Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit


By Guy M Snodgrass

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Learn how to be a leader in your own life and career with expert advice from one of the Navy’s elite TOPGUN instructors.

During a twenty-year career in uniform, Guy Snodgrass became one of the most skilled fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, commanding combat jets over some of the most dangerous war zones in the world — and he did it all using the lessons he learned at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN).

The real-life inspiration for the blockbuster films Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick, the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School trains the top one percent of our nation’s fighter pilots. Over the course of twelve weeks, these pilots are drilled on aerial tactics, combat, and skills required to win in any organization. Ordinary people are transformed into world-class leaders. Pilots, like Commander Snodgrass, who remain on staff as TOPGUN instructors, are held to even higher and more demanding standards.

In TOPGUN’s Top 10, Commander Snodgrass distills some of the most important lessons he’s learned and taught over the course of his career into a taut, engaging book for readers of all ages and experience levels. It’s the perfect gift for anyone looking to change careers, excel in the workplace, or find their way in the world after college graduation. Smart, practical, and direct, Snodgrass’s account of real TOPGUN experience will inspire a new generation of leaders.



“Most of us, most of the time, live in blissful ignorance of what a small elite, heroic group of Americans are doing for us night and day. All over the globe, American Sailors are doing something very dangerous. Somewhere around the world, young men and women are landing Naval aircraft on the pitching decks of aircraft carriers, living on the edge of danger so the rest of us need not think about, let alone experience, danger.”

—George Will

Two U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom II fighter aircraft are readied for launch from the flight deck of the attack aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) in the 1970s.


ONE OF TODAY’S most recognizable elite military institutions was born from the crucible of the Vietnam War, when American aviators quickly realized the advantages they’d enjoyed during World War II and the Korean War no longer applied. Worse, during the early days of the Vietnam War, hundreds of American airmen, like U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain and Cmdr. James Stockdale, had been shot down by enemy MiG fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, or ground artillery fire. Because they went on to return home, they were the relatively lucky ones; many others were killed immediately or died in captivity. U.S. Navy pilots, who had grown accustomed to owning the skies during World War II and the Korean War, found themselves at a significant disadvantage this time around.

Something was wrong. Based on their performance during prior conflicts, Navy pilots should have excelled in air-to-air battles. World War II had seen kill ratios of ten to one: ten enemy planes shot down for every American plane. The Korean War demonstrated similar levels of success.

In Vietnam, this number had dropped to less than two to one. Compounding the problem was the Navy’s prioritization of newly developed air-to-air missiles and their use with its latest fighter jets, primarily F-4 Phantoms. From June 1965 to September 1968, American pilots fired nearly six hundred missiles at enemy aircraft, with only sixty or so finding their way to the target, a paltry success rate. Aviators worried that an insufficient amount of aircrew training, repeated missile failures, and the Phantom’s lack of a machine gun—omitted because the U.S. Navy was convinced dogfighting was a thing of the past—explained why the kill ratio had plummeted.

How many more Americans might suffer the same fate as John McCain and the hundreds of other airmen who had fallen from the sky? To help reverse this tragic turn of events, the Navy turned to Capt. Frank W. Ault, a senior officer in the Pentagon tasked with holistically reviewing what was broken with dogfighting in Vietnam—and, more importantly, devising a plan to fix it. For five months, he and other naval professionals pored over reports to determine how best to restore the U.S. Navy’s anemic kill ratio. In January 1969, Captain Ault and his team published the 480-page Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review, later popularly and more succinctly known as the Ault Report.

The report dissected every aspect of the problem and offered concrete solutions for Navy brass to consider. One recommendation stood out: the proposal to create an advanced fighter weapons school at then Naval Air Station Miramar, in San Diego, California, designed to teach aircrew how to not just survive in dogfighting—but to win.

Usually, governments and big institutions move like glaciers, but just two months later, on March 3, 1969, the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School opened its doors. You may know the school by a shorter name, correctly written in capitals and all one word: “TOPGUN.”

Originally operating out of a ramshackle trailer, instructors begged, borrowed, and stole what they needed to get the school up and running. Short on funds and equipment, they had no other choice but that first cadre made it work. It didn’t take long to achieve results.

A TOPGUN-trained aircrew notched its first kill a little over a year later when, on March 28, 1970, Lt. Jerome Beaulier and Lt. (junior grade) Stephen Barkley, flying a U.S. Navy F-4 fighter jet, pumped a missile into a North Vietnamese MiG-21’s tailpipe.

Then, in April 1972, North Vietnamese tanks and artillery boldly smashed across the demilitarized zone into South Vietnam. Aiming to disrupt Hanoi’s supply lines, the United States responded with Operation Linebacker. In that operation, the U.S. Air Force compiled a meager 1.78-to-1 kill ratio. But aviators from the Navy’s Seventh Fleet recorded a thirteen-to-one kill ratio, shooting down twenty-six planes and losing only two.

TOPGUN worked.

But the TOPGUN story didn’t end with the pullout of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1973—that was only the beginning. The school grew in stature with each passing decade. The remainder of the 1970s validated the school’s impact, and students and instructors began to train against more capable adversary aircraft, including enemy MiGs brought to America from overseas.

The school went relatively unnoticed by the American public until 1986, when Tom Cruise starred in the original Top Gun movie. (He also stars in the 2020 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick.) Critics weren’t sure what to make of the first movie, but the public loved it from the start—and still does. Top Gun proved to be 1986’s top-grossing film, packing theaters for a full six months and making it easier for the military to attract new recruits for years.

Tens of millions around the world who saw the movie were now TOPGUN fans.

In 1996, the school moved from Miramar—nicknamed “Fightertown USA”—to Naval Air Station Fallon, located in the Nevada desert seventy miles east of Reno. The changing threat—shifting from overwater engagements against Soviet aircraft during the height of the Cold War to combating Middle Eastern terrorism—made desert training crucial. Although dogfighting and air-to-air combat remained the school’s primary missions, more emphasis was placed on the air-to-ground combat skills aviators would need over Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than fifty years after its founding, TOPGUN still provides select aviators with a graduate-level course designed to produce the world’s finest combat aviators. TOPGUN alumni form the cadre of teachers who instruct, influence, and cultivate talent across the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (as both services are included within the Department of the Navy).

To succeed in this unrelenting training course, students—typically junior officers in their mid-twenties and fresh off their very first tour of duty—must possess three key attributes: talent, passion, and personality. Mastering each is crucial. Throughout the twelve-week course, the knowledge, skills, and aerial tactics needed to fight and win our nation’s wars are drilled into the men and women who will one day comprise the top one percent of military fighter pilots. Those asked to remain as TOPGUN instructors, typically only two or three students from a class of fifteen or more, must uphold an even higher—and more unrelenting—standard.

Despite its emphasis on peerless flight training in fighter jets, TOPGUN develops one critical trait above all others: leadership. And it starts from day one.

IN 2006, I had the honor of becoming a TOPGUN graduate and then spending three years as an instructor—an awe-inspiring and humbling experience.

Monday through Saturday, incredibly talented sailors and marines arrived at the U.S. Fighter Weapons School ready to push their personal boundaries to achieve their fullest potential. While we recognized that perfection is impossible to attain, we also subscribed to the idea that getting better every day was the goal.

Be better today than yesterday.

Do the same tomorrow.

My path to TOPGUN was similar to the paths followed by the hundreds of others who’d already attended. Like many, I fell in love with aviation at a young age.

Aircraft taxiing toward the bow catapults on USS Enterprise’s flight deck in preparation for the day’s flight operations.

One of the elders for the church I attended worked for General Dynamics, a military contractor producing F-16 fighter jets for the U.S. military. Knowing that I was interested in aviation, he routinely brought me posters with “glamour shots” of the plane, which I hung on the walls of my room. My Boy Scout troop also held an annual fundraiser during airshows at Alliance Airport, an airfield located just to the northwest of the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. I watched with utter fascination as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels amazed crowds with their precise maneuvers and out-of-this-world skill level. The energy, excitement, and jet noise were all I needed—I was hooked.

But getting to flight training was the first of many challenging steps. In high school my grades were only slightly above average, and I was a mediocre varsity cross-country runner. Not exactly the standout that my first choice for college—the U.S. Naval Academy—was looking for. Fortunately for me, the congressional selection committee (most students require a nomination from a congressman or senator to attend) were swayed by my demonstrated leadership achievements. I had earned my Eagle Scout, had led my Scouting troop, and was the only volunteer student member serving on Colleyville’s City Council. I’d even started our city’s first-ever recycling program, something ahead of its time in Northern Texas in the early 1990s.

Things fell into place. In 1994, I was accepted to college at the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated high school. Four years later I became a naval officer chosen to attend pilot training upon graduating from the Academy. I was also selected as one of fifteen officers afforded the chance to earn a master’s degree before training. So I applied to and was selected to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I earned two master’s degrees: one in nuclear engineering and the other in computer science (a testament to the incredible opportunities provided by a military career).

After graduating from MIT in 2000, I headed off to Pensacola, Florida, to begin my training as a naval aviator. For the next two years, I rapidly worked my way through various initial training stops—flight training with the U.S. Air Force in Oklahoma and more advanced jet training with the U.S. Navy in Mississippi and California—on my path toward becoming a fleet F/A-18 fighter pilot. I graduated first in my class and prepared to join “the fleet” with the U.S. Navy.

In 2003, my first operational tour of duty took me to Virginia and included seven months onboard an aircraft carrier bound for Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Persian Gulf. I flew dozens of combat missions over Iraq: conducting surveillance, guarding friendly troops on the ground, and attacking enemy positions as U.S. forces sought to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah. When my squadron’s time in the Middle East was over, the aircraft carrier returned us to Virginia, where we resumed our normal day-to-day training.

My idol growing up had been Chuck Yeager, the U.S. Air Force test pilot who, in 1947, became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. I’d thought about following in his footsteps but soon learned that modern-day test pilots no longer pushed the envelope as radically as they did in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In the face of this reality and seeking to explore the limits of my own tactical abilities, I applied to become a TOPGUN instructor. Handpicked to attend by the current TOPGUN staff, I left my squadron months earlier than scheduled to begin my new adventure, a path that incurred an additional five-year commitment.

Leaving my first squadron eight months early meant I had logged fewer flight hours in the cockpit than my peers, but I was ready and willing to put in the time and effort required to reach my fullest potential. I soon learned that my instructors were more than happy to provide the training and mentorship I needed while upholding their famously unrelenting standards. Ultimately, my time at TOPGUN made me a far better naval officer, fighter pilot, and leader.


  • "The lessons in this book are smart, focused, and applicable to all professions and careers. Guy's humor and wit make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. I'm giving a copy to every lawyer who joins our firm and to both my kids!"—--Steve Cohen, Bestselling author and Founding Partner, Pollock Cohen LLP
  • "Bus is one of those gifted leaders who has the rare ability to help others see and realize their potential. This book is a practical guide to helping you lead with authenticity, passion and excellence. High leverage leadership lessons packed in a thoroughly delightful read. Highly recommended."—-- Christopher Michel, Founder of and Affinity Labs; managing director of Nautilus Ventures; and member of the board of directors at Dale Carnegie
  • "When I received this book, I could not put it down. It is exactly what business leaders need today, as Snodgrass relates his experiences regarding trust, teamwork, and leadership to readers from all walks of life. Everyone should make the time to read this book."—- Georges Kern, Breitling CEO
  • "TOPGUN turns aviators into aces. Commander Snodgrass applies lessons from the toughest of schools to leading any team to success - in war, in business, in life. A vital manual for any career, from training through your last "command."—-- Ali Wambold, Managing Director and Founder of Corporate Partners & Co. and the former CEO of Lazard Alternative Investments
  • "In his classic novel of the Korean War, "The Bridges at Toko Ri," author James A. Michener marvels at the heroism of naval aviators and asks, "Where do we find such men as these?" Now, Guy Snodgrass shows you, and explains what separates today's TOPGUN aviators from the wannabes in a series of practical chapters that you can put into action in your own life."—-- Bill Butler, Former Chairman and Creative Director, Perkins/Butler
  • "Guy's leadership lessons mirror many of my experiences as a female fighter pilot: the importance of perseverance, willingness to stay the course despite seemingly overwhelming odds, and the significance of building trusted relationships. This is a "must read" for anyone looking to expand their own horizons and achieve their fullest potential."—-- Amy McGrath, U.S. Senate candidate and former U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 combat aviator

On Sale
Sep 15, 2020
Page Count
192 pages
Center Street

Guy M Snodgrass

About the Author

Guy Snodgrass recently served as director of communications and chief speechwriter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis. A former naval aviator and F/A-18 pilot, he served as a commanding officer of a fighter squadron based in Japan, a TOPGUN instructor, and a combat pilot over the skies of Iraq as part of his twenty-year navy career. Today he is the founder and CEO of Defense Analytics, a strategic consulting and advisory firm. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Learn more about this author