have vision, mission, and value statements.  But what is written and what is demonstrated is often vastly different.  I would argue that how the leaders demonstrate, model, communicate, and encourage the vision, mission, and values with their teams is paramount to the organization’s success.

T-6 Texan taxiing for takeoff


With that in mind, allow me to give you a third TOPGUN mission statement:

“We are here to teach the teachers.  When we are done here, it’s your responsibility to go back to your squadrons, bases, and ships and teach everyone else what you have learned.”  (Cue- Crickets chirping. Cue- Picking up and putting on a very large and very heavy backpack.)

In January 2001, those were literally the first words spoken to my class of Marine F/A-18 Fighter Pilots and Weapons Systems Officers.  The words were spoken by the Commanding Officer of TOPGUN during our welcome aboard and had a huge impact on me and the rest of my career.  Those two sentences summed up what it meant to be a “Patch Wearer” and the huge responsibility I was about to incur.

Despite what Hollywood portrays, the mission of TOPGUN is not to put “warheads on foreheads” or “missiles on migs” and it’s not about playing volleyball shirtless.  TOPGUN’s purpose is to act as a clearing house for the best tactics, techniques, and procedures to be promulgated back to the fleet.  The instructors teach the students (ie-teachers) and those teachers then pass along what they have learned to everyone else at their squadrons, bases, and ships.

Personal Mission

What was my personal mission once I graduated TOPGUN based on the above?  “To make everyone as good or better than me.”  I wasn’t going to hold back anything.  I wasn’t going to be worried about making someone better than me.  I was never going to take the shortcut.  We are only as good as our weakest link and my job was to make sure there were no weak links.

This seems like an impossible, tiring, and dauting task.  But it makes all the difference in the world.  Not only did this make everyone else better, it made me better.  It made me a better pilot and a better leader.  What TOPGUN had created and formalized is a teaching organization that then permeated throughout Naval Aviation.

TOPGUN is a Teaching Organization

Tichy and Cohen state that, “Teaching organizations (TO) are more agile, come up with better strategies, and are able to implement them more effectively.  They add the critical goal that everyone passes their learning on to others.” (Noel M. Tichy and Eli Cohen, The Teaching Organization, Training and Development, July 1998, pg. 1) This is the foundation of TOPGUN, “pass your learning on to others.”

Is this possible to foster this mindset in your organization?  What could the effects be if you were a teaching organization?  For all the leaders and high performers, what if you developed everyone to be as good as you?  What if they did the same things you did to get to where you are?  What would that mean for the company?  What would that mean for market share and bonuses?

Teaching is Leading

When I ask these questions of my audience during my Leadership or Debriefing presentations, you can see the light bulbs going on.  People nod their heads in agreement or nudge someone to their left or right.  And it really is quite simple.  BE A TEACHER…..BE A LEADER.  You manage processes, you lead people.  Any leader worth their stripes will know that the really good leaders are the ones that are always teaching.

“But I don’t have time…I have too much going on….I’m running the organization, division, department.” Perhaps you don’t have time because you ARE doing everything and haven’t trained others.

Jack Welch was the legendary CEO of GE.  In 1981, Jack took over GE when it was ranked 11th in Fortune’s top 500.  Within five years, GE moved into the Top 5 and remained there for the rest of his tenure with a valuation increase of 2000%. What was the secret sauce?

In my humble opinion, it wasn’t the light bulbs, refrigerators, or engines.  Jack and GE were successful because they created leaders.  As CEO, Jack Welch spent 30% of his own time teaching and developing others.  We he left in 2001, 16 former Welch underlings were heading publicly held U.S. companies, including behemoths such as 3M, Home Depot and Conseco.  Jack’s first key to leadership sums up the reason for their success: “Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach, and build self-confidence.”

VMFA(AW)-242 Bats. “Mors Ex Tenebris”

Teach the Teachers

A “Teaching Organization” is far better than a “Learning Organization.”  It’s fun to teach.  It’s fun to learn.  But most of all it’s fun to win over and over again.  If you want a high performing team, then the purpose of your organization should be to “teach the teachers” and become a teaching organization.

For over 50 years, being a teaching organization has served TOPGUN and Naval Aviation in their mission to create the best fighter pilots, aircrew, and controllers in the world.  I am positive that becoming a teaching organization and having that as your purpose will make you and your organization the best of the best as well. 

Patrick Houlahan