What TOPGUN Taught Me (article 3): Humility and Honesty

Dedicated To Teaching

As a student at TOPGUN, I had lots of questions.  I knew that we were at the schoolhouse for Strike Fighter Aviation and I knew, based on the Commanding Officer’s opening remarks to my class, that every single instructor was serious and dedicated to teaching.  Thus, I was determined to ask as many questions as I could and squeeze out every ounce of learning possible.

TOPGUN Recommends

Towards the middle of the first week, as we started our academic classes, I noticed a trend that was developing from our instructors.  Every time I or we had a question, the instructor started their answer with the phrase, “TOPGUN recommends….” “TOPGUN recommends this or TOPGUN recommends that.”  I honestly can’t remember questions answered with anything but, “TOPGUN recommends.” Which of course led me to ask, “Why do all the instructors begin with TOPGUN recommends in their answers.”


The answer was simple.  The instructor was not speaking for themselves, but for the organization. As true professionals dedicated to their mission, each instructor had subjugated themselves to the mission of TOPGUN and to us as their students.  It did not matter how good they were in the airplane or how smart they were on tactics (side note- The instructors were eyewatering at both.)  TOPGUN was number one and that’s why it was “TOPGUN” and not Marvin or Squiggy answering the questions.  Humility was needed to be a great instructor.

The other subtle point was that TOPGUN always “recommended” and never “dictated.”  The reason for this is simple. 

Despite how smart and proficient each of the instructors were in their own right and collectively as an organization the top 1% of the top 1%, they knew that every situation is different.  Thus, based on the scenario presented and the questioned asked, they gave the best recommendation knowing that in real time it could change.  This drove us as students to think critically through problems and find or develop the best tactics.  Rather than applying a broad-based answer that may have pushed us into an unwinnable corner, saying “TOPGUN recommends” forced us to get smarter.

F/A-18 A++ Hornet

It Depends…

One of the responses that drove me nuts was when I asked a question and an instructor responded with, “Well, it depends.” 

As a student at TOPGUN you are pressed for time.  You have academic classes, examinations, briefs, flights, debriefs, etc..  Your day is packed and non-stop from sunup to sundown.  Thus, there were times when I just wanted the quick answer.  But that almost never happened.

By asking stating, “it depends,” the instructors at TOPGUN were again forcing us as students to work through the problem.  It was a teaching technique to force us to work through all the scenarios and possibilities to find the best answer for the scenario presented, rather than taking the quick, convenient, or easy answer for a complex problem.  Ironically, using this technique often led us to find the answer ourselves with the side benefit of building those neuro pathways that we could use over and over again.


In addition to Humility, Honesty is one of the reasons why TOPGUN is the best course of instruction you will ever find.

Every once in a blue moon we were able to stump the TOPGUN instructors on a question. Sometimes it was by luck.  On other occasions, as a class, we would research some obscure fact or capability on a missile system and see if we couldn’t catch them off guard (Note- This rarely worked.)  What was interesting was their response when this happened.

Not once, not ever, in no uncertain terms, did any instructor on the staff at TOPGUN ever try to BS us.  If they didn’t know the answer, they didn’t talk around it.  They didn’t give us their opinion. They didn’t give us their hypothetical guess based on their years of experience. And they didn’t give us the 90% answer. What they did give us was this:

“I don’t know, but I will find out.”

Find Out and Follow Up

Every single time they didn’t have the 100% answer, they responded with “I don’t know, but I will find out.” And then, they did find out. And then came back and gave us the answer.  Sometimes this required the instructor getting in the books.  Sometimes it required a secured phone call to D.C. or to the weapon’s manufacturer.  It didn’t matter the effort. They found out every single time and then got back to us with the answer.

Humility and Honesty were lessons that were ingrained in my heart, mind, and soul after I graduated TOPGUN.  Sure, I was really good flying and utilizing the F/A-18, but the lessons on Humility and Honesty were far more impactful to me and my career and to those I led and taught.

Just returned from Carrier Qualification on the U.S.S J.F. Kennedy

Paying It Forward

Fast forward about two years and I was now an instructor pilot at the Marine Corps training squadron for the F/A-18.  This is where we brought in students who had never touched an F/A-18 and in 9-12 months turned out fully capable combat pilots. (Note- We had one student graduate and four weeks latter was flying combat missions in Iraq.)  

The lessons on Humility and Honesty and the way my TOPGUN instructors conducted themselves drove everything I did as an Instructor Pilot.  Following their examples, I never gave my opinion because I had a TOPGUN patch, I never gave the quick answer because it was easy, and I never tried to BS my way out of something I didn’t know.  Following their lead allowed me to be the best instructor and pilot I could be and actually led to me be selected as the Instructor Pilot of the Year.

Business Environment

Think about these lessons in your world or your business environment.  As a leader, how do you think your honesty and humility can change the dynamics of your team?  What improvements will naturally occur when you begin to demonstrate and live by this ethos?  How will these lessons create a high performing team? And in the end, what will that mean when your customer facing?

You Owe It To Your Teams

TOPGUN was a phenomenal school.  I’ve never worked so hard, had so much fun, and been so utterly prepared for anything once I graduated.  But it was the non-tactical lessons of Humility and Honesty that had the most profound impact.  I owe that to my instructors who were true leaders and professionals in every moment. As leaders, I believe we owe that same professionalism to our teams and organizations.

Patrick Houlahan