What TOPGUN Taught Me (article 4): Tough Love

If You Don’t Perform, You’re Gone

Have you ever been doing some you love with all of your heart and soul, only to have someone tell you that they are going to take it away?  That you are not good enough? That if you don’t perform, you’re done?

This has probably happened to all of us at some point.  A coach tells you that you are a backup or you find yourself on the bench.  Maybe someone is picked to lead an initiative or is promoted ahead of you. Perhaps you are cut from a team or worse, cut from your “Dream Job.”  What a horrible feeling!  It’s depressing!  It’s scary! It absolutely stinks!  However, if that message is delivered in the right way, with the right intent, and is focused on your improvement, then it can be a game changer.

You Must Perform

Prior to TOPGUN, there were aspects of flying that I was good at.  Some maneuvers I would walk on water doing and would rarely make a mistake. I was effective at working the radar, leading a mission, and fighting the airplane.  And then………let’s just say there were some things that I wasn’t so good at. The problem is TOPGUN does not grade on a curve.  Your performance is either darn near flawless, or you had better make it so.

If you were behind and showed improvement, that wasn’t enough. You had to be darn near perfect in the way you taught, briefed, flew, and debriefed each flight. The instructors, the TOPGUN school, and those I would eventually teach, could not and would not accept anything less. In the world of air combat and close air support, you get no points for second place or close enough. You must perform.  Lives literally depend on it.

Prior to TOPGUN, my radar work needed some help in a certain phase of flight.  I wasn’t as proficient as I should have been at the timing and the steps of how to manipulate the radar.  I could get through it, but it wasn’t up to par.  This would eventually catch up to me.

This Is Unacceptable

A third of the way through the program, I had a flight with one of the senior Instructor Pilots on staff.  His callsign was Marvin and he was the student control and standardization officer.  He had been on the staff for over two years.  In summary, he was really good and demanded our best.

In my mind, that flight had gone okay.  A couple of “minor” mistakes. No big deal, right?  However, I was about to get a rude awakening.

Midway through the Debrief while watching my tapes, Marvin reaches up, stops the tapes, looks down at the floor for a second, and then looks at me dead in the eyes and says, “If you do not clean up your radar work by your next flight, you’re gone.  I cannot let you continue in the course with this type of performance.  You’re a good guy, but this is unacceptable.”

OUCH!!!  That was painful.  I’ve been cut from teams, sat on the bench, worked really hard to achieve something and then came up short, but nothing compared to this.  Marvin’s statement shook me to the core, scared the heck out of me, and definitely got my attention.  Not only was I one day away from not finishing TOPGUN, but can you imagine the embarrassment going back to my unit or base after being dismissed?  In the moment I was crushed, scared, downtrodden, shocked, and short of breath.  However, what happened next is why I have always said TOPGUN is the best course of instruction I have ever had.

Changed My Bad Habits

We finished the Debrief and instead of walking out of the room and leaving me in despair, Marvin said, “Let’s go.” Off to the simulator we went and for the next hour and half, we worked through the radar mechanics.  Marvin gave me tips to nail the timing, different ways of manipulating the switches on the throttles and stick, and in the end, changed my bad habits into good ones. Needless to say, from that point on, I was hyper focused on my radar work and it improved dramatically.  It was nearly flawless on my next flight.

But it’s not the radar work that was the most important element from that story. It was how Marvin leveled the playing field, let me know exactly where I stood, and then took a personal interest in my success.  There at times, and probably more than you think, the truth needs to be delivered as straightforward as possible.  There was no doubt in my mind what Marvin was telling me that afternoon. And frankly, there wasn’t any excuse in the world that would have made him any less right. There was a standard.  He had to keep it.  I had to meet it.


Tough Love

It was basically tough love.  He wasn’t mean or demeaning and to my appreciation, he was clear and direct.  I knew exactly where I stood and what I had to do next.  And then, he took time to go to the simulator and walk me through the steps over and over again.

Too often as leaders we are scared to be direct. We don’t want to ruffle someone’s feathers or hurt their feelings. This creates further problems down the road, because that individual doesn’t get the message nor do they fully understand the expectations.  Performance drifts, standards are bent and relaxed, and the team’s overall contribution diminishes. This becomes a vicious cycle that spins out of control.

Find The Courage

As a leader, if someone on your team needs to change their performance, find the courage and tell them as clearly and as cleanly as possible. You don’t have to be mean or degrading.  Just be direct and then….dedicate to helping them make the change and improve.

I respected Marvin before.  And why wouldn’t I…he was a TOPGUN IP.  But after this experience, I admired him not only as a pilot, but as a person.  His professionalism was something I emulated many times over in my leadership roles and that made all the difference on my teams.

Ironically, when I became an IP, I used this exact experience when I taught this phase of flight to my students. I would tell them that we are all humans, we will make mistakes, and that this job isn’t easy.  If the instructor standing in front of them, with thousands of hours, and a TOPGUN patch wasn’t always perfect, then they probably won’t be perfect either.  It’s not always the performance, but what you do next to improve.  I’m just thankful I had Marvin show me some Tough Love and then the steps necessary to be better.

Patrick Houlahan