3 leadership lessons from a Top Gun pilot

NRF PROTECT: Leading with passion, empathy and resilience
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor
July 14, 2022

Being a successful leader in unprecedented times often comes down to “being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said retired U.S. Naval Officer and Team Rubicon CEO Art delaCruz.

“Leadership isn’t about some prescribed set of actions. It isn’t about a plan that you execute. Your job as a leader is to work from that moment of ambiguity and clarity, sharpen that image and move that across your team,” delaCruz said during his keynote address at the NRF PROTECT conference and expo at Cleveland’s Huntington Convention Center.

Art delaCruz
Art delaCruz, ​​​​​​​Top Gun Pilot and CEO at Team Rubicon

DelaCruz is a former Top Gun pilot and instructor who served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years, including six deployments, racking up more than 4,000 miles in the cockpit of F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets.

Those experiences, he said, as well as the lessons he’s gleaned from heading up a team of 180 employees and 150,000 volunteers at his nonprofit have taught him what it takes to be an accomplished leader. “[You have to] create this momentum across your organization that starts with you as an empathetic and passionate leader with a plan and the ability to execute in those times of ambiguity,” delaCruz said.

DelaCruz explained the three main lessons he took from his 22 years in the cockpit and applied to his own role as a teacher and a leader.

Leaders always have a mindset of success: “That’s the destination you train to, that’s the destination you build your plan around, that’s the destination that everything you do and center around your people should be built around doing — success,” he said.


Did you miss NRF PROTECT 2022? Take a look at our event recap.

Leaders know what they can control, and they understand what they can’t control: One example of something leaders can control is time — time spent in meetings, time spent making and executing plans, and time spent assessing success.

Leaders are vulnerable: DelaCruz talked about a crash he had while flying and how he used that to show his vulnerability. “My crash — and the mistakes I had made — was one of my most powerful teaching tools.”

All these lessons are applicable to the retail world, and to loss prevention and cyber risk leaders in particular, delaCruz said. “The next time something unpredictable happens, be ready for it, because you can create the conditions to not just survive but thrive.”

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