Top Gun: Maverick and Authentic School Leadership

For many film critics Peter “Maverick” Mitchell is the quintessential Tom Cruise role. Like many of Cruise’s characters, Maverick is a character navigating some type of personal trauma, who then discovers something about himself that requires critical reflection. This reflection leads to a change in action that eventually leads to a personal victory. This victory then solidifies both greatness in character and craft (pilot, race car driver, brother, bartender, lawyer, spy etc).

This Cruise blueprint, certainly personifies Maverick in the original Top Gun (1986) a film that unapologetically spoke to 80s Reagan values and overtly fetishized military life through a cool MTV atheistic. The movie rocketed Tom Cruise to superstardom, increased enlisting in the United States Air Force and sold out bomber jackets and aviator glasses in malls across North America. Top Gun and Maverick of 1986 was about youthful cool, the need for speed and self-preservation.  

Fast forward over thirty years, and Maverick now in his late 50s, is quite different. Although he still embodies his call sign’s attributes, his renegade spirit comes with renewed purpose.  Although he still fully embraces the “need for speed,” Maverick in Top Gun: Maverick (2022), is looking to belong and serve.

Throughout his journey as a relic in a modernized Air Force, he leans into his vulnerability all while becoming an example of how Authentic Leaders lead. As Peter G. Northouse notes in Leadership: Theory and Practice, “authentic leadership is as an interpersonal process. This perspective outlines authentic leadership as relational, created by leaders and followers together (Eagly, 2005). It results not from the leader’s efforts alone, but also from the response of followers. Authenticity emerges from the interactions between leaders and followers. It is a reciprocal process because leaders affect followers and followers affect leaders” (Northouse, 196). 

The reciprocal process between leaders and followers is at the centre of the film and the masterclass it provides in leadership. In regards to education, school leaders can take some notes from Captain Mitchell. Maverick is an example of an authentic leader who is fully immersed in his team and who will always do what he asks of others.

Let’s take a moment to reimagine Top Gun: Maverick through a schooling point of view. 

A group of ace educators are brought together to reimagine and shift pedagogy . They are the “best of the best,” and together can achieve greatness as they lean into their vulnerability with a commitment to serving and activating their new learning. 

Their instructional leader is a master teacher. With a decorated professional history, he’s known for both his skill and rebellious mindset. Misunderstood by most, he has been called on to prepare the young aces for the unknown; asking them to adapt. He knows that adapting will be a challenge that will require considerable vulnerability. To adapt is to disrupt.

As the story unfolds, the team struggles to grasp the realities of their new professional learning. The mission to change the parameters of how they teach is too daunting. They can’t see the way. Through frustration, in-fighting and self doubt, their confidence begins to fragment. The goals seem unattainable. The disruption is too much.

As the team faces their challenges, the master teacher is facing their own stark realities. Not fully supported by his direct supervisor, the master teacher finds themselves trapped. Seen a relic by some, he knows that he must lead in a way that is true to who he really is in order to protect and best serve his team.

With the “best of the best,” losing faith and with the team’s wellbeing at stake, what will the master teacher do?

The master teacher embraces an authentic mindset through direct action. Leaning into their core values, the master teacher places themselves directly into action.  The master teacher isn’t teaching – but doing. The master teacher acts on their values with purpose.  

This authentic action coupled by the adaptive spirit of the team, leads to victory.

As school administrators, we’re called to be authentic leaders just like Maverick. In becoming the team leader and flying an impossible mission alongside his team, Maverick exemplifies that “authentic leaders understand their own values and behave toward others based on these values” (Northouse, 198). 

All of this reminds me that to lead, to serve and to be authentic, requires continuous reflection and understanding of my own values. Values shape our purpose and purpose shapes action. This type of self-awareness leads to authenticity. As Northouse notes, “self-awareness refers to the personal insights of the leader. It is not an end in itself but a process in which individuals understand themselves, including their strengths and weaknesses, and the impact they have on others.” (Northouse, 202).

Ultimately, any form of leadership is complex and layered. However, more now than ever, educational leadership requires a bit of Maverick. Looking to 2023, I will certainly do the work to fully understand and act on my values and purpose.


Northouse, P.G. (2022) Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles: SAGE.

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