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Using the stars, sparingly

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

As an Admiral's aide, I had one mission. Flawless execution of the admiral's goals and daily schedule. In this post, I will discuss using the admiral's stars to get that mission done.

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

As an aviator, I flew with a crew of 12 around the world in a P-3 Orion with a defined mission on each flight. That mission might be searching for and tracking Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic, flying a grueling 10-hour counter-narcotics missions in the Caribbean, or supporting the carrier battle group in the Mediterranean.

In every job, there is a goal or mission that defines success. There are many techniques to accomplish that mission.

This is story about rental cars and getting my way to insure short-term achievement of daily goals and long-term achievement of success.

Using the loop

Most days I did not have to use the admiral's stars because as an aide, I wore the loop. One of the benefits of being a Loop is that you are always wearing the loop when in uniform. Those in all branches of the military know what the loop signifies.

The loop was an incredibly powerful tool that made it such that I typically did not have to use the Admiral’s stars. Its bright gold braid was highly visible, and it displayed to others my sole purpose in life. It demonstrated to all officers the need to be responsive to me as a very young lieutenant, even if they outranked me by many pay grades and years.

Most of the senior officers with whom I dealt daily did outrank me. By far, I was the most junior officer on the admiral's staff. I also knew I had the possibility of running across many of them years later without the protection of the loop. They would remember me for sure.

Using the stars

There were, however, some occasions when wearing the loop in uniform did not seem to be entirely effective. At other times, when I was in my flight suit or civilian clothes or was dealing with someone on the telephone, I could not benefit from the loop's visibility. Finally, I could also be in full uniform wearing the loop and still be dealing with someone who just did not “get it."

It was occasions like these when I needed to use the Admiral's stars. This was especially true if the ignorance or arrogance of the person I was dealing with was preventing me from successful execution of my mission. Other times, I just needed to tell people what "the admiral preferred," and that subtle use of the stars accomplished the task at hand. Remember, my mission every day for every waking moment, from sunrise to sunset and long thereafter, was to make the Admiral's life transparently flawless and exceptionally easy so he could execute his mission. Flag Officers have enough to worry about. They hire aides to take care of all the details and logistics of their daily lives. That was my sole purpose in life as the Loop.

It is imperative when an admiral's aide is giving clear direction that those receiving that direction follow it down to every detail with no deviations or no exceptions. The aide's plan depends on things going as planned. At times, well-intentioned people would try to deviate from my direction, thinking they were doing the Admiral a favor or perhaps making my job easier. Unfortunately, that is not what they were doing. They were deviating from my plan.

It was for occasions like those when I needed to use the stars. I could use them as a gentle persuasion technique. For more challenging situations, I could also use the stars in a more passionate display of force, like Whac-a-Mole. I really preferred the former, but at times, I had to employ the latter when the circumstances warranted such.

Rental cars and upgrades

We flew in and out of Andrews Air Force Base for business trips to Washington, DC, many times on Navy aircraft. For ground transportation, I would arrange in advance with the local preferred rental car agency to have a vehicle ready and waiting for us when the aircraft landed and pulled up to Base Operations there. I would be the driver, of course. Online reservations were not available at this on-base location. In reserving a rental car, I would call in advance and be very specific about the type of vehicle I wanted. Nothing flashy. Nothing with just two doors. Nothing huge. No red sports car. No convertible.

We did not want to be seen in uniform in any of those vehicles on a business trip pulling up to the Pentagon. Perception mattered and always does when you are a highly visible leader. More on that later.

“I want a four-door, full-size sedan, preferably a dark color,” I would state when making the reservation. In DC I got to know the rental car clerk named Ali. He was a first-generation immigrant and father of five. He had come to America much like my ancestors did initially through New York City, seeking a better life for his family. Ali was the kind of hard-working immigrant who has made this country great. He was highly dependable, very responsive, and always smiling. His English was at times broken. In my job as an aide, as in all others, relationships mattered, so in addition to always getting names, I established relationships with those whom I would frequently deal and came to rely on.

US Navy C-12

It was on our fourth trip to Andrews with my having made a good friend in Ali when it did not go as planned. As the small military C-12 was taxiing up to Base Operations, I was looking outside the aircraft to identify the location of the rental car. As an aide, I was always thinking about the next 30 minutes and always looking ahead. I saw Ali standing next to a massive, white, four-door Cadillac Lincoln Continental. He saw my face pressed up against the aircraft window and began waving to me, pointing to the car, and enthusiastically giving me two thumbs up.

Surely that could not be our car, I thought to myself. As the plane taxied into the designated spot, Ali jumped in the Lincoln and drove it up to the plane. He popped open the trunk. The trunk alone was about the size of the previous cars we had rented there. He proudly opened the doors of the vehicle.

As we deplaned and walked to the car, the admiral’s slight displeasure was apparent as he glanced at me, but nonetheless, he continued to get into the back passenger seat of the Cadillac. I quickly got the luggage in the trunk per my normal process (mine first, his second), rounded the front of the vehicle, and got to the driver’s side door to shake Ali's hand. He proudly asked: "How do you like the car, Lieutenant Mark? You have been such good customer and friend, I upgraded you to a fine American-made Cadillac, for you and Admiral Ted.”

He called the Admiral "Ted" because Admiral Johnson had thanked him on previous trips, shook his hand, and said: "I'm Ted." That was of course the nickname his best friends called him although his real name was Claron E. Johnson, III.

Deciding not to embarrass Ali, I told him I would give him a call when we got to our visiting quarters at the Washington Navy Yard in the next thirty minutes. I also quickly asked him if he had any other vehicles available that afternoon.

“Of course, we do, Lieutenant Mark. We have many, many vehicles, but for you and Navy Admiral Ted, today we have the Cadillac," he said, giving me a single thumbs up and a big smile.

It became clear to me what had happened. Ali, thinking he was doing us a favor, had upgraded us to a larger vehicle. He had deviated from the plan and my direction, all in good faith and well-intentioned, of course. However, that car he provided us resulted in a level of visibility that we did not want, especially when we were staying at the Washington Navy Yard Visiting Flag Quarters.

The Visiting Flag Quarters or "VFQ" was the exclusive lodging location only for flag officers. We stayed there often and were typically the lowest-ranking flag officer there as the place was usually overflowing with three-star Vice Admirals and Marine Corps Brigadier Generals. It was not the place to drive up to in a white caddy as a one-star admiral. Most one-star admirals did not even have flag aides in Washington because one-stars were a dime a dozen there. Not to mention, the VFQ was a few doors away from the official living quarters of the Chief of Naval Operations. Regardless, we did not want to be seen in DC or anywhere on an official business trip in a Cadillac.

I quickly got the Admiral to "our" room. At the VFQ, we got a two-bedroom suite. I found that a little awkward initially, but I later came to realize it was just part of the job and getting to know everything about your boss.

Gentle persuasion using the stars

After getting him situated, I drove back over to the Navy side of Andrews Air Force Base to swap out the car. Once there, I met Ali and told him I needed a smaller car. He again insisted, "Oh no, Lieutenant Mark, you got a complimentary upgrade."

"That is so very kind and thoughtful of you Ali, but I do not want the upgrade," I stated.

"No charge. It is a complimentary upgrade. I don't do this just for you Lieutenant Mark, but I do this for Admiral Ted, a great American," Ali stated.

After several attempts to explain that I did not want the Cadillac in spite of his thoughtful gesture, it was time to use the stars gently. Ali was not listening to me, although he was incredibly well-intentioned. I had to get another car quickly and get back to the quarters.

"Thank you very much, Ali, but the Admiral does not want this car. He is set in his ways. I need another one now." Looking disappointed, Ali finally said, "Okay, I do what I need to do to make the Admiral happy."

It was already late by the time I got the nondescript four-door, dark blue Ford Taurus, “full size” sedan back to the Washington Naval Yard. We had an early morning departure of zero six hundred the next morning. Per the schedule, the Admiral knew I would meet him in front of the Flag Quarters at that time.

The next morning, I pulled the car around and parked it near the front of the building at 0555, making sure I did not take the closest curbside parking spot. I stopped the car far enough in front of the exit sidewalk, so I did not block the sidewalk.

When at the Washington Navy Yard, I never knew when a three or four-star might walk out and want to use the sidewalk or have their official black, flag transportation vehicle pull up. I knew our place, and seniority mattered. I also knew that day there were a host of three stars staying at the VFQ because I had gotten the list of guests in advance and briefed the admiral on who else was staying there. He always needed to know who we might run into.

On cue at 0559, the Admiral walked out of the quarters, looked at me, smiled, and winked.

"Good morning, sir," I said as I stood by the open door, giving him a salute.

"Nice car, Loop. Much better. Make sure you tell Ali that I really appreciate this," he said.

As I shut the admiral’s door on the passenger side of the car, I stated, "Aye, Aye, sir."

I never received an upgrade again with Ali on any of our future trips. I made sure I let the rental car agency manager know that "Ali was the best" and that he always provided exceptional customer service. I also made sure that before every arrival on future trips, I called and confirmed verbally with him the car type and “no upgrade.”

He said, “I know that Lieutenant Mark. You are the only gold customer who does not want upgrade.”

We both laughed. I loved Ali! He never failed me.

More direct use of the stars

While that rental car deviation with Ali required a gentle use of the stars, there were other instances when my use of the stars was necessary and more forceful. I had to use the stars to ensure success smartly and in a measured fashion depending upon the circumstances and the person involved. I also used the stars to get access for my pre-meeting reconnaissance into various briefing rooms (when access was initially denied to me) and to obtain copies of documents or the admiral's personal items that I needed to do my job, but could not otherwise get my hands on without the use of the stars.

For example, I always requested and got lodging room keys in advance of our arrival. The Admiral did not wait in line at the registration counter because our schedule was tight, and the line could be long. Also, I usually walked him into the lodging using the closest entry door to his room, which was generally not near the registration desk. If a front desk clerk refused to give me his room key in advance because the clerk needed to see his ID or it was "against policy," I would explain to the clerk that I was his aide, and I needed the key. If I were further denied the key, I would play the stars.

"Look, you do not seem to understand, the admiral wants his key in advance, and has asked me to get it," I would state.

"Sir, we are not allowed to do that per our policy," the clerk might state.

I would then state, "Well, I called in advance and spoke with Ms. Whitman yesterday, and she told me that I would be provided the key. I do not have a lot of time and am trying not to escalate this, but I am prepared to do so. So, please give me the key or call your manager now." I always took names for current or future reference. I wrote down names and phone numbers in my handheld portfolio called "the brain."

I got the key. "Thank you very much, I really appreciate your help here," I would say with the key in hand. There was never a need to make a permanent enemy as I might need their help again in the future.

Another example might be my request to get a "read-ahead" copy of a presentation in advance of it being shown to the Admiral or to have access to a conference room or briefing room so I would be able to brief the Admiral about the room set-up before we got there. I might have requested an advance copy of a brief from the "presentation keeper," who would tell me, "Sir, I cannot give that to you because Commander Burwell said I could not release it to anyone."

My response would be," Well, the Admiral is not 'just anyone,' and he wants it in advance. I am confident Commander Burwell would agree that we need to get it to the Admiral. Otherwise, I can call the Commander right now."

I got the read-ahead copy. "Thank you very much, I really appreciate your help here and know the Admiral does also," I would say. "See you tomorrow!"

My advance surveillance of any conference room was also necessary and important. It allowed me to give direct guidance about how the Admiral might prefer the conference room to be configured, including the seating arrangement. More importantly, it would allow me to brief the Admiral before we got there about the room setup. If I could not visit the room in advance, I would have others explain the room's setup in detail to me in advance on the phone. It was part of my job as the Loop to know all the details of where we were going before we got there.

Lessons Learned

From the first week on the job, the Admiral was clear to me about his priorities in terms of work expectations, punctuality, and confidentiality. I added this direction to my already growing knowledge base of knowing the boss and my success in my job.

With every new job and every new boss, make sure you have a clear understanding of your boss's expectations. If the boss does not provide that insight, ask for time on the boss's calendar to go over those expectations, so the foundation is clear.

The Admiral gave me license to use his stars as implied authority to get things done and as a means to accomplish the mission. With the granting of the license, he also told me that I was to use any such implied authority judiciously and sparingly.

In the civilian and corporate world, I have found many occasions likewise to use my boss's authority and name to get things done. Admittedly, I am cautious in doing so, and in lawyer-speak, the license is typically an express license for a limited purpose, not a more broadly implied one. In other words, I tell my boss first the issue I am working on and that I would like to use his name, and I tell him why. Once the boss consents to my so doing, then I can use his name accordingly.

Finally, with respect to that white Cadillac, knowing what was important to the Admiral and having situational awareness, I knew I had to swap it out. He did not have to tell me to do so. I did it because I knew it was important to the Admiral and perceptions mattered.

During my days as a Loop, I used the stars when I had to do so, but I did so diplomatically and sparingly. It became almost second nature.

In my major corporation, one of our most senior executive engineers has a monthly meeting with a cross functional group of mid level and junior engineering personnel. He uses the meeting for information sharing and to address rumors. He tells the group that anything he says in that meeting, the attendees can repeat once they leave the meeting. He encourages them that if they hear anything that is inconsistent with what he put out, they can counter it by playing the "Greg said" card as in stating, "No, that's not accurate. Greg said . . . . "

This post alludes to the importance of details. My next post will discuss much more about details. Details mattered then, and details matter now. Details matter in everything you do in your job.

In my next post, I will tell some of my favorite sea stories, including why Admiral Johnson "relieved" first aide. It's all in the details.

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