In today’s episode, host John Laurito talks with former Commanding Officer of USS GERALD R. FORD turned Speaker, JJ Cumings, about leadership and what it has been like for him to lead a huge number of people serving in the Navy. He also talks about the importance of feedback and communication in an organization, whether big or small.
Capt. Cummings grew up in Sharon, Massachusetts, graduated from Sharon High School in 1985, and earned a B.A. in physics from Bates College in 1990. In 1986, he enlisted in the Navy Reserves and served as a hospital corpsman attached to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion 25th Marines in Topsham, Maine, until 1991. He completed Aviation Officer Candidate School in November of 1991, earned his wings in October 1993, and completed Fleet Replacement training in the F-14A Tomcat in June 1995.
Ashore, Capt. Cummings served as SURGRAD with the VT-19 “Attack Frogs” and as an F-14 Instructor Pilot with the VF-101 “Grim Reapers,” where he graduated from the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) as a Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor. Additionally, he served in the NATO Logistics Branch at HQ Strategic Allied Command Transformation and as Branch Head for Force Rotation in the Global Force Management Cell at US Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. He was selected for training in the Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Program in 2010 and completed nuclear power training in December 2012. In 2016 at Commander Naval Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, he served as the Assistant Chief of Staff for aircraft carrier training, F-35C Air Ship Integration, and Foreign Military Training.
Capt. Cummings served as the Executive Officer of USS NIMITZ (CVN 68) from May 2013 to May 2015 and as the Commanding Officer of USS ANCHORAGE (LPD 23) from September 2015 to December 2016.
He has a Master of Science in Education from Old Dominion University and a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College, where he graduated with Distinction as the President’s Honor Graduate.
Connect with JJ at:
[4:13] JJ’s background story
[7:10] Why does he think he got promoted and got the opportunities he did?
[8:05] Where does his passion for leadership come from?
[10:07] Did he ever feel like he won’t be respected as a leader?
[11:31] Was being a Commanding Officer his goal early on?
[12:56] How did he deal with the challenge of leading a huge number of people?
[17:20] On asking and receiving feedback
[20:08] What’s his perspective on communication as a leader?
[25:23] Abusing power to make his people’s lives better
[28:00] What does leadership need to look like in times of crisis or emergency?
[30:26] What went through his mind when he got shot while flying a plane over Afghanistan?
[34:52] How important is a support system for any leader?
[36:54] Get in touch with JJ
John Over the last two decades, I’ve been on an insatiable quest to learn everything I can about leadership. What makes the best leaders so good? After running companies small and large over the last 20 years, today I speak on stages all across the world to audiences who are interested in that same question. My name is John Laurito. I’m your host, and I invite you to join me on this journey as we explore this very topic and what makes the best leader so good. Welcome to tomorrow’s leader.
John All right. Tomorrow’s leaders. I know I’ve had tons of great guests on this show before, 300 episodes where I’ve got probably 100 plus fantastic guests. This guy is one of the best. And I truly mean that. What an honor it was to talk to this guy. And I’m going to give you I’m going to tell you a lot about his background. You’re going to hear a lot about him. But let me just give a little bit about who he is. This is Captain J.J. Yank Cummins from the United States Navy now. JJ, what a background this guy has. He is the commanding officer of the mighty warship USS Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier. Do you realize how hard it is to become a commanding officer of an aircraft carrier?
John I mean, this is like a fraction of, a fraction of 1% of people that go into the Navy get to that level. It is unbelievable. I mean, we’re talking to the premiere leader. I mean, this guy is just. Wow, nose leadership, to say the least. So let me tell you a little bit about his background. He was a fighter jet pilot, so he flew F-18, a Super Hornets. He served as the executive and commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron 11, the Red Rippers. I wouldn’t want to mess with the Red Rippers. He was also an instructor pilot on F 14 instructor pilot. He was a t a t to c buckeye instructor. And he is a graduate of the Navy fighter weapons school. Do you know what that is for those? We don’t know what that is. That’s Top Gun. He’s a graduate of Topgun. He was also a staff officer at headquarters. Strategic Allied. Allied Command Transformation, basically. Do you know what that is?
John That’s NAITO and U.S. Joint Forces Commands Global Force Management Office at Commander Naval Air Forces. He was the assistant chief of staff for aircraft carrier training and the first technical advisor for Top Gun Maverick. The movie that’s out there now that everybody loves that you saw. He was the first technical advisor. I love this guy’s background so I could go on and on. He’s got one at one heck of a resume and we will put it in the show notes so you can get a chance to read more about him. But I want to get to this interview because it was fantastic. This guy really knows leadership, and shared some great stories. I know you’re going to love him. Here is JJ Cummings.
John All right. Welcome to today’s episode of Tomorrow’s Leader, where we dove deep on all things leader related to leading yourself and leading others. I’m John Laredo, your host. I am super excited about today’s episode because I get to interview somebody on this show who I am just enamored by. I love his background. You will, too. I’ve got with this soon to be retired Navy captain J.J. Cummings, former commanding officer of the USS Gerald R Ford Navy fighter pilot. JJ, welcome to the show.
JJ Thanks, John. Glad to be here. And this is my first time ever on a podcast. This is inaugural for me.
John While I love it and I’m excited as can be and I’m just I’m very, very happy to have you here. So many questions I want to ask you and I’m sure things that the audience wants to hear about. So, you know, let’s start with your whole your background, maybe your story if you can kind of share with the audience. I mean, you’ve gotten to an incredibly high level in the Navy and you’ve got all kinds of leaders that are listening that are very inspired by that. But I love to share with them your story. You know, where did it start? How did you get that high?
JJ Yeah. Thanks for the opportunity. Yeah. Started in 1986. I was looking at options as a freshman at Bates College up there in Lewiston, Maine, for after graduation. And I did not want to go into the corporate world. I wanted to do something relevant, dangerous, and rewarding. And aviation popped up on my radar. So I enlisted in the Navy as the United States Navy hospital corpsman in the Reserves. And from there, upon graduation, I went to aviation officer candidate school, got commissioned through Tomcats for ten years, F-14 Tomcats, the big fighter and we call it, and then commanded a Navy fighter squadron of Super Hornets and then was selected to go on to a Navy nuclear power program, where for two years I trained to be a basically a commanding officer for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Part of that track requires you to become the executive officer of an aircraft carrier, which is the number two officer in command. I then commanded a conventionally powered amphibious assault warship, USS Anchorage, and then was selected back in 17. To be the commanding officer, the third commanding officer of the USS Gerald out for the Navy’s most technically advanced vessel and the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier based here in Norfolk, Virginia. So traffic and flying fighters all the way up through to driving big ships to where I am today and about to retire next week. So it’s been a great ride and I’ve learned a ton about myself and leadership in these last 32 years.
John I’m sure you have. First of all, congratulations. Thank you for your service. And wow, what an accomplishment and amazing ascension up the ranks. And this is I know, asking you who is a humble guy. I’m going to ask you to be a little not braggadocious, but just, you know, open and transparent. What is the percentage? I mean, that’s got to be an incredibly small percentage of people that come through the Navy rise that quickly and also that high up. I mean, in reality, what kind of statistics are we looking at?
JJ Oh, sure. There’s 320,000 people in United States Navy. I don’t know how many officers are enlisted officers, but they only select five or six a year or the entire Navy to go into this program. So, you know, our Navy six per year selected to go become a nuclear power trained and will become XO and CEO of an aircraft carrier. So that’s pretty good numbers and a very rewarding job. But the immensity of the mission and the size of that vessel and just the amount of people you’re leading and influencing, it was fantastic and I loved every minute of it’s a lot of work, but I loved every minute of it.
John That’s great. Well, I want to talk a lot about your experience, what you learned, and what you have to share. But let me ask you, if you reflect back on that, you know, why do you think it was that you were promoted and got the opportunities that you did and ultimately to be the commanding officer?
JJ So it is a screening process to be selected to be the captain of an aircraft carrier. So you have to along the way, like any job, good evaluations along the way. So I had good evaluations as a squadron commanding officer of a support squadron. I did well in nuclear power training. I didn’t fail, obviously, and then along the way just was successful to keep myself competitive for aircraft carrier combat. So good evaluations along the way and leading teams and getting the mission complete. And then from that, you’ll make myself competitive for selection and got picked up in 2017 to be the CEO commanding officer of the Ford so pretty great track and was fortunate to be able to do that and again, a great experience to lead all those young men and women on that ship.
John So where did your passion for leadership come from?
JJ You know, great question. I just love the fact that. In a leadership position like the captain of the ship, for example, or a commanding officer of a fighter squadron, strike fighter squadron, the ability to change people’s lives with one decision you can influence in squadrons, 200 people on an aircraft carrier, it’s upwards of 4000, 5000 people. So I love the fact that I can, in these roles, change people’s lives to make their lives better. At least it’s my call so that my passion comes, my ability to influence and help make sure there are people that are still going to accomplish the mission sooner.
John Was there a moment where you kind of had this aha and realization that you are really good at what you do? I mean, obviously to get that high up doesn’t come with a fair amount of confidence. I mean, where did that come from? Was there some trigger or moment where you’re like, okay, I’ve definitely got potential here?
JJ There are moments when the AHA for me was I think, you know, I’m an excellent aircraft carrier and I think I was trying to be somebody who I was not. You know, I look back, I should be a hard-edged individual. Should I be a yeller or should I be super stern? Should I not you know, should I just be not having to make MC Hammer on people all the time in my moment was, you know what? I can’t do that. I want to be who I am, which is very personal. Walking around and engaging with sales individuals. And that’s what I just did for the last eight or nine years. I mean, I’m not going to be somebody who would not want to be who I am to my core, which is a down-to-earth, personable, enthusiastic leader who likes to engage with sailors. Engage with admirals is where we need you to accomplish the mission and make sure they understand that I really, truly care about them. So that was my aha moment. I’m not going to be somebody else to be who I am.
John That’s great. And I think a lot of leaders struggle with that. I struggled with that. I remember early in my career just trying to be somebody I was, and I think most leaders kind of go through that period of time and a lot never get out of it, to be very honest with you. Did you have a fear that and maybe that’s an ironic word to use, because I think a lot of leaders get caught up in the thought that if I myself and I’m this personable guy who is kind of, you know, very, you know, affiliated type of leader, the relationship person that I’m not going to be respected or I’m not going to have as much command over the organization that I’m leading. Did you feel that at any point or were you concerned about that?
JJ I had thought about that. Were my being too informal, you know, obviously, a concern just in the military where we have our rank structure and the rank the chain of command, the rank is very it’s very stern and strict. And that’s why the Navy is what it is. But I had a concern about, I think, what it comes down to. You can still hold a high standard in the military, in the Navy, meet that standard and still be able to be personable as long as folks know you’re being authentic if they’re seen to be all, you know, friendly and authentic with them on, they walk around the ship, they’ll see right through that. But they know that I am truly genuine in my and the concern of my drive for mission success. Then I think you can you can get away with not get away with it, but it can be successful that personal relationship with the young sailors and still get the mission done. So yes concern early on but I just again that’s not I cannot be I have to be personable and talk to folks. I couldn’t change who I was definitely concerned about. Work through it. Absolutely.
John So was there a point when you were early on, let’s say, or you were a fighter pilot? Were you still at that point? Did you know that, hey, at some point I want to be my goal is to be the commanding officer of a large aircraft carrier? It is that was that in your mind early on?
JJ You know, when I first came in, no, I wanted to fly and keep flying and flight. And then obviously the value of mentorship. My commanding officer pulled me aside. The former commanding officer of my third or fourth squadron when I was coming through the ranks as a senior commander is like, Hey, JJ, if you like the leadership, then nuclear power is a path for you. And I had never thought about that until that moment, like, you know something. So you’re right. I love to lead. And if you want to lead a lot of people, this nuclear power program is the path to do that. So I hadn’t thought about when it first came in but absolutely brought to my attention. And then from then on, I’m like, I want to do that because I want to influence and lead thousands of sailors and consumers the hardest job in the Navy. So that’s what I got. So mentorship paid off for me years ago when I sat down with my committee. Awesome.
John So there’s a bunch of things I want to talk about because you are the in talking with you and getting to know you, you really are a rare breed. And the more I’ve talked to you, I realize, okay, there’s, you know, there’s a lot in you that would show the signs when somebody gets to know you that that you’ve got that ability to lead that large of an organization. But that’s tough. I mean, we talk about, you know, one of the biggest challenges I think leaders face as they figure out they love leadership. They learn how how to lead a small team and maybe even a medium-sized team. But you went from like overnight leading 200 people to three or four or 5000, which is unbelievably challenging. I mean, talk about that. How does that work and what’s that whole? How do you deal with that?
JJ Though? As I think back into Navy fashion, I got very little training on how to do that. So I, you know, go through it. They train me on nuclear power but didn’t really give me much along the way of, hey, here’s how to lead 3000 people. So it’s kind of up to you to figure it out. Talk to mentors. I talked to many of ship captain, many ship shows, executive officer to figure out what worked for them. But upon showing up, it was kind of a little overwhelming to look at the size of the organization that I was leading as compared to the size of Squadron, almost unheard of. You know, like you mentioned, 200, almost 5000. But I what it came down to was keeping it simple and back to the basics in the show you care thing that worked for me. So that one thing going from that scaling up had no impact on my style. It was show me care. How do I do that? Can getting on the ship’s intercom and telling the crew, you know, squashing rumors or being honest, walking around the ship, talking to sailors one at a time like I did in a small squadron, the same thing in a larger vessel, larger command, in a word, gets out the XO and a CEO. They’re walking these walk around talking to people and listening. That’s a big deal. So I think initially overwhelmed but then quickly figured out that it’s just it’s leadership. It’s not the scale. The size is who you are as a leader and how you project yourself among your direct reports of 18 I had or so, or how you present yourself in front of a crew as you walk around the ship. So it was almost kind of an easy transition. I changed nothing, just the size of folks that I was talking to.
John How important was that aspect of the leadership by walking around? How important and impactful do you think that was?
JJ You know, what a great story and this is. I started doing this when I was the executive officer in USS Nimitz back in 13 on deployment. So the officers eat in their own space and illicit eat down was called a mess sticks the giant stink of a giant high school cafeteria that makes 20,000 meals a day. So I would get in line with my tray with all the junior sailors in line as a Navy captain. Yeah, my food walk into the mess stacks and plopped down next to some sailors and just and say, Hey, fellows. Hey, ladies. Hey, I’m here on the XO. Let’s talk. And I would get great feedback from them. And then I was actually taking a time out of my day to go eat lunch with them. And then early on I said, Hey, if you tell me one thing, we’re doing well today and more importantly, one thing we’re not doing well on our ship. I’ll give you this little piece of paper that allows you to sleep in tomorrow. So the folks all said it started flowing. And then after the first few weeks of me doing that, this leadership by walking around principal on the mystics where at first was offered but a time after two or three weeks I’d walk into the mess next to my tray and say, Hey, sir, oh, you’re going to see. They knew I was going to listen to them and make changes based on our conversation so that leader way leash by walking around principal for me was huge in that because I know the crew talks and they all heard I was doing that because they knew that I cared enough to eat lunch with them and listen and more importantly, do something with that information, not just take it and throw it to trash physically, do something with that. And they knew that I was doing that. And that was a big deal for me for establishing credibility among the junior sailors.
John I was just going to add that last piece to it because, you know, it’s one thing to listen and that does show you care, but it it does the opposite when you don’t do anything with that. So you took that feedback, made changes, showed to them that their feedback was important and credible enough for you to take action on it.
JJ You could argue that, maybe even worse, to show up, pretend to listen, do nothing, the not show up at all. You know, I’d say you’re there and you look so I thought you that you did nothing with the information. What are you doing here? That’s the loss of credibility instance. So yes, I agree. It got to do something with that. And if I couldn’t do something, they give me that. So you want to pull an early I want to go home, see my family, say, hey, great, can’t do that because we have a mission to do out here. But you know what? We’ll get you back as soon as we can, so I’ll be honest with them. I couldn’t do something. Yeah, well, tell them why. Give them some context and background. Maybe make them a little bit less frustrated and angry. So it’s a really good conversation.
John Well, I love you know, what you did is you incented them to give you the feedback. You know, I find and you tell me if you found this, too, that sometimes people just they don’t want to give you feedback, even though you ask. They don’t really want to tell you. They don’t know if you really want the real answer to be one. Do you want me to tell you what you think? You want to hear what I think you want to hear? Do you find that?
JJ Yes. And I’m thinking back to on the floor. We had a department that had some cultural issues in it. And I take full responsibility for not seeing it sooner. But their leader was saying the head guy thing to me, you know, I’m always here, come talk to me. But no one came to speak to him, so I wonder why that was. And I know why because he was saying he was listening. He wasn’t listening. So it’s important, you know, if to make sure that if you’re going to do that, you got to get some game. Make sure that when you listen, you do something and show that feedback is occurring and then then you get credibility. But yeah, he was not. Well, I’m always sorry I told him to come see you, but they want to come see me. But why is that? I don’t know. So we to work through that and how he developed the toxic culture in that department, which we had to.
John Russ Well, it’s interesting because, you know, there is something to be said. I see a lot of leaders and you know, candidly, I was one of these leaders for a period of time. I get caught in my office, my physical office. And I remember, you know, I always had an open door policy. I physically kept my door open. But even that doesn’t people don’t come in there intimidated. You know, they don’t want to bother you. I used to keep a big jar of candy out so that I’d be, like, trying to lure people in, but that doesn’t even do it. And to your point, it’s like any time I went out and was all, you know, walking around and talking to people, you really, truly get people in real moments. They’re disarmed. They feel you’re much more approachable, less intimidating, and their turf, so to speak, than where they come in in your office. I mean, that’s hard and intimidating. You get much more real conversations, right? More information, better information, everything.
JJ Yeah. I think if you establish credibility through Sue over time, then the information flows. Because I think to your point early on, folks aren’t talking to me, but over time when they saw that I was legitimately doing something with that, that gave it credibility. So much like you, my office door was always open and I had a couple of folks pop in my office, which I thought was pretty courageous. Some young junior sailor walked into the commanding officer of the aircraft carriers office to raise an issue that’s powerful, that had the courage to do that. And also we’d establish a culture that that was acceptable, you know, that could come to a fault that can occur. We can have that jump in command. I would ask them, have you talked to your leadership first before we discussed, which they generally had. But I like the fact that folks had enough, I guess, comfort and, you know, psychological safety to approach me and bring up an issue that I can hopefully address. I think it’s a culture that you establish that allows you to have that, those open conversations and get that feedback. That may be hard to get at first.
John Yeah. So one of, one of the other big challenges other leaders have is, is communication. You know, some organizations are great at it, some suck at it, and some it’s not a priority. Some of it is. Let’s share a little bit about your perspective on it. How what your goal was and how you communicate and got the communication, your organization going?
JJ Blunt, brutal, transparent honesty was my communication style on the aircraft carrier. We had the ability to pick up a microphone and speak at one time to 5000 people. So I would use that to, you know, to address issues I heard back in the mess stacks, you know. So I remember pulling back in early. I heard this, I heard that, and I was staying out for two more weeks. So I’d hear that night on the one and one and see the one main circuit I get on there. They heard this rumor on The Mystic today. That’s not true. We’re pulling in as scheduled and this is what we’re doing the next few days. So that brutal transparency was great and I think they appreciate that. Am I going? Line was always like, you know what? I know I kept no secrets. So the crew, when they heard me in the one and see speak in that little speaker that sort of throughout the entire ship they knew I was giving them the truth, the honest truth, and there was nothing that was hiding. So that really gave me, again, credibility. When I spoke, they knew that I was giving them the straight, skinny, and not just some fluff or things that they wanted to hear. So my communication style was right out there owning it. And if we made mistakes, I would own that mistake. And I wanted to see what is tough to do to get on the one and see and talk to 5000 people and tell them how you made a mistake. But I also did that to show them I was honest in my assessment. They’re always and get the straight truth from me.
John So I admired that a lot. I think about the power of that being able to, you know, pick up a microphone, and communicate everything immediately directly from you. Because I think in the absence of that, there’s a lot of organizations that let things trickle out or they just don’t have a really good communication plan. And because of that, it misses certain people or departments or ultimately an entire organization. And then they wonder why things are not happening in the right way when in reality, you know, you control the narrative. Because if you’re not, then people are coming up with things in their heads. And as to why decisions were made or what’s happening or what the vision of the organization is, and usually, that’s wrong. So your style was abrupt, candid, clear, and transparent. There was no concern about the hidden agenda, which I’m sure bred a lot of not only credibility but trust. Yes. What about the leaders that don’t have that, though? They don’t have a microphone where they can immediately communicate everything to the whole organization. What should that look like? What are your thoughts?
JJ That’s a challenge we talked about. We spoke last week. It’s easy for the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier to address issues because I can jump in the air and see an instantly shot. I remember down to maybe starting a flourish. I can put that to rest. I do that in the corporate world. I’m not sure, you know, I’m still working through it as I transition from a military side of civilian side. But that’s kind of a good bumper sticker. What you wanted to see what is that is it’s a zoom call. Emails is it’s more meetings now as we’re coming through this COVID stuff. I know for me, in my last job, I was the chief of staff of a staff of about 200 people. I would use a weekly email to cover almost like my one and see what’s going on this week. Here’s what I’m hearing. So there was out there, folks knew it. So in this day and age with the emails and obviously Zoom calls and the way that social media has taken off, certainly it’s available, but it’s challenging in the civilian world on a ship, it’s easy. So how do you convert that one and seek to speak everybody to a now in a corporate office? How do I get that word out in a consistent and standard style? So that’s a challenge. But I’m working to do that, and I’ll be curious in the coming years as I go into the corporate world, see what that’s like. But think about, you know.
John To your point, it’s so critical that that answer has they have to come up with that answer. They’ve got to figure out and maybe it’s not an immediate all everybody hears at the same point. But there’s got to be a plan because without a plan, then it’s a slow trickle that never really quite gets around to everybody. The way it should.
JJ It’s a great expression that I picked up when I was at the War College called. It’s called Napoleon’s corporal. Corporal is a low-ranking soldier and his plans were based on if another one of his corporals could understand it. And it was a good plan. So he would find a young soldier, and he would share his plan with him. Do you understand this young man? Yep. That’s the plan we’re executing. So from Napoleon down to his most junior soldier, he knew the plan because Napoleon taught to his level. Same thing on the ship. Or as I walk around, and squatted, I try to speak to the common denominator, which is that young 20 to 21-year-old, young man or woman, young sailor, I would speak to them today, had no doubt in their mind what was going on that was not speaking to high-level strategic stuff. I was speaking to their level. They instantly knew what we had to be done. So it was very clear that Napoleon’s corporal concept is something I always would ask guys at work for me or guys, gals, Hey, go get the most junior sailor on the passageway out there, pulmonary and ask, tell me your plan. He understands it will execute. If not, we’ll try again. So I responded.
John I love that there’s so much value in that. I’m just thinking about organizations and leaders that I’m working with and how much value there is in that principle. I love it. One of the other things I’ve heard you talk about, which I think is really interesting, is and I. Think of. I quoted you, right? You told me one of our prior conversations. I love to abuse my power to make my people’s life better, which I think was fantastic. Can you talk about that?
JJ Yeah, I like to catch folks off guard when I’m talking or mentoring junior officers. And I agree. I used my power all the time and I pause for a second. Like what? And I finish with to help out people that work for them. Yeah. So I’ve used power regularly, and I think you should. That’s what makes their lives. But that’s how you show them you care. By taking your rank in the military and using that to get things done, remove obstacles. I would tell the folk my direct reports, Hey, working at your level, get to the point. You smash your head against the wall. Stop doing it. Come to my office. Let me know what the issue is. Give me what you work through, and then let me bust out when I call the ship Captain Sledgehammer and remove obstacles for you to get allow you to do your job. So that was very I want folks to work their issues and then they hit a wall. Come find me and I’ll remove that wall by abusing my power. You want to ship, Captain? Fix a phone up in the Navy? Stuff happens. Yeah, I do that regularly when folks will come. By the way, I used to be a, you know, don’t bring me problems bringing solutions. I stopped seeing that eight years ago because folks are waiting for the solution. They may never come to you in your problems. That’s okay. We’ll work through it, figure it out and see. We can find a way to help you get your job done and get the mission accomplished.
John Interesting. That’s interesting that you say that because I do hear that. I’ve said that before. Hey, bring a solution to a problem. But your point is that sometimes people won’t have solutions. They won’t hear the problem to begin with.
JJ They’re going to wait to go in there with us. Yeah, they’ll have solutions. I can’t go see the captain yet. I’ve seen it in Burma and so on for a think festered for eight months waiting for a solution to a blow up in a department a cultural issue and we took that concept let’s just work to the problem, not wait for a solution. We would have solved it sooner so nobody listened fast.
John And so that was an example they just didn’t have. So that was the reason why they didn’t bring it to us. Because they didn’t have a solution.
JJ Solution? Yeah. They were waiting for the big navy to fix their problem by having someone arrive to help the department out. And we waited for that solution and never came. And then cultural blow-up, which we had to deal with. And it turns out we fix it in-house, meaning we took someone from our own ship assignment to that department and made the department better ourselves. Met me because you should have seen that eight months ago. But we waited for that solution. It never came. That is a sale that the department suffered. And I still it bothers me still to this day. That was two years.
John Wow. Interesting. Very great. Great learning. Let me ask you a tough question. And this is something that I’m really interested to hear your answer on. You know, leaders, it’s one thing to have a playbook, peacetime playbook. And okay, here’s how I am as a leader, and here’s how things will run. Here are the processes and systems and chain of command. And then chaos hits or crisis hits or in your case, you know, you’ve got war and lives are on the line. I mean, what does leadership need to look like in times like that with high levels of intensity, emotion, and crises? What does that look like?
JJ So in times of crisis or emergency is not the time to try to do something different, something out of the book, unless it really requires that. So as I think about that, you know, in time of war, we descend to the level of our training. So we are well trained. When it starts to break down, we go to our training and that’s what carries us through the tumor mission’s mission completion. So, you know, we’ve been there, I’ve been I’ve flown early days what we have over Afghanistan in 2001 and getting shot at and living lively and got a weapon in close proximity to special forces and individual and seals on deck in Afghanistan. And that’s very concerning and high stress. But you know what? It’s just like dropping a bomb or practicing a bomb over here at the Navy. There, you know, is the same principle, same procedure, same process. And so we slow down, keep it simple. The point, Corporal, we knew what we had to do, and all the distractions of the chaos did not affect us either flying or on the ship as we were working through the mission, because every event we do for fly will brief it so we know what the plan is. Every high-risk event and the carrier will brief that will execute. And then, more importantly, which I think Americans need to do more of, is the debrief afterward. What do we learn from this event? What are we said we’re going to do? What happened and why do we diverge from our original plan and how can we learn from that? So every debrief, either flight around the ship event was very I took it very seriously. That’s where you get your most learning from, not 20 minutes. So it’s afterward so that when it is chaos or war or conflicts, you’ve learned your lessons. And when it starts to break down, you are the best. You can still get the mission accomplished.
John Yeah, it’s amazing. And you’re absolutely right. The debrief is not nearly used enough and is at such a critical part of leadership and just getting better. But you go back to. Are you flying over Afghanistan in 2001 and getting shot at? I mean, that’s I can’t even imagine the level of intensity and fear and anxiety that you’re going through at that point. I mean, how what’s happening and what’s going through your mind, and how do you keep focused on what you’re doing? And in that case, you’re also leading other people. I mean, yeah, that.
JJ That flight to this day is etched in my memory forever. My first letter, Afghanistan of Strike Fighter Squadron one or two. In October 2001, the night launch tank over Pakistan hit a tanker over Afghanistan. I want the lights out. And just that game day feeling like this is it. For seven years I’ve been training this moment. Let’s go get something. And then coming up in the city of Kandahar and delivering four leaves, we got weapons just you know, we get shot at Tripoli, came up, you know, in our area. But, you know, again, just seeing the procedure, the process and it was really like just we had done for seven years of training came to fruition that that first night in Afghanistan pretty amazing. And I remember thinking that it came back I was just like a normal hop or flight back at Fallon or in North Carolina. They’ve just now was the real deal. If I get shot down it was not going to be good for me or my family. Yeah, folks on deck wanted me to not be there, so that was definitely a wake-up call. But wow, coming back to for that six, seven-hour hot landing aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, looking up and seeing the American flag flying in the halyard with the same flag that was at the World Trade Center. They’d flown out to the ship. And I remember thinking it was a 6 a.m. recovery. When I landed, I got kind of choked up like I knew why I was doing what I was doing because of what I just did. It wasn’t about me. It was now about our nation and our principles and our way of life. And that’s why I just came back to the mission. I get it. I’m here not for me. I’m here for our country, for the United States of America, for our Navy. So a pretty big moment for that. At that time frame. I think back and all that, that moment is really special all my life, the seven years of training to do that and to come back and see that flag flying there on the halyard of the USS Theodore Roosevelt was a special moment in my life.
John That’s amazing. I’ve got chills. Honestly.
JJ I get chills too.
John It’s unbelievable. I mean, it’s got to be such a rush of emotion when that and I don’t know, did it not hit you until that moment you landed and you looked at me, or was it when you completed the mission and you’re now realizing, okay, I think we were okay?
JJ You’re showing the game and so can you compartmentalize? Don’t think you got anything else? Just the mission. Get the jet safely to the target. Leave your weapons on parameters. Get you know, don’t break a refueling probe off the tanker. Divert to Uzbekistan you’re focusing on the mission when you finally land aboard the carrier, they pull you over, tie you down, and you shut down. It’s not like, wow, you take a step back to go. Yeah, that was intense and I can’t believe that just happened. But wow, I’m so glad to be here. And we got many more months have come and I can’t wait to get back to work.
John Is it like the scene in Top Gun where everybody comes rushing ove?
JJ I know. I was like, no, that’s not that’s a good day. There are no high fives on the flight deck. There was just a sense of just intensity. It was it was great. We debrief that, of course. Look, we’ve done better. And then all right, I was back out there two nights later getting it done and I’m learning from the previous flight. So there were no high fives or hugs with Ice Man on the 23rd just below deck, you get back to work.
John Well, we got all the respect, my respect in the world. And I know everybody that’s listening. I mean, just the level of appreciation and respect and admiration we have for you and everybody that has gone through. What you have to fight for our country is unbelievable. And then thank you.
JJ Yeah, hey real quick I’ll pass your thanks on to my wife and family they’re the ones that really earn it. I mean, I am off doing fun, dangerous things for our nation that I love to do. Well, Sarah is back here slugging it out with doctors, baseball tournaments, you know, blown up water heater. I missed my first child’s birth. I was underway for Mackenzie when she was born. So the appreciation I will transmit to Sarah, because she’s the one that that really earns it and allows and stands as does every military spouse that supports their husband or wife or loved one when they join the military and do things, dangerous things for our nation overseas, 100% agree.
John Absolutely. And please pass that on to them, of course. Well, you know, that’s a great Segway. And another question I have for you. You know, you talk about the support system that a leader needs and needs to build family, personal support, and also professional and building kind of your circle. How much is how important do you think that is and how deliberate do you need or should a leader be in terms of pulling the right people into his or her circle?
JJ You know, I look back on my career. I didn’t do that enough. You know, we’re all type-A fighter pilots. I got this, you know, and I would reach out occasionally for assistance. A problem I couldn’t solve I was having troubles with, but I would get mentorship along the way. A lot of books actually talk to my wife a bunch. A lot of decisions I made for the ship. I bounce off her like these make sense to you? What do you think? And she’s like, Oh, that sounds good. I think she could do my job personally because she is a good leader, if not better than I am. Because we’ve talked about this for 30 some odd years and I would bounce ideas around about a game plan for a policy for the ship. It’s like, No, you can’t do that, you moron. Do this like, Oh, good call, Sarah. Thank you. But I think I did not reach out as much as I should. And that’s what I share with new care CEOs. Hey, it’s a team sport. Leadership is a team sport. Get out there and hit up your fellow committee offices in the carriers and see what challenges they’re experiencing. And you may learn something I did a few times back in the 18, 19, 20 timeframes, got together. Once the character shows, I learned a bunch. Wow, you guys are that problem. How’d you fix that? That’s a great idea. I’m going to do that. So I wish I’d done more of that. And I think you get to your point. You get so wrapped in your office and business of your own vessel. Let’s say you don’t take that time to go reach out and seek assistance. And I think I could have done a better job. That’s one of my not a regret, but something I could done better with was more mentorship from my peers and more mentorship from the folks that worked above me, the admirals and such.
John Got it. Well, JJ, that’s been phenomenal. I know we’re out of time here, and I wish I could go on and on because I get so much more to. To ask you. So maybe we’ll have you back on another time and do do part two or three or whatnot. But if people want to learn more about you or get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do that?
JJ Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m on social media. Given my job the last few years, I kind of steer clear of that. I am on LinkedIn. You can reach JJ Cummings. I’m there. That’s very much it for me. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or Tik Tok. I sort of my adult or my adolescent children for that. But yeah, I’m on my LinkedIn and as I continue to find ways to serve our nation in a different form or fashion after I leave the Navy, I’ll be I want to get more into what you’re doing. I love this aspect of leadership, mentorship, training, and trying to make people’s lives better, no longer on a ship. And I can do that with finances. And what would make me it would make folks better leaders. And we can all learn together and learn from mistakes and make people more aggressive. That leadership style.
John Well, I hope you and I get an opportunity to work together and do some great things together, and I think we will. So this is the start of it. And I greatly appreciate you joining us today. What you’ve shared is awesome. I’m benefited and better as a leader having listened to you so I know you’ve got so much great stuff to offer, so I appreciate you joining.
JJ Thanks for your time and thanks for the opportunity. I really appreciate this. And again, my friends, my first podcast and I’m glad we could do this I learned a bunch to listen to a lot of your podcasts. I really enjoyed listening. You speak and we have a lot of the same thoughts, a lot of parallel themes that when you speak and I’ve done that and I agree with that. So it’s been a pleasure to meet you and introduce to your podcast. Good for me as well.
John Excellent. Terrific. Well, thank you all for joining us today. We’ve been here with Navy Captain JJ Cummins, former commanding officer of the U.S., and Gerald USS Gerald R Ford, a Navy fighter pilot with tons and tons of leadership experience and lessons to share.
John I know you’ve gotten a lot out of today’s episode, so let us know. Share like the episode down below. Give a five-star review and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time. Thanks.
John Thanks for joining us on today’s episode of Tomorrow’s Leader. For suggestions or inquiries about having me at your next event or personal coaching, you can reach me at John@johnlaurito.com. Thanks, lead on!
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