We’re in the Era of the ‘Top Gun’ CEO

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[*snippets from recent NYTimes article]

Work is war — or it can feel that way to certain chief executives. To meet the moment, it’s the era of Top Gun-style leadership training.

Many business leaders responded to the last few years of uncertainty — work force churn, return-to-office struggles, economic flux — by bringing softer, more emotional conversations into boardrooms. Some encouraged open discussions of employee mental health in the office. Others went in the opposite direction, embracing a new style of corporate machismo.

“Leaders are trying to regain a sense of control they feel they’ve lost over the last few years,” said Cali Williams Yost, a workplace strategist. “They’re searching to reassert control and power in a way that feels familiar.”

Companies have long valued military experience in hiring. Hollywood has for decades valorized military leaders as the ultimate examples of strength. But now corporate executives are actually play acting as military members. Hundreds of companies are turning to unorthodox programs that use fighter pilot simulations, military principles and even NASCAR pit stop techniques to train business executives on responding to uncertainty and flux.

Military veterans, like Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL, are unsurprised that a period of workplace chaos is pushing companies to rethink management, sometimes in extreme ways.

“The pandemic revealed that we need better leadership,” Mr. Willink said. “When people aren’t coming into work and you no longer see them every day, you have to use better decentralized command. That’s a classic law of combat leadership.”

Whether Navy SEALS wisdom translates to a product release, though, isn’t clear. “The question is — is it meant to be fun? Is it meant to be photographed? Or is it meant to be impactful?” Melissa Nightingale, a co-founder of the management training firm Raw Signal Group, said of professional development. “About 75% of professional development efforts fall on the floor.”

Still, regardless of how fleeting the benefits, the management machismo keeps spreading, as companies clamor to train their employees in ways that don’t involve a Zoom screen. Like, for example, in a racecar pit.

In Raleigh, N.C., a financial technology company called Constellation Digital Partners brought its employees together — some meeting in person for the first time — to simulate a NASCAR pit stop. The training was facilitated by a company called Over the Wall, which was started by a former NASCAR pit crew coach, Andy Papathanassiou; rates start at $10,000 and vary depending on the size of the group and how much time it spends training.

Constellation’s roughly 30 employees gathered in their office parking lot around a green racecar. The employees took off lug nuts with an air wrench, hoisted off the car’s 50-pound tire, swapped in a new tire and got the lug nuts back on. They were dripping in sweat, sunscreen and grease, looking like the harried pit stop crew members of the Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder.”

“It sounds silly for me to say, but the hardest part is actually getting the tire on,” said Kris Kovacs, the company’s chief executive. “What that teaches you is you’ve got to preplan. Hard things, if you practice at them and preplan, become easier and easier.”

In the months after the training, Mr. Kovacs said he saw his staff become more communicative. They understood how to share their weak points with one another.

“You can do all the ‘Kumbaya’ trust fall stuff,” he said. “Or you can get dirty with your team throwing tires onto NASCARs.”


To learn more about our facilitator Andy Papathanassiou’s “Over The Wall” team-building program, see pg16 of our 2023 Course Catalog.