3 Reasons Why Top Gun’s Maverick Makes a Great Leader (and Educator)

4 minute read

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Introduction 

Whether you’re a Tom Cruise fan or not, it’s hard to watch Top Gun: Maverick without having respect for his character. He has a questionable reputation in the Navy, yet those he has flown with have tremendous admiration for his ability.

In the movie, Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, is tasked to lead a group of young pilots through a seemingly impossible mission. He’s consistently teased and admonished by his superiors, several of whom want him expelled from the Navy. Maverick’s unique skills and character traits allow him not to be intimidated by this, but rather motivated to rise above and motivate his students.

#1 – He earns his students’ respect by challenging them

Maverick is introduced to his student pilots as their captain for an upcoming mission. By default, his students are compelled to issue him respect due to his authority. Instead of using his position as authority, however, Maverick individually challenges each of his students to a flying duel and gives each student an opportunity to take him down. The opportunities are fair–in fact, students are able to team up and they’re still unable to take down their captain. 

#2 – He is transparent with his students

When Maverick was briefed on the difficulty and danger of the mission, he insisted on being the lead pilot for it. His superior, Cyclone, did not approve. Maverick instead was given two weeks to fully train his young pilots. 

The first thing Maverick did after he met his students was to give them full transparency about the mission. He didn’t hide the danger of the mission, but rather gave his students the same level of intel that he had. Through Maverick, the young pilots gained a full understanding of the mission, its purpose, and the risks involved. This transparency is what quickly earns Maverick the full trust of his students–as well as the audience. 

What About Rooster?

Ironically, the one student that Maverick is not transparent with is his former flying partner’s son, Rooster. Maverick had pulled Rooster’s papers from the Naval academy in an attempt to keep him from becoming a pilot–a request made to Maverick by Rooster’s mother. Instead, this only set back Rooster, and it required him four extra years to enter the academy. Maverick never told Rooster why he did this, and he absorbed the contempt that Rooster may have otherwise placed on his mother. Should Maverick have disclosed it to Rooster? There are certainly arguments to be made from both sides. 

#3 – He is driven by purpose and doesn’t give up

To Maverick, the mission is much more than taking out a military target; he cares deeply about the fate of his students. To maximize their chances of returning home safely, he charts an impossible plan of attack, which will demand nothing short of perfection to execute.

But with the mission’s deadline fast approaching (and his students still off the mark), Maverick’s plan is scrapped. A more pragmatic course is charted but one from which few pilots have a chance of returning home safely. 

Rather than accept defeat, Maverick steals an F/A-18 fighter jet to prove that his course is achievable. His selfless act gives the team the boost of inspiration and confidence they need to complete their mission.

Conclusion 

Maverick gained his students’ respect by challenging them fairly, built their trust by being transparent, and showed them the value of purpose and grit.

Challenge, transparency, purpose, and grit – the same attributes that make Maverick an inspirational leader are also the hallmarks of a great educator.

STRIPES Takeaways

Challenge – Too many K-12 students are under-challenged in school today (up to 1 in 3 according to Duke University research*). By lowering our standards and expectations, we are doing students a tremendous disservice. We are stifling their growth and (worse) teaching them that mediocrity is OK. Instead, we ought to trust more in our students’ abilities, providing them with meaningful challenges that are on par with their potential. 

Transparency – It’s sometimes tempting to cut explanations short. We don’t always have the time to provide students with a detailed explanation or full context. The problem with stripping out context is that it leads to partial buy-in at best and disengages students in the learning process. To truly engage students, we need to provide sufficient context to spark their curiosity and ignite their desire to play an active role in the learning process.

Purpose – Nietzsche famously wrote: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Should Maverick have stolen a fighter jet? Maybe. Maybe not. But he certainly would be OK living with the consequences of his decision. Being a great educator doesn’t mean you need to put your career on the line. What it does mean is getting students to appreciate (and question) the purpose (the why) of everything.  

Grit Each of Maverick’s students who watched him steal a $65 million fighter jet so that he could keep the mission alive learned a valuable lesson in grit that day. The next time those pilots are thinking of giving up, they’ll remember the day their leader put his neck on the line for them. And, if Hollywood has anything to say, then surely one of them will be inspired to do the same for his or her students in the trequel. 

*https://tip.duke.edu/files/2021/05/Underchallenged-Students.pdf