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Details matter - a helicopter ride

Updated: May 16, 2022

In this post, I talk about the importance of "knowing the details." As an aviator, a lawyer, and a leader, knowing the details matters.

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

The details concerning the Admiral’s transportation are critical to the daily success of an admiral's aide. This boss does not like to be late. A four or five-day trip can include up to ten to fifteen different transportation modes and transfers, including planes, trains, automobiles, ferries, rental cars, official Navy vehicles, and private sedans. Reservations had to be confirmed and reconfirmed. Timing and punctuality were critical to running on schedule. Luggage and briefcases could not be lost.

This is the fifth post in my series about the many lessons I learned about leadership and success from an admiral when I worked as his flag aide over thirty years ago. I still use those lessons today. I discussed some of what the Admiral told me in my first week on the job about how to be successful in my earlier post "Use the stars, sparingly.”

This is a story about a helicopter ride and checking out of a hotel. It's all in the details.

A helicopter and summer whites

Transportation is an element that introduces a high level of uncertainty and the risk of a deviation to the schedule over which the aide has little to no control. There might even be a military helicopter in the plan. In fact, a helicopter trip had not gone well for one of my predecessors.

The Admiral told me a story about an international trip in which his aide was coordinating a visit with the Japanese Navy. The plan was for the Admiral and aide to fly out on a Japanese helicopter from a Japanese Naval Base to a small Japanese navy ship that was underway out at sea about a hundred miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean. They were going to fly out to the "small boy" Japanese destroyer to meet a Japanese Admiral who was currently embarked on that ship.

"Admiral, we’ll take the helicopter out to the destroyer, and you will visit the admiral and the Japanese crew. We’ll be on board for about two hours,” the aide had stated while briefing the admiral before the trip.

For that trip, the Admiral was in his summer white uniform, a beautiful white uniform with black and gold shoulder boards and appropriate military insignia emblazoned on his chest. His gold aviation pilot wings and a colorful rack of military ribbons were neatly pinned above his left pocket and his official nametag above his right pocket. We affectionately called the summer white uniform the “Good Humor Ice Cream Man” uniform because the summer white outfit, nametag, white belt, white socks, and matching white shoes all made one look like the old-fashioned Good Humor Ice Cream Man.

As the Admiral would tell the story to me, after a lot of hand-shaking and bowing when they arrived at the base, they boarded the helicopter and were off over the blue water headed to the ship. As the helicopter approached the destroyer and the ship came into view, the Admiral gazed down at the destroyer.

Is that the right boat?

“That’s odd,” he thought. The ship did not have a helicopter landing pad on the stern. “Must be the wrong ship,” he thought. But, there was no other ship in sight.

At the same time, the helicopter began to descend and circle the ship. The Admiral inquisitively pointed down to the ship and looked to the Japanese aircrew, who in turn gave the international sign of a “thumbs up.” The aircrew then began pulling out and assembling a body harness that would be used to lower the admiral by harness and cable from the helicopter to the ship. The harness straps would wrap tightly in between his legs and securely around his crotch and connect with a large buckle securely across his chest. Attached to the strap was a metal D-ring at the chest level to which the lift cable was attached.

At that point, there was nothing to do but to go along with the plan. However, this was embarrassing, and an aide never embarrasses the admiral. So, with the help of the Japanese aircrew, the Admiral strapped into the harness in his summer white uniform with chest ribbons and military insignia popping off, and the helicopter harness staining and permanently discoloring his white uniform around his crotch.

Being strapped in a harness and lowered down by cable was not good at all in a pair of summer whites. The aide had assumed that the transfer via helicopter from shore to ship would include the helicopter's landing onboard the ship. It did not. This was an honest mistake that anyone could have made.

Years later, as Admiral Johnson told me that story over a beer after a long day, he was laughing so hard, he had to wipe his eyes. He had a great sense of humor, and I could not help but laugh to tears also, knowing this could have just as easily happened to me. Unfortunately, for my predecessor, that was strike one! Strike two would come the very next day -- and there was no strike three in this job.

Checking out of lodging

That helicopter evolution was a horrific incident, but perhaps still recoverable just as a good pilot can recover from a flat spin. They were to leave Japan early the next morning, checking out of the civilian hotel before sunrise. That evening, the Admiral told the aide not to pay for the rooms until they were out of the rooms with their luggage. The Admiral knew the aide always paid for the rooms in advance of a room departure so as not to keep the Admiral waiting. Much like check-in procedures, the departure was to be efficient taking the Admiral directly from the room to the waiting vehicle without having to stop at the front desk.

The Admiral also knew at this particular hotel, the front desk attendant would turn off the master power switch to the room as soon as the bill was paid, assuming the guests had checked out and left the room. That would leave the room dark and powerless.

“So, don't pay the room bills until we are both out of the rooms tomorrow morning,” he told the aide, Lieutenant Bumgardner.

As the Admiral would tell me, he got up early the next day, and began the Navy morning routine “three S’s,” two of which included a shower and a shave. While he was still taking care of business in the windowless hotel bathroom, all the lights in the room went out with an audible “ker-chunk.” He knew exactly what had happened. All he could do out of a sense of intense frustration was yell at the top of his lungs, “Bum - gard - ner!”

By then, Lieutenant Bumgardner just happened to be standing in the hallway at the Admiral’s room door. He had forgotten the Admiral's direction in the haste to get moving and paid the bill in the lobby. He had made his way up to the admiral’s room just in time for the front desk clerk to secure the power to the room.

Hearing the Admiral belt out his name from inside the room, all Bumgardner could do was to yell back instinctively, “Yes sir, Admiral.”

That was strike two - the end of Bumgardner. After a man-to-man discussion with the Admiral when they got back to the continental United States, they agreed things were not working out. Bumgardner was relieved of his duty shortly after this trip. The Admiral and the aide reached a mutual agreement that neither one of them was enjoying their jobs. The aide just was not “cut out" to be a Loop. The Admiral took care of him, though. He made sure he got a nice set of orders to a competitive job at a good duty station, and nowhere in his written military performance report was there any indication that he had been “relieved.” From review of those records, one would assume he had just performed a short stint of temporary duty on the Admiral's staff en route to his shore duty assignment.

Lessons learned

Knowing the details matters. Details matter not only in the military, but also in a civilian job and professional career. Let others know if you don't know the answer to a question and don't have the facts. That said, with advance planning and preparation, you should know the facts and details. You should know the facts and details better than anyone else in the room. You should know the facts better than your colleagues, adversary, or opponent in the courtroom or boardroom. You should know the facts better than your boss.

Preparation is a key to successful execution. Not knowing all the details in a detail-oriented business world can result in your not being successful or even worse, losing your job.

Good leaders take care of their people who fail

I learned some other very important lessons from these two stories from a great boss. Despite the aide’s failure, Admiral Johnson showed him grace, empathy, and compassion. He would show me the same grace and compassion about a year later. The Admiral also took care of Bumgardner. He could have easily given him an adverse military written fitness report as a visible sign that he had been “fired,” which would have remained a permanent black mark in this young officer’s career record and seen by promotion boards for many years after that.

I learned that good bosses allow you to make mistakes and will have that hard conversation with you when it is time to do so. I learned that great bosses will allow failure and allow you to learn from failure. I learned that exceptional bosses will take care of those who fail and allow them an opportunity to recover. While I never met Bumgardner, I did hear that he was a superstar at his next duty station. He went on to a successful career unblemished by his failure as an aide.

I had my share of close calls and “near-misses” with disaster over the next year when I missed the details. Like the stories involving my predecessor, I can laugh about them today. But at the time when I was the Loop, they were no laughing matter.

One of my favorite near-misses involved a Navy Change of Command ceremony when the Admiral was the guest speaker. It is important to know the details, and it's important to check the details. I’ll discuss that next and give you more insight into how I learned to always "check the details."

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