Updated: May 16, 2022
Here are the six things the Admiral told me about his expectations when I started the job. This is a short story about that initial meeting.
This is a blog about leadership from the perspective of a lawyer and a naval aviator.
This is the fourth 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 have discussed my lifelong learning journey in my previous posts "It all began as a Loop," "What's a Loop?" and my initial post "Planes and the law."
The first flag guidance
The first week on the job as an admiral's aide, Admiral Johnson called me into his office and shut the door. "Take a seat, Lieutenant," he said. My predecessor Lieutenant Samuel Jackson had detached and "departed the pattern," so I was on my own or "flying solo" as we would say in the Navy. I sat down in one of the black leather chairs in front of his desk. After some small talk, the Admiral's tone changed. He gave me several nuggets of guidance.
First, he said: “You are going to do a lot of things and see a lot of things in this job. Many are going to be great, and some are going to be not-so-great. Many will be tasks well above your pay grade, and many will be tasks well below your pay grade. I'm going to need you to perform exceptionally well doing the great tasks and equally well executing the not-so-great tasks. You understand that, Lieutenant?" he said.
"Yes, sir, I understand that." At the time, I had no idea what I would see or do, but I knew that the correct answer was an affirmative one.
I would quickly come to understand this guidance in the weeks ahead.
Be on time
"I like to be on time. So, let's never be late. You understand that also?" He continued.
"Yes sir," I stated.
"In this job as the Loop, you are an extension of my eyes and ears. You come with me wherever I go, including classified briefings. You see and hear what I see and hear, and you remember it," he said.
"Whatever you see and hear is my business, the business of a Navy admiral, and no one else's business," he said.
"Yes sir," I said.
Tell me what I need to hear
"I will trust your judgment and rely on you to tell me the truth," he stated. "Almost everyone else in this building will agree with me because I am the admiral. When we are in this office behind closed doors, you can always 'request permission to speak freely,' and then we take off the stars and bars, and we speak to each other man-to-man. I will also rely on you to keep me out of trouble. Got it?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," I said. He wore the silver stars on his uniform collar. I wore the silver lieutenant bars or "railroad tracks" as they were known.
"We can disagree and debate behind these closed doors, but once I make a decision and you walk out of my office, the discussion is over. My decision is made. You support and execute that decision. Got it?" he stated.
"Yes sir," I said.
The stars belong to the admiral
“Now, these stars are mine," he said, pointing to the silver star insignia on his uniform collar. "You can use them, but use them sparingly, and if and only when you have to. You understand that, Loop?"
"Yes sir, I understand," I said.
"Good," he said. "Do these things, and we are going to get along just fine."
This conversation lasted less than 15 minutes, but it was the most important conversation of my nearly 18 months as a Loop and one of the most important in my life as an aviator, a lawyer, and a leader.
Admirals can be pretty direct. Here is a summary of that direction:
Perform every task with excellence, even those that are "below your pay grade."
Be on time.
Keep confidential work matters to yourself.
Have the courage to tell the emporer without clothes the truth.
You can agree to disagree, but always support the final decisions of your boss.
Be judicious in leveraging your boss's name.
I will expand on all of these lessons in the posts ahead.
In my next post, I will talk about knowing your boss and how your success depends in part on that whether you like it or not.