Charting Your Path to the C-Suite? Don’t Use ‘Top Gun’ as Inspiration

Like most suburban white kids who were born in the early 1980s, I have a soft spot for the movie Top Gun. If you’re in the 0.1% of the population who aren’t familiar with the film, it tells the story of the titular school which invites the top fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy to hone their skills by competing against each other in aerial combat. All things considered, it’s aged gracefully as a film. The action scenes with the F-14s hold up pretty well close to thirty years later. The dramatic scenes feel more dated and are often unintentionally funny, yet they still mostly work too. And then of course there’s the hilariously strange volleyball scene, which is in a class of its own as far as scenes that were meant to seem macho and now feel anything but. But for all the flash of the jets and the cool name, it’s the ultra-elitism of Top Gun that ultimately makes it seem so cool. There’s a scene early in the movie where one pilot is asked why all of the pilots are there in the first place. He stands up and unblinkingly barks, “Because we are the best of the best of the best, sir!” The over-the-top testosterone makes comment seem normal, and it might as well have been the motto of America’s Go-Go Eighties anyway. Who doesn’t want to be the best of the best of the best?

I’ve worked with some really smart people over the years, and before that I went to college with many more. A few of them truly were “the best of the best of the best” when it came to school. Seeing them absorb class material was like watching professional athletes work out. Like Top Gun, the dynamic of school usually ensures that the best come out on top. If it were a sport, college (the academic part anyway) would be the 200 meter dash in track and field. In track events, the person who has recently run the fastest times almost always takes first place. For the last several years, Usain Bolt has always won. Back in the 1990s, Michael Johnson used to always win. The suspense in the 200 meter dash usually revolves around whether the favorite will break the world record, rather than whether some unknown challenger will win. Similarly, by the time you get to the advanced classes in college, the people are smart enough and study the most are usually at the top of the class. They are the ones who “win” at college. Thankfully for those of us who were not valedictorian, the professional arena is nothing like college or, for that matter, like the 200-meter dash. How smart you are and how hard you work obviously matter a lot, but you can’t just brute force your way to the top by tyranny of will.

The Recursive Bell Curve

Career advancement requires mastering challenges of increasing complexity alongside peers who are also increasingly skilled you move up the ladder. The best performers at one level advance to the next level, and the best of those advance once again, and on and on until the very best reach the top. I call this the recursive bell curve, because at each stage peoples’ achievement resembles a normal distribution. The people who are on the far right side of the distribution advance first, and then after that cut is made a new, smaller bell curve forms within that group. Those on the far right side of the distribution advance once again, and so on until you reach the very top. This is the way of world, but there is an important caveat to the recursive bell curve that makes career advancement different from any school, including and especially Top Gun.

In school and indeed in most activities, the way we identify the best performers doesn’t change, even as the caliber of the participants increases. Returning to the 200-meter event in track and field, sprinters’ progression through the ranks can be drawn as follows:

In most career fields however, the way we determine who the best performers are changes significantly as people move up the ladder. This is great news for most of us, because it means that the people with the highest IQ or who logs the most hours over the weekends don't uniformly “win” the career game. This is true for a couple of reasons:

  1. Really smart people gravitate toward industries, companies, and teams where everyone else is smart and works hard too (I call this the Hard Work Paradox)
  2. Business is too complex to ride one or two skills all the way to the top

I’m over-simplifying, but a similar abstraction of career progression would look more like this:

After each “cut”, the people who “won” the previous stage are evaluated against a new set of criteria. I suppose you could argue this makes work and career a bit like the decathlon, but as we’ll see, even that analogy breaks down because of the fundamentally different nature of career advancement versus any other game you can think of.

The Three Types of Games

Activities in which your level of achievement can tracked come in three types defined by how strict the rules of success are. The more ways there are to succeed in a game, the more creativity and strategy that can be applied to it.

Type 1: Pure-Play Games

The simplest activities, what I call “pure-play” games, also have the least forgiving rules for success. The 200 meter dash, also known as running fast in a straight line, is about as strategically simple as it gets. And contrary to what we should hope for, school is also organized as a pure-play game for most of our lives. How so? The definition of “best” never changes in school. The classes get harder and more interesting as you go on, but the basic principle of proving your merit by getting good grades on exams remains almost completely intact from kindergarten through college. The valedictorian at Yale applies the same formula to academic success that he or she has been applying for close to twenty years: Study more than everyone else and do all of your homework. Now, the valedictorian is not necessarily the person who learned the most or got the most value out of their education. But according to the rules of school, they have “won”.

Type 2: Closed Strategy Games

Bounded strategy games have fixed rules of competition, but they offer more room for creativity and strategy than pure play games. Most team sports and games where the participants cooperate are of this type. Other famously complex games like chess and bridge fall under this header as well, which underscores an important aspect of bounded strategy games: even the most strategically rich of these games constrain participants’ ability to innovate. You don’t get to choose how many bishops you want to play with in chess, or how many players you want to put on the basketball court at tip-off. These games can be immensely interesting, entertaining, and complex, but they’ve got nothing on the third type when it comes to their potential for innovation and new ways to succeed.

Type 3: Open Strategy Games

The most interesting and complex games are what I call open strategy games. These have the fewest fixed rules and thus are the most open to innovation. Open strategy games (and I’m using the term “game” loosely) often take place on a global scale. Geopolitics and warfare are open strategy games, marked by changes in diplomacy, intelligence tactics, and technology. Business is another. Even the rules that seem fixed are malleable in practice when it comes to business. You might think that the “best” businesses earn the most revenue or profit, but there are many ways to create a company that returns value to its owners. Amazon became one of the world’s most admired and valuable businesses even though it famously shunned profits for most of its existence. The market’s expectations of a company’s potential matter at least as much as its performance today. And there are no shortage of ways to influence the market’s perception of a business.

What’s interesting about the three types of games is that nearly everything people measure their success in from the time they learn to read until they start of their careers is either a pure play game or a bounded strategy game. You can learn much from these games, but they don’t prepare you as well for the situation in which the definition of the “best” performer evolves over time.

The lesson? If you stay heads-down and just focus on the tasks you’re assigned one hundred percent of the time, you don’t get much practice thinking big-picture and leading others. You can get the first promotion or two by being an exceptional worker bee. But the brute force method of career advancement no longer works when the next role entails more than just cranking out your work. Management and leadership roles demand more creativity, nuance and people skills than are usually required when you’re cranking away on your own. The evaluation of who is poised to be successful evolves over time, which is what makes career advancement such an interesting challenge. It also is why it takes more than just smarts to successfully transition from being a good do-er to being a good leader.