Updated: Oct 21, 2022
As an employee, loyalty to your boss and employer is important. As an admiral’s aide, in addition to knowing the admiral better than anybody else, it was my job to respect his authority and be unquestionably loyal -- always by his side. It was also my job to make my bosses look good. That included protecting them and steering them away from trouble.
In the Navy, I learned to respect the admiral’s positional authority. That has served me well in the corporate world and the law firm. This is easy when the boss might be the best leader you ever worked for. On the other hand, it is very difficult if the boss lacks leadership. I have worked for both type of leaders in the Navy, law firms, and major corporations. Regardless, you respect the stars or the position even if you have little respect for the person.
These are some lessons I learned about loyalty to your boss and employer that I have used throughout the years. First, always support and be loyal to your boss. Second, protect the bosses six. In Naval aviation, the six is your tail or what is coming up behind you, perhaps unexpectedly, to shoot you down. Third, you can disagree with your boss behind closed doors, but never in public.
Loyalty to your boss
I was fortunate to work for two admirals who had integrity and were well respected. I worked hard and took care of them, and in turn, they took care of me. That's how loyalty and leadership should work. If you take care of your people, you'll find they will work hard for you, protect your six and cover for you. Most importantly, your team will be able to achieve incredible results. They work hard for you because they want to, not because they have to!
As a loop, you have only one boss and one priority. Unwavering loyalty is critical. With the leadership and authority vested in the admiral, comes the responsibility to make difficult decisions, the outcomes of which will not please everyone. When a tough decision or problem lands on the admiral's desk, many other intelligent people have been unable to solve the problem. Simply put, they might not have the authority to do so, or on the other hand, perhaps they lack the wisdom or experience to choose the best path forward, so they punt up the chain of command to the admiral.
The admiral is in a position of command and authority. Those in command make tough decisions. The admiral issues orders to carry out those decisions. These decisions can be life and death decisions in which the boss is placing young warfighters in harm’s way.
There could also be much simpler decisions, such as sending a detachment out of the country over the Christmas holiday, which could be met with some consternation by some Sailors and their families. The admiral can extend carrier battle groups on station deployment for several months after an arduous six-month deployment. They can cancel periods of leave due to emergent situations or an international crisis. They can send Sailors and Marines at a moment’s notice around the world, requiring them to miss birthdays, the birth of their children, anniversaries, and the death of their parents. That's part of their job and that of any leader - making the tough decisions and being responsible and accountable for those decisions.
Disagree behind closed doors
As an admiral’s aide, unwavering loyalty still allowed me to take “leave and liberty” to disagree with the admiral behind closed doors. I did this carefully and diplomatically, always in a closed-door session with the Admiral. He might ask me what I thought, or I “requested permission to speak freely.” Loyalty demanded that I tell the truth. It is easy to fall into the "emperor without clothes" scenario and always parrot back to a boss what you think they want to hear. The harder position to take it is to provide good honest advice that the boss might not want to hear.
Once I spoke my mind and the Admiral made a decision and issued an order, I walked out of his office and supported the decision unequivocally.
When others confided in me that they thought the decision was misplaced, misguided, “the dumbest thing they had ever heard,” or simply outright wrong, there was no room for debate with such pushback.
"Mark, what in the world is he thinking? I mean, we can do this, but it just doesn't make any sense at all," a senior staff officer said.
I would state: "Well, sir, you surely are entitled to your opinion, but the Admiral has made up his mind, and it's time to move out with execution. I would encourage you to speak directly with him if you have any questions."
It became evident that in my position, I would be completely loyal to the boss. I was not going to entertain the bellyaching or the criticism of others with respect to what he had decided to do. Once everyone knew where I stood about loyalty to the boss, I rarely heard additional complaints.
Taking care of the boss and the "Jax Mafia"
Admirals are smart. The selection process to be an admiral is intense. Many have been in combat situations. They have flown attack aircraft, and have commanded air wings, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, and Navy battle groups. They are typically book smart or politically savvy. Usually, both. They see the “big picture.”
However, admirals are human, and humans make mistakes. I was fortunate to work for two great admirals. They did not need much babysitting. Some of my colleagues were not so fortunate.
Admiral Johnson was early to bed and early to rise. The life of a social event and a charming man, but not one to stay until the end or drink heavily.
Admiral Simpson was a little more of a hard roller. He had a small close circle of good Naval aviator friends and true shipmates. When we traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, it was typical for him to stay up late with that gang, perhaps with a few drinks and a few choice cigars, but he did so smartly.
My great friend and staff Navy JAG lawyer Commander Hank Molinengo referred to this group as the “Jax P-3 Bubbas” or “Jax Mafia.” Before we left Maine on a trip to Jacksonville, Hank would say to me loudly, “Fava, keep an eye on and take care of the Admiral. You know he will get together with all his P-3 bubbas and that Jax Mafia.” Then we would both laugh loudly.
Hank had originally talked me into taking the aide job and later convinced me to go to law school. He would later become an Admiral and, after retiring from the Navy, a Dean at George Washington School of Law.
"Make sure I am up on time, tomorrow," the Admiral would say at the end of a long day when I knew he was headed out to see his buddies.
“Aye aye, Admiral,” I would say. "Good night, sir."
I would get amused when he did stay up too late. The following day at 0630, he might be running a few minutes late, and I would gently rap on his room door.
“How do I look?” he would ask when he opened the door in his dress choker whites as we were headed to a squadron Change of Command ceremony where he was the guest speaker. I would visually inspect his uniform from head to toe. Strong smell of mouthwash. Bloodshot eyes.
“Wings are a little crooked, sir. And let’s get another hit of the Visine. Otherwise, excellent, sir.” I would level his pilot wings of gold insignia on his white uniform. I handed him a bottle of Visine that I had in my briefcase. I would grab his white gloves, military sword, his cover, and the speech binder, and off we would go.
Loyalty is important. As an aide, I knew loyalty was something the admiral deserved and expected. That included my disagreeing behind closed doors and supporting his decisions. It also meant making sure he was always seen in the best light. I have utilized these practices in my civilian jobs and as a follower and a boss over the years.
In my next post, I will discuss loyalty in terms of how one aspect of my job was to be the eyes, ears, and conscience of the admiral. I was in place to make sure they did not make a dumb decision, do something unethical or unlawful, or put themselves in a place where they probably should not be.
In 1991, for Admiral Simpson, that place was the annual Tailhook conference at the Las Vegas Hilton and his invitation to the same. That conference was an inflection point in Naval Aviation. Read on to hear how that played out.......