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Don't touch my stuff

Updated: May 16, 2022

When I was an aide or "Loop," packing luggage in a car's trunk was organized, thoughtful, and purposeful.

This is a blog about leadership from the perspective of a lawyer and a naval aviator.

I have discussed why it is essential to know the details and check the details, and now I want to close out this series with "attention to the details." This post also discusses a simple tool for organization in a fast-paced environment.

This is the last post in my series on details and why details matter. It continues my discussion about the many lessons I learned about leadership and success from an admiral when I worked as a flag aide and young aviator over thirty years ago. I still use those lessons today as a lawyer and leader.

This is a story about packing luggage in a car's trunk and attention to details.

The transportation shuffle

As an admiral's aide, travel was fast and furious! The mandate to be punctual only added a sense of urgency and stress to the trip. During my first week on the job, the Admiral told me, "I don't like to be late. So, let's always be on time." This fast and furious nature was especially true with the simple evolution of transitioning from a landing aircraft to a vehicle.

When flying on military aircraft into military bases, we would disembark the plane and hustle into vehicles that had been immediately pulled up and positioned right next to the arriving aircraft’s ladder. We would often be traveling with an official party on the plane, and several vehicles would pull up to the aircraft.

The welcoming group would position our official white or black Navy sedan at the front of the line. A chrome yardarm would be attached to the car's front corner, proudly flying the dark blue flag with the Admiral’s white one star. While the welcoming party was greeting the admiral once we got off the plane, the aircrew would be passing the carried-on luggage off the aircraft fairly rapidly.

Do not lose your stuff

Herein was another unwritten rule of being a Loop. I never lost sight of the Admiral’s luggage, briefcase, and all other personal items. I had to hand-carry his personal ceremonial U.S. Navy officers' sword that he had had for over 30 years. I guarded his belongings with passion. I guarded his sword with my life! No one else was to touch his stuff.

After arrival on most occasions in the haste to greet us and whisk us off in the vehicles, ensuring that our luggage, especially the bosses, stayed with us was critical. First of all, I was not in the position to lose any of his personal effects, nor have someone mistakenly place them in the wrong vehicle. Second, I could not allow anybody to do that with my luggage because the schedule would never have allowed me to leave the boss to look for my lost luggage.

Count and recount

I knew exactly the number of items we had hand-carried onto the aircraft on every trip. Two pieces of roller board luggage, two briefcases, one sword case with sword therein, and one hanging bag. Six items. Count them.

I counted them when I packed them in the car before departure. I counted them when I got out of the car to get on the aircraft. I counted them when I was on the aircraft before the car drove off. I counted them upon arrival at our destination when I departed the aircraft. I counted them when I packed them in the trunk of the vehicle. Finally, I counted them when I took them out of the vehicle at our military lodging.

This was a simple yet systematic and fail-safe way that always worked. Just count on every opportunity!

On our official Navy trips, the Admiral would do the typical military "back-slapping" and "grip and grin" with the welcoming party as soon as we got off the plane. I always had my eyes locked on our luggage. I made sure to break away and separate it from any other bags. Not only would I separate it from the group, but I would also refuse to let anyone else touch it - other than perhaps briefly to help carry it off the plane! Most of the time, we flew on a squadron P-3, so all of our luggage was carried on the plane and stored near the aircraft door, secured by a cargo net.

Countless times on the tarmac, some well-intentioned greeter would say to the boss: "Admiral, I got your bags," to which I would have to interject, "Thank you very much, but I will take care of them.” Of course, if it were an officer senior to me, I would say, "Thank you very much, sir, but I will take care of them."

At times the attempts to be gracious by the welcoming party continued: "Oh that's okay Lieutenant, I'll take the bags," the well-intentioned greeter would say.

"No, thank you very much, but I got the Admiral’s bags!"

"No problem, Lieutenant, it’s okay, I can get them," the well-intentioned greeter would continue.

Time to use the Admiral’s stars.

"No, it’s not okay. And thank you for the kind offer. But I have the Admiral's bags. He prefers it that way," I would reiterate that with a slight tone and a serious look as I took the Admiral's bags away from the greeter. I did not have time for this.

Luggage logistics

I would have to get the bags packed in the trunk of the car in a matter of minutes and well before the Admiral was ready to get into the car. I was never supposed to keep the boss waiting. Bags should have been packed, and I had to be smartly standing by his open car door before he made a move to the car. I also had to make sure that someone gave me the keys to our lodging rooms and that I knew the room numbers.

In addition to maintaining possession of the bags, packing the bags in the trunk of a vehicle was organized, thoughtful, and purposeful. More the reason I did not want anyone else doing it. The methodology could only be choreographed by someone who knew what the hell they were doing and whose bags were whose.

Here again, attention to details mattered. By having the bags counted and in my exclusive possession, I packed the bags in the trunk because I knew precisely whose bag was whose. The order in which I put them into the trunk determined how they would likewise come out of the trunk. First in, last out. This might sound logical and simple, but it was essential for a seamlessly smooth and subsequent vehicle arrival and exit operation.

Pretty common sense, but it went something like this: Roller boards and larger luggage in first and on the bottom of the trunk. Briefcases next. His briefcase went on top of his bag. His hanging bag was never folded in half, but I draped it over the top of the briefcases. I laid the Admiral's sword on top of the Admiral’s hanging bag, ensuring that it remained clear of the trunk’s hinges. If in doubt, the sword would be put in the backseat of the car. Count the bags. Shut the trunk. By all means, don’t damage the sword.

With the car loaded, off we went. As soon as we pulled up to our military lodging, I turned on the car's flashers, and I would pop the trunk. I then took the bags out in a methodical order. I would remove his sword and hanging bag first. Typically, the admiral would carry these. I would then take out his briefcase and his roller board luggage. We would then walk directly to his room with the room key in hand. Once he was in his room, I would return to the vehicle, remove his flag and park it, having left my luggage and briefcase in the trunk.

Lessons learned

I discuss the intricacies of packing luggage in the trunk of a car as an example of paying attention to details and a simple organizational skill. I never lost our luggage because I was always visually counting it. I was always thinking ahead in that the way I put the luggage in the trunk made sense fifteen minutes later when I took the luggage out of the trunk.

To this day, I am always easily distracted by thinking ahead. My mind will be racing with what will happen in the next hour, day, week, or month. Scenario planning and thinking ahead are essential for aviators, lawyers, and successful leaders. These were critical skills for an admiral's aide.

Scenario planning and the packing luggage process are old habits now. Old habits are hard to break. On my family’s pre-pandemic weeklong vacation trip from Charleston to Paris with my lovely wife and three beautiful daughters, we had fourteen pieces of carry-on and checked luggage. The ladies packed a lot of stuff as you would expect for any European vacation, but especially Paris!

When we landed in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Airport and were at the chaotic international arrival baggage claim area packed with hundreds of excited passengers, we had successfully gotten off the plane without leaving any carry-on items. I had counted them. When we found the right luggage carousel, I had to get one of those luggage carts. I started to retrieve the bags one by one.

At one point, when my eldest daughter tried to help me retrieve the luggage from the baggage carousel, I was in the process of counting the bags. I snapped at her, “Go back and stand with your mother. I got this!" I apologized to her for that later. However, I successfully got all fourteen items, including purses, backpacks, and luggage, from our home in Charleston to the two hotel rooms in downtown Paris.

Packing bags in a trunk as an aide and not losing them trained me always to pay attention to details and think ahead. Being on time was critically important.

My next few posts will highlight some of my many failures as a Loop and the lessons I learned from making mistakes. I learned more from failing on the road with the boss than I ever did from sitting in any classroom.

The failure stories are some of my favorite sea stories. I can laugh now. I did not laugh then.

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