Updated: Jan 17
This is a story about when I was late and made the Admiral late.
This is a blog about leadership from the perspective of a lawyer and a naval aviator.
Do you know someone who is always late? They are late to social events. They are late for their business meetings. They are late to church. They are late for their daughter’s soccer game and their son’s baseball game. They are late for the holiday office party. During the pandemic, they were even late to Zoom and Webex meetings.
This is the continuation of my series on the lessons I learned from being an admiral’s aide many years ago and how those lessons have shaped my professional life as a lawyer.
One of the most important aspects of my job as an aide was being on time. It was my job to keep the admiral on time, every day in the office, and, most importantly, on every trip. As an aviator and a lawyer, being punctual and meeting deadlines are critical. As a leader, those who are always watching you, are also watching the clock.
This is a story about when I was late.
A week on the road
On a one-week-long trip, we left Brunswick, Maine, for Naval Air Station for Moffet Field in California for a three-day conference. On second leg of the trip, we flew from Moffet to Naval Air Station New Orleans for a one-day visit. On the next leg of the trip, we were to leave New Orleans at "zero dark thirty" Friday morning to be in Jacksonville, Florida, in time for a mid-morning change of command at an aviation squadron where the Admiral was just a guest, not an official participant. We were scheduled to leave Jax after the ceremony and reception to be back in Maine in time for a late dinner. That was going to be an easy day - I thought.
When we left New Orleans Friday morning, the trip had gone spectacularly well. I reviewed our daily agenda. All I had to do was get the Admiral to the change of command in the proper uniform at the right time and be an official guest at the ceremony. Unlike other events, there was no speech to be prepared or managed.
Perhaps the fact that it was Friday and the last stop of a long trip, complacency set in. Complacency is never good. In naval aviation, we say "complacency kills."
As an aide, I checked, rechecked, and re-verified the logistics, timing, and execution of every minute of every day. It was a "trust, but verify" job.
It was dark early Friday morning when we headed for the departure airfield in New Orleans. We were dressed impeccably, and the aircraft took off on time. We had a strong tailwind headed east. This was a flight when arriving early was no big deal because we would have used the extra time to freshen up. Also, we did not have an official arrival party meeting us, just a military vehicle standing by with a young sailor assigned as our escort and driver to take us directly to the squadron hangar where the ceremony was taking place.
Time for a little shut eye.
Once airborne, the Admiral took his shoes off and stretched out in his seat. He wanted to get a little more "shut-eye" on the flight. “Make sure you wake me up before we land, Loop. It’s very important to always have your shoes on for landing!” he said.
“Aye, aye, sir. Will do,” I answered. I set my watch alarm for an hour later and dozed off myself. It had been a very long week. The aircraft air condition felt great compared to the humid morning air on the departure tarmac.
We were to land in time for the pre-ceremony VIP reception, which was scheduled an hour before the Change of Command. As was tradition, the pre-ceremony reception, or “pre-tea” as we called it, was an opportunity for senior officers, the official party, and the Commanding Officer’s family to exchange pleasantries and take photos. A Navy “grip and grin” before the ceremony. Non-alcoholic drinks, of course, were served from a bubbling sterling fountain that was shared and passed around between the commands for these events. There were some small appetizers. It would be held in the squadron’s ready room or officer’s wardroom.
About an hour after takeoff, I woke up to the beeping of my watch alarm. We were about thirty minutes from arrival when the Admiral awoke, pointed to his shoes, and put them on.
What time is the pre-tea?
“Hey Loop, what time does the pre-tea start?” he asked.
“It starts at zero nine hundred, Admiral, and the Change of Command is at ten hundred,” I said.
He looked at his watch. He looked back at me. “You sure?” he said, “because it is approaching 0930 right now.”
The admiral gazed at me with that “something's not right" grimace. My mind was racing to figure out what was wrong. We had received the official invitation. I had calendared it along with the date and time. We told everybody we would be there. We took off on time.
My head started to spin when I realized what had happened. I had scheduled our travel to the change of command, not taking into account the hour time difference between central time zone and eastern time zone. That was an egregious error. It was one that I should have caught.
The Admiral remained quiet for the rest of the flight. It was a very long thirty minutes! Fortunately, this was one of the few times we were already in our dress uniform for arrival and did not have to change out of a flight suit when we arrived.
We landed around 0955 eastern standard time. A white military vehicle, with a yardarm with the admiral's star flying on the front, hastily pulled up to the aircraft. The young sailor saluted as he opened the passenger side door.
“Good morning Admiral Johnson, we’re glad you made it, sir. We were wondering where you were.” Poor kid had been sitting there for over an hour waiting for us.
"Thank you, shipmate. I am very sorry we are late," the Admiral said. "So, how long have you been stationed here and where are you from, my friend?" he asked.
The young sailor, also in his dress uniform, chatted with the Admiral as he hastily drove us to the squadron’s hangar where the ceremony was underway. We sheepishly walked to one of the last rows of spectator seats, raising a few eyebrows, taking seats in the very back of the hangar, in white plastic chairs not fitting for an admiral.
After the ceremony, at the reception with alcoholic beverages at the Officers’ Club, the new Commanding Officer said to the Admiral, “Sir, we are so glad you made it. I didn’t see you at the pre-tea, and was worried you had missed your flight.”
“Skipper, sorry we were late. We had a slight scheduling snafu, but the Loop here always takes care of me. I would not have missed this for the world!” the Admiral said.
In one of my first meetings with the Admiral, he had told me, "I don't like to be late."
Admittedly, there were occasions when being on time was simply out of my control. An aircraft might have had a mechanical issue, or there might have been unexpected traffic on a highway due to an accident that left us at a standstill. In those circumstances, I did the best I could. I started to notify people in advance that we were running late, apologize on the Admiral’s behalf and update all with a new estimated arrival time. I would also start to adjust the schedule "on the fly" to get us back on schedule. However, timing had to be right when it was within my control.
It is always important to be punctual and on time. If you are an aspiring young professional, your supervisors will note your consistently being late to meetings or missing deadlines. If you are the leader, your followers will not appreciate your consistently being late. While it is unlikely anyone will tell you as the leader that your reputation is being tarnished by being late, it is. As a leader, keeping others waiting for you and always being late is inconsiderate, especially if you are the senior leader.
The Admiral knew this very well. If we had a military quarters assembly with a large group of sailors at 1100, the commanding officer of that unit would have required the attendees to start mustering in the area about 30 minutes before the event. Officers and sailors would use that time to be “milling about smartly,” a fine military phrase meaning looking busy, but doing absolutely nothing productive. The sailors would probably be called to fall into ranks and formation at 1045.
Every minute the Admiral was late was another minute of the troops just standing there in formation in the heat waiting for us. It was not uncommon in the heat of the summer to see a sailor standing in ranks start to wobble and then pass out, hopefully to be caught by a shipmate before falling head first on the cement.
I built my reputation around always being on time. Today, if I am running late, I call or text others and tell them so. Being late happens, but it should be the rare exception to a consistent pattern of being on time.
For this change of command, my error was an embarrassing exception to my consistent performance of being on time. However, the Admiral gave me some grace, and he apologized to the sailor. Then, he started to talk to him. I have no doubt that was a conversation this young kid, who had been hand-selected for this task, would never forget.
"Don't let that happen again, Mark," the Admiral stated to me later in private. I made a few other mistakes as an aide, but not any related to time zones.
I often had to drive the Admiral around in the official Navy sedan on business trips. Unless I was intimately familiar with the destination location, I did not like driving. It just added another element of risk of failure to the day.
My next story is about another mistake I made involving driving the Admiral in a Navy sedan, and how a Marine rescued me. It's also about remaining calm when the circuit breakers are popping.