We have come to the end of my blog series of “What I Learned from the Admiral.” I have one last lesson in this conclusion. As it is Thanksgiving weekend, it is a rather fitting time to wrap things up.
By the time I had worked for Admiral Johnson for over a year, I was pretty confident that absent an absolute disaster, I would make it through my 2-year shore duty tour as an Admiral’s Aide. I had gotten to know him so well that I could anticipate his every move, what he was thinking, and what he would say.
When he reached for his empty pocket, I handed him a red pen. (“Do you happen to have a red pen?”)
When we entered an office building, I walked directly to the nearest head, and he followed. (“I never pass up a head at my age.”)
When we were to meet with another Admiral, I reminded him minutes in advance of the name of that admiral’s spouse. (“By the way, what is his wife’s name?”)
When we checked into a hotel room, I made sure they had a bar of soap in his room and not just liquid soap on a wall dispenser (“A real bar of soap sure would be nice. They need to send that Euro soap dispenser back to Europe.”)
When it started to snow, I picked him up in the car thirty minutes earlier than scheduled. (“If it’s snowing tomorrow morning, why don’t you pick me up 30 minutes earlier than scheduled.”)
When he looked around at the galley after a meal, I handed him a wooden toothpick. (“Sure, could use a wooden toothpick about now.”)
No words were spoken by then. I just knew.
And we executed this all like a well-rehearsed stage show. We worked great together.
My next tour of duty
He had already started talking to me about my next job, as typically a junior officer would start that discussion about a year out. At that time, one of the most career-enhancing jobs for a P-3 Naval Flight Officer was a “disassociated sea tour” on an aircraft carrier either as the Assistant Navigator or a “shooter” on the flight deck itself.
Both jobs appealed to me tremendously because of my love for the sea and my inherent instincts as a Sailor, even though I was an aviator. I strongly desired to go to sea to prove I could do it.
I loved airplanes, and I loved the ocean, so my job in a P-3 Orion squadron and working for one of the top P-3 Admirals had scratched both itches. I was a US Naval Officer first. But, I flew in a plane that always took off from an air station close to the sea – not an aircraft carrier.
I spent hundreds of hours on missions covering thousands of square miles over the ocean.
At the same time, I was intrigued by a career as a lawyer. I had taken the LSAT and had started researching law schools. I had talked to the JAG, who had recruited me to be an Aide when I was a legal officer in my squadron. He encouraged me to “go for it.”
Quitters get fired
The dilemma for me was that back then, the aide for the admiral was considered a “golden child” of the particular aviation community—the best of the best in a highly competitive field. And, when an aide told his boss that he did not want to continue in active service, the typical result was that the aide was rapidly relieved and replaced - flat out fired!
Many saw it as an embarrassment to the admiral that his aide wanted to “get out” of the Navy and a poor reflection on the admiral’s leadership and retention ability.
It had happened to other loops I knew. "Getting out” was not looked upon too highly.
That sentiment was unfortunate and odd, but existing Navy culture. I would have served my commitment with honor. Worked my tail off. But, since I chose not to continue active service at the end of my mandatory commitment, it was considered less than ideal. Almost like a traitor to the system and the Navy.
So, I was agonizing about what to do and how to decide. I felt a strong calling to go to law school. I had about six more months to make a decision. I would avoid the hard decision, keep the decision to myself, and continue to do an excellent job for the Admiral!
At the same time, the Navy detailer was already “penciling me in” for an aircraft carrier job on one of the navy’s newest nuclear carriers.
How about Norfolk?
That changed pretty dynamically one day. I answered the phone and was told: “Admiral Callahan would like to speak to Admiral Johnson. Is Admiral Johnson available?”
Callahan was the big boss in the Pentagon. A three-star who told baby admirals where they were going next. I think he was the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.
I quickly went into the Admiral’s office and told him that Admiral Callahan’s office was on the phone. He looked up. He had his cheaters on as he was editing a draft speech I had given him.
“Ok,” he said, “Shut the door on the way out and connect his office ASAP.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” I said.
I connected Admiral Johnson with Admiral Callahan. This was not a phone conversation that I listened to.
The call lasted about five minutes. I knew when the boss hung up because the light associated with his line on my land line phone went out. It then lit up again, meaning he was making another call.
About thirty minutes later, he called me into his office and told me to shut the door again.
“Mark, I just got verbal orders to Norfolk. They want me to be the base commander and want me to be there in about three months.”
Norfolk, Virginia, is home to the Navy’s largest base. The head of that base is usually a two-star admiral.
“I just told Janie,” he said, “And I would like you to come with me.”
My heart sank. I felt like I was going to get sick.
“I know it’s a surprise to you as it was a surprise to me, so you can sleep on it and let me know tomorrow.”
“Wow. That’s great, Admiral,” I said. I was speechless.
I left the office that day knowing I had to make a decision that night on my future. Stay in the Navy, go with the Admiral as his aide to Norfolk, and then go to an aircraft carrier. Or, tell him I wanted to “get out” and attend law school.
I called my dad, a retired Navy Captain, and discussed the dilemma.
How could I disappoint and embarrass the admiral after all we had been through together?
Dad said, “Son, you are a great naval officer and a great aide, but the day you walk out that door and leave the Navy, another great officer will step in, and they won’t miss you. It will be just fine.”
Nothing like the wisdom of my father.
I didn’t sleep at all that night.
The next morning when the Admiral arrived at headquarters, he passed my desk and said, “Good morning, Loop. So, you going with me or what?”
I looked up and said, “Sir, can I talk to you in your office,”
I walked into his office, shutting the door on the way in.
“Have a seat,” he said.
“Admiral, I am very honored that you have asked me to go to Norfolk with you, but I need to be completely honest with you. I want to go to law school next year.”
He looked up at me. “You mean get out of the Navy? Are you sure?” he said.
“Can I talk you out of it?”
“Are you sure about that?”
He looked up at me.
“Ok, Mark, what can I do to help you?”
My last fitness report
I remember that day more than any of our days together. I was floored.
In the end, he did help me out. He wrote me several glowing recommendations to various law schools. He told his relief and the incoming admiral that I was staying there and that he really needed me to “train” him and help him. The incoming admiral agreed.
Several months later, we had his Change of Command, and he and Janie left for Norfolk.
On my last written evaluation from the Admiral, when he knew I was leaving active service, transitioning to the Navy Reserve, and going to law school, he wrote me an incredible eye watering final evaluation. There was no mention in my evaluation of my decision to leave the active service and go to law school. Instead, he stated never before had he seen a young officer who so clearly demonstrated the qualities of a future commanding officer and a Navy flag officer.
Thirteen years later, as a Commander in the Navy Reserve, I was selected to be the Commanding Officer of the Jacksonville Reserve P-3 squadron. I went on the command two other units and was promoted to the rank of Navy Captain. None of this would have happened if the Admiral had given me “bad paper."
In May of 2015, I retired after 30 years of service, six on active duty and 24 in the Reserves. While I did not get selected to be an Admiral, I had a highly successful reserve career and an aviation law practice as a partner in a law firm and an in-house attorney at two major aviation corporations.
He could have fired me. Instead, he asked how he could help me. And he did just that.
That was authentic leadership. That was one more thing I learned from the Admiral.
Always take care of your people and do all you can to give them a promising future.