Leaders remain cool when failure seems imminent
Updated: Jul 16, 2022
As an admiral’s aide, there were many times when failure seemed imminent. As a pilot, you never want to be in an inverted spin. When you are upside down, spinning violently in circles, you have to keep your cool. It is incredibly disorienting. In flight school, when I was upside down in the helicopter dunker, submerged and sinking in cold water, in full flight gear with black goggles on, following the survival exit procedures were critical. Panic can set in quickly. Remaining calm and flawlessly executing the proper procedures were a must.
While serving as an aide for two different admirals, there were many days when imminent failure seemed minutes away, and I did not know the recovery procedure. When that happened, remaining calm when faced with significant career-ending adversity was critical to a successful recovery.
This is a blog about leadership from the perspective of a lawyer and a naval aviator. This is a story about when things did not go well, and I needed to remain calm.
Although a pilot and Naval aviator, Admiral Johnson was a sailor. He loved all aspects of the Navy. He loved the sound of the ocean and the smell of saltwater. He looked like a salty admiral with bushy eyebrows, and a rough, dry, scaly face. His teeth were stained from years of drinking black coffee. I inherited my love of the sea from my father, a Navy Captain, and the Admiral!
Many times, at the end of a long day, Admiral Johnson would call a fellow naval officer or sailor, "shipmate." I learned that the term "shipmate" was a term of affection used to express camaraderie and appreciation. As far as P-3 naval aviators, he would call my colleagues “shipmates” even though many of us had never spent more than a couple weeks on a Navy ship. That did not matter to the Admiral. As long as he liked you and you had done a good job, he would shake your hand and say: "Thanks a lot, shipmate," or “Great job, shipmate," or “We'll see you next time, shipmate!"
Let’s go to the marina
When we traveled to a Navy base, we would often have some free time in our schedule. We did not list it as “free time” on his published schedule, but instead as “admin,” The Admiral would love to drive by the Navy base marina and look at the sailboats because that's what sailors do. We love looking at sailboats and marinas and the ocean just as much as we love looking at aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers, and cruisers.
On one occasion, we left cool, crisp Brunswick, Maine, and flew into Norfolk Naval Air Station for an event the next day. It was a sweltering summer day. We were wearing our khaki uniforms on the small Navy C-12 transport aircraft, a dual propeller Beechcraft Super King Air.
Back then, the Navy khaki uniform was made of a fabric known as “CNT” or Certified Navy Twill. It was 100 % polyester and was supposed to hold its press better than 100% cotton. While it did that, it was hot as hell. We might just as well have been wearing a heavy-duty, green 55-gallon trash bag. The original CNT version was later banned from shipboard wear because it could burn quickly, emit toxic smoke, and melt like plastic on your skin. I did not like that uniform!
I had reserved an official white Navy Chrysler K Car sedan for this trip. When we arrived, the ground crew drove the sedan up to the airplane as the aircraft’s port side prop sputtered to a stop. The pilots kept the starboard engine running because we were a “drop and go” flight.
Before exiting the plane, the Admiral popped his head in the cockpit and thanked the young Navy pilots, slapping them on their shoulders.
“Thanks for the ride, shipmates,” he said to the Navy pilots. We got off the aircraft on the port side after the ladder was dropped.
I got the admiral and his luggage in the car. He jumped in the back seat as I was going to be the driver. The admiral’s one-star flag proudly flew on a chrome yardarm attached to the front bumper. It was still daylight, but the headlights were turned on.
The blue flag with the white star flapped in the wind as we drove off. We drove several blocks, when the admiral said, “Hey Loop, pull over behind the gas station.”
I knew the routine at this point. I pulled over behind the gas station. I flipped the headlights off, jumped out of the car, pulled the admiral’s yardarm off the vehicle, rolled the flag around the post, and tossed it in the backseat. The admiral got out of the rear seat and jumped in the right front passenger seat.
The admiral looked at me and said, "Loop, we’ve got some time. Why don't we take a drive by the marina."
“Sure thing, Admiral,” I said as I headed for the base marina.
I always planned ahead by reviewing a base map and knowing exactly where the marina was at any Navy base we visited.
When we got to the marina, I slowly drove along the gravel road that ran in front of the marina, perpendicular to the floating docks and sailboats. We had no specific purpose, and no words were spoken. Just two sailors admiring the boats there. There were some beautiful “barges” and sailboats.
As we got to the last dock and the end of the marina, I started to turn around by cutting the wheel hard to the left to make a U-turn in the front-wheel-drive car. The power steering groaned as the front wheels drove over the edge of the boat trailer ramp that descended into the water. Boaters used the ramp to backup trailers with boats into the water. The ramp was elevated about four to six inches off of the gravel road in some places. The car’s front end rode over the beginning of the concrete boat slab ramp that extended into the water.
As we were gazing at the boats going about five mph, a loud thud came from the car’s right front. The car stopped. I heard the right front tire scratching and spinning. The car’s undercarriage had landed on the boat ramp leaving the right front wheel suspended in the air about two inches from the gravel.
With the chassis stuck on the cement ramp, the car was going nowhere. We were stuck. This was imminent failure with no recovery procedure.
We were still in our summer khaki CNT uniforms, the admiral sporting his stars on his collar, and the car was stuck several inches from the water on the passenger side with what appeared to be an incoming tide lapping at the tires. We didn’t have a cell phone back then.
Although we were entitled to drive the car wherever he wanted on the Navy base, it was technically "For Official Use Only." An afternoon leisurely drive by the marina could be considered somewhat of a “frolic and detour,” not really official business, and not the most appropriate use of the vehicle. This was not an ideal situation.
The Admiral rarely cussed. “Damn, Mark, we’re stuck," he grimaced.
We carefully got out of the vehicle and surveyed the right front wheel. The car’s chassis behind the right front wheel was resting firmly on the cement.
At this time of imminent failure, I noticed a fit gentleman in tight red nylon short shorts and a yellow tank top, emblazoned with “Semper Fi” in red letters, jogging by the marina. He was curiously glancing our way. I am sure he noted the near-panic look on my face. He was right out of central casting for a U.S. Marine.
Marine jogged up to us, dripping in sweat, put his hands on his hips, and stated: "Looks like you gentlemen might be in need of a little assistance. Sirs, do you mind if I help you?"
"That would be great, sir," I stated as the sweat beads appeared on the top of my forehead. I suspect Marine was a senior enlisted Marine because he gave me an odd look due to my use of the word “sir.”
As a young college ROTC midshipman, when I made the fatal mistake of calling the Gunnery Sergeant “sir,” when he was yelling at me, he barked back even louder: “Don’t call me ‘sir’ midshipman, I work for a living!” Note to self. Never call an enlisted Marine: “sir.”
Marine looked at the Admiral and stated, "Admiral, if you don't mind stepping aside, perhaps over that way,” he pointed, “we’ll take care of this." The Admiral was a very smart man. He knew his place, and how to take direction when appropriate to do so. He took a stroll towards one of the nearby piers.
Marine just happened to see a weathered 4 x 4 section of wood about four feet long in the grass about forty feet from the car. He jogged over, grabbed the 4 x 4, and commenced to jam it forcefully under the dangling right front tire. Water was lapping at his fluorescent green running shoes, but that did not distract him.
Marine then said, “Get into the vehicle, sir, turn on the engine, and slowly put her in drive.”
I did as instructed. Marine remained in front of the car, just inches from the right front bumper, pushing the 4 x 4 under the tire as he told me to push the accelerator.
Slowly, but surely, I pressed the accelerator as Marine crouched down at the bumper nodding at me while jamming the 4 x 4 under the tire. I heard the tire begin to twist and turn on the wood. I could barely see the top of his high and tight haircut. He gave me a confident thumbs up. The car lurched forward, the 4 x 4 creaked, and I slammed on the brakes making sure not to hit Marine. The right front tire dropped off the 4 x 4 onto solid gravel, freeing the chassis from the ramp’s edge. Marine never flinched. He just stepped to the side in the water.
With the air conditioning laboring on high cool in the recirculation mode, I steered left to clear the water and jumped out of the car to open the admiral’s door. Before I could get there, the admiral jumped in the right front seat. Like me, he was ready to get the heck out of there.
“Admiral, it looks like you are good to go, sir. Have a fine Navy day,” Marine said.
Before the Admiral got in the car, he looked at Marine, shook his hand, and said: "Thank you, Marine!"
“Honored to be of service, sir,” Marine said.
That was it. I never had a chance to say thank you to him. And while the Admiral clearly could have called the Marine “shipmate,” you never call Marines “shipmates.” You call Marines, “Marine.”
Marine didn't waste any time. The task at hand was finished. Mission accomplished. He turned and started sprinting away. No questions asked. No names were exchanged, but a perfect example of why the Marine Corps’ motto is “Semper Fidelis,” - Always Faithful.
As we drove away from the marina down the main road, we headed towards Marine as he continued running on the side of the black asphalt in soaking wet shoes and socks, in the suffocating, humid, 95 degrees heat. It was about 105 degrees with the humidity index.
As we approached him from behind, he was right outside the car’s passenger side. Before we could even pass him, he slightly raised his left hand and waved gently. He didn’t need to see us coming. He sensed us approaching like any good Marine. He quickly shot a glance at me with a slight partial grin as we passed him. I knew exactly what he was thinking. “I got your back, Loop.”
“That was not good,” the Admiral stated as we drove towards our Quarters, "but you can keep the job. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, Loop. And today, you got lucky, very lucky.”
He laughed. I did not.
“Thank you, Admiral. Sorry about that,” I said. The car’s air condition felt wonderful as the CNTs slowly lost the retained heat and moisture.
I love the Marines. I never saw the Norfolk Marine again, but I will never forget his steely-eyed look and what he did for me.
Over my months as a Loop, there were many occasions when failure seemed imminent. In such circumstances in civilian life, it is easy for the anxiety and stress to kick in, causing a loss of attentional control and situational awareness. Loss of situational awareness and your temper are never productive. Your ability to recognize the situation, remain calm, and execute a recovery will allow you to channel that anxiety and nervousness into a successful outcome.
When our car was stuck at the marina, I was able to remain calm because the Admiral did not lose his temper. No one appreciates a leader who rants and raves and uses profanity. It's hard to call that person a leader, but they are still out there. One of the best bosses I ever had never used profanity when upset about my performance, but instead simply stated: "I am really disappointed in you. I expected more and know you can do better." Now, that's impactful!
I learned that when things don't go as planned, seek and welcome assistance.
I also learned the importance of lending a helping hand to someone in distress. It can be as simple as providing some encouraging words to someone who is nervous giving a presentation or offering to help someone with car trouble. Do not let those opportunities pass you by.
The ones you help will never forget you as I have never forgotten the Norfolk Marine.
My next post will revisit the importance of confidentiality. Some work matters - both personal and professional - are not to be shared with others, perhaps not even your spouse.