JJ “Yank” Cummings knows a thing or two about leadership. As a retired Navy captain with over 30 years of service, Cummings flew fighter jets and commanded some of the most advanced warships on the planet. But his approach to leadership is not what you might expect from a Top Gun pilot.
Cummings believes leadership is about showing your team you truly care. It’s not about barking orders or micromanaging every detail. For Cummings, leadership is a constant commitment to making human connections and showing your people they matter. As he describes it, good leaders are empathetic, caring and compassionate. They are the “huggers” who are beloved and respected, not the “hammers” who rule by fear.
Cummings shared these leadership lessons and stories from his naval career in a presentation to the RMC team for Veterans Day. While his job involved coordinating complex operations and risking his life flying cutting-edge aircraft, the principles he learned apply to any leader or team—even talent acquisition.
When change and uncertainty arise, as all leaders inevitably face, Cummings’ methods for showing your team you care can help guide any organization to success.
Lesson 1: Create a Simple, Memorable Mission Statement
One key for any leader is clearly communicating purpose and vision. JJ Cummings learned this lesson when tasked with aligning thousands of sailors on an aircraft carrier deployed overseas. While companies have more flexibility in communication channels today, the principles he followed still apply.
To unify people, start by identifying your core messaging platform. This might be email, Slack, town halls or team huddles. Whatever your channel, use it consistently to broadcast a succinct, memorable statement of your vision and goals.
For talent acquisition teams, this could be a mission to match world-class talent with innovative roles. Or it could be a bolder vision to become the destination for top performers across your industry.
The message itself matters less than sticking to a single channel and repeating it often. This technique keeps people connected to the core purpose during periods of change. As with sailors aboard a Navy carrier, a clear vision rallies your crew and helps execute the mission.
Lesson 2: Get out from Behind your Desk
In the Navy, Cummings learned the importance of in-person leadership through walking the decks and talking with sailors. But the same principle of “management by wandering around” applies in remote settings today.
Rather than lead from behind a screen, take time to have authentic conversations with teammates. Schedule 1:1 video chats to learn what issues they face and make personal connections beyond work.
For recruiters balancing many roles, stay curious about challenges on the frontlines of hiring. Ask probing questions and listen intently during virtual meetings. Build relationships and understanding through dialogue.
You can also create remote equivalents of bringing sailors above deck. Organize video tours of other departments or virtual meetups for cross-functional bonding. Send care packages or handwritten notes to show you’re thinking of your crew.
The medium has changed, but the lesson remains: ditch the desk and get creative in making human connections. They build trust, transparency and performance.
Lesson 3: Foster a Questioning Attitude
Modern leadership is not about having all the answers – it’s about creating a culture where everyone feels comfortable asking questions. Cummings learned this from the lowest-ranking sailors who saved lives by speaking up on the bridge.
Make it clear that insight can come from anywhere, especially junior staff closest to potential problems. Seek input from quiet voices, not just the loudest. React with gratitude when questioned or critiqued, even if privately you disagree.
This builds an atmosphere of psychological safety where people know dissent is valued. As Cummings described, the seaman who redirected the ship’s perilous course wasn’t reprimanded – he was praised. His courage averted disaster and defined success.
For recruiters, regularly ask for feedback from new hires and candidates. Survey junior staff on improvements and implement suggestions. This inclusiveness surfaces issues early and empowers your crew to guide better outcomes.
By valuing questions and input, you allow fresh perspectives to prevail and your team to take ownership in solutions. Be open and show you care.
Lesson 4: Debrief Effectively
In aviation, thorough debriefs after each mission are key to continuous improvement. Cummings applied this mindset more broadly by reviewing all operations and encouraging candid feedback.
Treat every project as an opportunity for learning. Remove hierarchy and rank to get constructive criticism flowing both ways. Set expectations that debriefs are professional forums focused on progress.
Allow junior staff to critique leadership’s performance without repercussion. Admit openly when you make a mistake or fall short. This vulnerability shows you’re serious about developing the team versus just yourself.
For recruiters, perform regularly scheduled debriefs on hiring outcomes. Maintain openness to critiques of your talent processes. By analyzing failures in a no-blame environment, you surface issues that can systematically improve future results.
While egos may bruise, honest debriefs build trust and alignment. As Cummings says, good leadership is a “two-way street.” Make it safe to learn together.
Lesson 5: Be Your Authentic Self
Cummings admits he initially wrestled with his leadership persona early in his career. Should he be the silent intimidating type? Rule by fear? Play a role to satisfy superiors?
He realized the best influence comes from authority genuine to you. Don’t mimic other leaders or conform to expectations. Instead, identify your principles and lead by being the most candid, caring version of yourself.
For recruiters, lean into your humanity when engaging candidates. Bring compassion, not just process. Make meaningful connections that reflect your values.
Don’t hide behind business buzzwords or a manufactured persona – reveal your real self. While professionalism matters, authenticity builds trust and community faster than any tactic.
Your team wants to follow a leader who knows themself and leads with heart. Be confidently you.
Captain JJ Cummings’ journey from a Top Gun pilot to an empathetic leader offers invaluable lessons for modern leadership. His approach, centered on authentic connections, questioning attitudes and being true to oneself, transcends the confines of military discipline, applying equally to corporate boardrooms and remote work environments.
Cummings demonstrates that true leadership is not about commanding authority, but about nurturing trust, encouraging open communication, and leading with a heart that values each team member.
His approach, blending personal engagement with a commitment to inclusivity and continuous learning, provides a robust blueprint for leaders striving to cultivate more responsive, cohesive and innovative teams in any sector.