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Have you seen “Top Gun: Maverick”? It stars Tom Cruise in the sequel to the original motion picture. Cruise’s character is chosen to lead a team through a rigorous training exercise because he’s “been there, done that.” His character’s credibility is solidified due to his prior combat experience, and when it comes to leadership there’s no better mentor than someone who has managed through very stressful circumstances.

In the real world, Mike Barger is a former Chief Instructor of the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School—better known as TOPGUN. After flying fighter jets for the Navy during three deployments aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Dwight David Eisenhower, which included sorties over Baghdad in Operation Desert Storm, Mike was chosen to lead the elite pilot training program. His TOPGUN leadership position capped off thirteen years in the Navy. Leveraging his love of aviation, Mike soon thereafter became a co-founder of JetBlue Airways.

Since he and I both penned books relating to leadership in adverse times, I recently reached out to him and had a memorable and enjoyable chat.

Dr. Michael Barger

Today, Mike Barger shares both leadership and entrepreneurial lessons with graduate and undergraduate business students. He is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, having gained his doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania.

While at JetBlue, Mike developed what became the industry’s leading training department – JetBlue University. He also learned that leadership and management are not always synonymous. According to Mike, leadership is much more than simply supervising a team. It requires an appreciation for all of your organization’s stakeholders, a recognition that they are people with emotions and ambitions (not just organizations), an expectation that turbulent times are inevitable, and a plan for dealing with those moments.

One of Dr. Barger’s courses at Michigan is “High-Stakes Leadership.” According to Mike, it is one of the most popular electives at the Ross School. At the forefront of this teaching effort is the analysis of one of JetBlue’s worst operational failures known colloquially as the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 2007. He also touches upon JetBlue’s response, in real time, to the events of 9/11. His seven-module course is devoted to multiple examples of well-known organizations—successfully, and not so successfully, managing through adverse conditions. One key example he reviews is the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 that affected BP and Transocean.

“High-Stakes Leadership” – A Must Read Book

While those admitted to this Top 10 business school benefit from Barger’s tutelage, he has also shared the major tenets of his leadership course in a best selling book entitled High-Stakes Leadership in Turbulent Times. Dr. Barger has written a superb, yet concise guide for the modern-day leader. In no uncertain terms he tells us that crises WILL occur. His background in the military, running the TOPGUN naval aviation program, and being a co-founder of JetBlue Airways provides both credibility and practical insights.

As the former COO of Baseline Financial Services, which was headquartered at the World Trade Center on 9/11, I can share that Mike Barger’s cogent advice rings true. While reading High-Stakes Leadership, I was struck by the parallels between Mike’s suggestions and what we had done (or not done) prior to, during, and after the horrendous day. Our two greatest stakeholder groups were our 215 associates and our 1,000 corporate clients. If we didn’t act quickly, people would have lost paychecks and livelihoods. Institutional investors, our clients, would have lost the one workflow solution that made their morning research routines easier. Much of this is touched upon in my own book, Undaunted. To be fair to my Baseline colleagues, however, Mike’s definition of turbulent times—which do tend to rock organizations to the core—does not typically involve total devastation of a business at the hands of foreign terrorists. That is an extreme scenario—yet one that I remain in awe of my teammates’ responsiveness and fortitude.

Mike Barger developed a love for training and education while at TOPGUN. Here he is seen next to a F-18 fighter jet.

In terms of weathering more typical turbulent times, Dr. Barger uses the terms of organizational resilience and operational agility as the framework that organizations should utilize. According to Barger, effective responses to crises begin long before they occur. While most people think of resilience as the ability to cope with a crisis, Barger cites work done by Dr. Stephanie Duchek which extends the notion of resilience to include three equally important, successive stages: anticipation, coping, and adaptation. The organizations best suited to weather storms are those that recognize that turbulent times will arise. They prepare for them by identifying potential weaknesses/trends in the geo-political landscape, in their market, in their products, and other areas by dedicating a process to stay alert and preparing to act in an organizationally agile fashion. Such resilient and agile organizations continually, and actively, engage all groups of stakeholders. And, that engagement is at the individual level—not just organizationally. It’s critical, according to Barger, to recognize that stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, suppliers, etc.) are not “automatons” but humans who act and make decisions based on their own “aspirations, expectations, and emotions.”

Praemonitus, Praemunitus!

That simple Latin phrase translates to: “To be Forewarned is to be Forearmed.” Barger quotes the old adage to simplify his instructional world down to two words.  Barger’s wider “blueprint” (a word used by an Amazon reviewer) for readiness is timeless. In his book he provides numerous examples throughout recent history of organizations tackling major crises. Although his own experiences are enough to establish credibility, Mike Barger cites several academic and business leaders to substantiate his methodology.

High-Stakes Leadership is a MUST READ for all current and aspiring leaders. Dr. Barger’s website can be found here:

Ed Zier — October 4, 2023