The 27th Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vern Clark was conducting a meeting at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 when five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the building killing 184 men, women and children. In the moments after the crash, Admiral Clark demonstrated how to lead. “In a crisis, we need to know who we are and what we believe, then we know what to do,” said Clark. “We had lost a bunch of people and we needed to make sure someone was wrapping their arms around them. But our mission was to set up a command center. We had an obligation to 400,000 sailors out there, and it would be unsatisfactory to say they don’t have a headquarters.”
Speaking to community leaders at a Lifework Leadership Retreat in Fort Lauderdale on October 9, Admiral Clark said, “I worked in a position where being second best was a terminal disease.” During his 37-year career, Admiral Vern Clark ably led the Navy during the opening stages of the Global War on Terrorism, developed innovative naval strategies for employing the fleet and put into practice personnel policies that improved the quality of life for Sailors and their families.
Leadership in crisis
Referencing a recent article in Forbes Magazine entitled “Why Leadership Development Programs Are Not Working,” Clark said, “Leadership is in crisis… It’s not the theoretical. It’s the practical. Being unwilling to experience discomfort and risk… people are learning what to do, but they don’t do it.”
According to Clark, “The challenge is one of emotional courage. That means standing apart from others without separating ourselves from others. It’s the difference between what we know and what we do as leaders. It means speaking up when others are silent. And also knowing how to speak up without creating immediate animosity. As Christians, that ought to be top on the list.”
When asked about one of his most difficult decisions, Admiral Clark recalled the October 12, 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden Harbor, Yemen, when suicide bombers detonated an explosive-laden boat directly against the side of the ship while it was refueling. The resulting blast killed 17 sailors, wounded 37 others and tore a hole forty by sixty feet in the ship’s hull. “Whenever something bad happens, they have to have someone to hang, and I would not scapegoat the captain. Was this something the captain should foresee? It was clearly an act of war, and I would never say he did anything wrong,” Clark recalled.
He said many leaders today do not have the moral courage to do what is right. “The world is coming apart at the seams because we can’t talk about values. Credibility is the foundation of leadership and they can’t be credible if they don’t know how to tell the truth,” he insisted.
In providing practical things leaders should do, Clark suggested, “The first thing is to define reality. When there is a problem, leaders start doing the happy talk rather than dealing with reality and confronting it.”
To be credible, he said it is also important that leaders really know what they believe and fulfill that vision. “A young officer once asked me, when did you get to be so confident? And I replied, I don’t know when I wasn’t. The reason is that I knew what I believed.” Clark said this helped him when he “had to make the big, hard decisions.”
He also said it is important to create an environment where people will prosper. “The Navy is a big place. There are a lot of people to lead. First go to the Scriptures. It says create apostles. Who is going to succeed us? The environment must be values based. Know what people believe first and what they’ll perpetuate.”
One area where Clark faced a challenge was in retention and attrition. “Retention was in the tank and attrition was worse. During our first meeting with all of the admirals in the Navy, the first thing we had to do was face reality… That is when I first discussed with them Covenant Leadership. These men and women took a pledge to the Nation; what did we promise in return? I was just planting seeds. This was revolutionary thinking. It was creating apostles.”
As a final thought, Admiral Clark shared a verse he recalled during one of his hardest times. With hurricane force winds barreling down on him while he was at command of a ship in Chesapeake Bay, Clark was in 38 feet of water when the ship drew 32 and 120 mph winds were causing him to drift toward a sand bar while at full speed. “I put my elbow on the rail and prayed, ‘Lord if this is what you have for me, give me wisdom. If it be your will, get me through this without killing someone.’ What came to mind was ‘I will give you peace,’ and I put it in His hands. That hurricane should have run me aground, but now I know he was preparing me for things God had for me later.”
Serving the Greater Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach areas, Lifework Leadership is building a generation of transformed business leaders who cross vocational, denominational and racial lines to transform our homes, companies, churches, and ultimately our city. For information visit www.lifeworkleadership.org/SouthFlorida.
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