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Barbershop scuttlebutt

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

When I became an admiral’s aide in the Navy, the Admiral provided me with six rules that I discussed in an earlier blog post, the Initial Guidance. One of those rules was that confidentiality mattered. He stated to me: “Whatever you see and hear is my business, the business of a Navy admiral, and no one else’s business.”


The confidentiality rule of the position included not only when I was in uniform, but also to what the Admiral was doing after hours in his free time or with his family. I knew what he did every minute of the day and carried his schedule with me wherever I went.


He was an incredibly generous and kind man, but what he did after hours with his family was his own business, not for me to share. I learned that lesson the hard way.


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


Scuttlebutt


This is a story about getting a haircut and “scuttlebutt,” a Navy term for gossip. The term has origins back to the 1800s in that the cask carrying the ship’s daily supply of fresh water was referred to as a “scuttlebutt.” The term carried over to the water fountain on a ship or in a Navy facility. Today, we also call it “water cooler gossip.”

One beautiful Maine Saturday afternoon, when I knew we were leaving for a long two-week trip the following Monday, I decided to drop by the Brunswick Naval Air Station Naval barbershop. Loops always have to look "inspection ready" in uniform and personal appearance, including a neat and clean regulation haircut. I had been on the job by this time about three months and was reasonably comfortable and confident that I was going to survive.


By then, the Admiral had told me several times at the end of a long day, "Thank you shipmate," and jokingly told me that I probably was not going to be fired. The Admiral had fired one of my predecessors when "things just did not work out." I discuss that in one of my previous posts, "Details Matter - a helicopter ride."


Jack the barber


Even though I was in civilian clothes that day, Jack the barber knew me as a regular. I had been to the base barbershop in uniform with my loop and gotten my haircut weekly. Jack was well aware that I was the admiral's aide. He had been cutting hair there for years. There was only one admiral on this Navy base in Brunswick, Maine, so everyone knew the admiral, his family, and of course, everyone knew me, his aide.


As most haircuts go, once I was in the chair, we proceeded to talk generally about the weather, what we had planned for the rest of the weekend, and several other topics, all of which were simply small talk - pure scuttlebutt. I related to him that our travel schedule had been fairly hectic and that we were headed back out of town Monday. I also told Jack that I was headed over to the admiral's house that evening for an informal wedding ceremony for one of the admiral's senior enlisted staff members. That piqued his interest. We both agreed that the admiral was nice to allow that ceremony at his personal on-base military quarters.


The weekend came and went. Before I knew it, I was picking up the admiral at his Quarters in his official sedan at zero six hundred Monday morning to drive to the squadron hangar for a P-3 departure for our upcoming trip. I called the squadron duty office and told them we were on time. I reminded them to make sure the flightline gate was unlocked, manned and open in 10 minutes, so we could drive out to the awaiting P-3.


When he got in the car, he said, "Good morning Loop, how was your weekend?"


"It was just great admiral, thank you for asking,” I said.


The conversation continued, "I see you got your haircut by Jack on Saturday."


This was odd because while it might have been clearly visible that I had gotten a haircut, I was unsure how the Admiral knew that Jack had cut my hair.


However, it didn’t take long for him to get to the point. "Well, I got my haircut by Jack on Sunday. He gives a good haircut, doesn't he? " the Admiral stated.


"Yes sir, he sure does," I said.


The Admiral continued, "Jack's a good guy. I've been going to him for over a year now. But, he can be a little chatty.”


“Indeed he can be,” I said.


“He asked me how the wedding had gone at my quarters Saturday night. I found that odd because that was a private event and none of his business.”


He paused. “You see where I'm coming from?" he said.


"Sir, yes sir. Sorry about that. It won't happen again," I stated.


"You see, Lieutenant," he said (when he called me Lieutenant, rather than Loop, I knew it was a “foot-stomper” and a teaching moment), “What we do when wearing the uniform at work is official business, and nobody else's business. What I do after hours on my own time is personal business, and is also nobody else's business. I would appreciate it if you kept it that way."


"Sir, yes sir. I'm very sorry. It won't happen again," I could only state again. And it did not happen again. I kept my mouth shut.

Lessons learned


I learned the importance of confidentiality of matters discussed at work and about one's personal life. That information usually is nobody else's business unless that person wants to make it somebody's business. This is true when dealing with your work colleagues and your boss in the military and as a civilian. Make sure you know whether what someone is sharing with you is a matter about which they would not like you sharing with others.


Many times, the personal and professional business you learn at work or from co-workers should not be a topic of discussion at the barbershop, around the water cooler, or as you are passing the mash potatoes at the family dinner table. Be thoughtful and judicious on what you share. Scuttlebutt can spread quickly.


It was hard avoiding Jack. I went to a different barbershop in town after that or dropped by the base barbershop when I knew it was Jack's day off. If I had to get a haircut from Jack due to time constraints, and he was there, I limited conversation to topics like the weather and sports. That was the easy fix.


My next post will talk about getting to the right place at the right time and a trip to a Navy ship. It also discusses long standing admiration for the Navy's senior enlisted ran - the Navy Chiefs.


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