Call Signs, Nicknames, & Dale Carnegie

Top Gun screenshot

“Tower, this is Ghost Rider requesting a flyby.”

“Negative Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.”

“Viper’s up here, great…oh shit”

“Great, he’s probably saying, “Holy shit, it’s Maverick and Goose”

If you’ve seen the movie Top Gun, these lines may be familiar to you.  Top Gun displays fighter pilots as calm, cool, and cocky.  Let’s face it, having cool nicknames, we said call signs, helped.  The truth is, very few of us had “cool” call signs like Maverick, Goose, Ice, Viper, etc.  I knew a Pooh Bear, Clubber, Brain Damage (Damage for short), Crash, Crunch, Skids, and my favorite, Spooge.  The only people I knew with “cool” call signs were senior officers and most of them changed their call sign when they became senior enough that no one would dare say different.

Imagine for a second, you get to take your trusty jet home to see your parents for the weekend (we called it cross-country training and occasionally got to do just that).  You and your pilot are met by your parents and they see your call sign on your flight suit and it says “Spooge.”  That would be embarrassing.

Call signs are first given because you do something colorful, therefore embarrassing. If you haven’t done something colorful you could get a call sign based on a physical characteristic, for the really boring folks out there it might end up being a play on your name.  I actually successfully dodged a call sign I didn’t like by embracing a less objectionable one.  I once flew with a guy with the call sign of “Rat.”  We wanted to call him “Stumpy” because he was 5’-4” tall, but he pitched a fit.  Normally, objecting to a call sign was a great way to make it stick but in his case, his reaction was so visceral the Skipper (who had the cool call sign of “Heater”) overrode us and “Rat” was pulled out of thin air.

What’s the point, what does this have to do with leadership?  Well, you may not give out call signs, but they are nothing more than nicknames.  It is tempting to use the nickname your team has given a team member.  After all, won’t that make you part of the team?  Maybe.  But, what will it do to the team member(s) in question?  Do they really like the nickname or are they tolerating it because they don’t want to show weakness?

Our job, as a leader, is to elevate and empower our team members. They need to feel good about themselves, feel appreciated, and know that their contribution to the team is recognized.  Using an unwanted and unliked nickname will not advance those goals.

Instead of just using a nickname, ask everyone you meet how they preferred to be addressed, then use that name, as given.  Don’t shorten it or change it.  As Dale Carnegie once said, “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.”

Let me know the worst nickname you ever had or heard.


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