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100 Days: Thirteen Questions with the 13th Superintendent

USMMA Superintendent Jack Buono on 100 days back at Kings Point

On Nov. 9, 2018, at a spirited change of command ceremony, Rear Admiral Jack Buono became the 13th Superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. A few days ago, Buono passed the 100-day mark in his tenure and took a few minutes to chat about his experience so far, his vision for the future and some of the programs coming down the road. This is part one of three parts we will be posting in March.

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Admiral Buono, welcome back to Kings Point. It’s hard to believe, but you have been here now for about 100 days. How has your experience returning to USMMA been so far?

JJB: It has exceeded all my expectations. I came back to the Academy very excited. I was looking forward to spending time with our midshipmen, faculty and staff. I am excited about the miraculous transformation that continues to take place between an 18-19 year old and a 22-23 year old while they are here at the Academy. I came prepared to apply the experience I have acquired over the years, both at sea and ashore, and to make a positive and lasting impact on the midshipmen and their journey to find their own personal greatness while here at Kings Point.

How did you come to the decision to come back?

JJB: I retired from industry in the middle of 2016. That’s 42 years since I arrived for the first time at Kings Point. I had my reasons for retiring when I did. I felt I had accomplished what I wanted, and was ready.  As I entered retired life, I had the opportunity to speak as a lecturer in the USMMA Lanier Series. Arriving here and standing before the midshipmen, I realized I still had a lot to give and I wanted to share from my experience in the hope that it might empower or enable them to start in a slightly more advanced position than I did back in 1978 when I graduated. As the new Superintendent it remains my strong desire to influence them positively during their training here.

Let’s jump right in, can you share with us your philosophy on leadership and its importance?

JJB: During my 38 years in corporate America, I honestly and always believed I was a student of leadership and leadership development. I have read extensively and studied the subject, and I realized that for me, leadership is much more succinct than the “10 or 11 rules” you typically read about. I came up with what I believe are the three rules of effective leadership. I started to really define those rules just three years before my retirement. Without really knowing it, I actually used them throughout my career and they worked very well for me. As you know, leadership is a personal thing and the style for one person might be disastrous for another, but these rules have worked very well for me and in bringing them here, I believe strongly that they will also help our midshipmen. So having only three year’s experience with this “new found knowledge of the three rules of effective leadership,” I now have an opportunity to test the concept further. I feel pretty good about it so far.

So on to my leadership philosophy. These may sound a bit trivial, but I would ask you to think about them and perhaps you will embrace them as I have. Rule #1:  Leaders know what is important. It seems obvious, but guess what, when you get into higher levels of leadership, I think you will appreciate that the number of things you have to manage on a daily basis is voluminous. If you prioritize everything, nothing is important. Therefore, the key skill to develop for an effective leader with so many different priorities and so many conflicting initiatives is to quickly grasp what is important. I’ll get back to this because the concept forms my vision as well. Again, if everything is important, nothing is important.

Rule #2. The second rule of effective leaders is that leaders resource what’s important and that’s critical here. We say, for example, combatting sexual assault and sexual harassment are exceedingly important. I believe that is true and it ought to be a priority… absolutely. We’ve identified it as a critical issue, now how are we resourcing it? Do we need money? Do we need people? Do we need other forms of resourcing? What are they, and how do we get them on board? That is the kind of analysis that differentiates an effective leader from all others. So, leaders know what is important, leaders resource what is important, and finally…

Rule #3. Leaders motivate. Leaders motivate individuals to embrace what is important. As I look back at my experience, the leaders that coached me, took time to teach me, and mentored me along the way are all examples of motivators who, believe it or not, helped me develop my personal leadership philosophy.

So it’s:  Know what is important, Resource what is important, and Motivate. It has worked very well in the last couple of years and it is really what I am doing here with these incredible men and women. My leadership philosophy is also the precursor to my vision.

Very good, can we take a few moments to discuss your vision for the future of the Academy?

JJB: Absolutely. Having laid out my personal philosophy on leadership, if I am to be an effective Superintendent at USMMA, if I hope to be viewed as an effective leader for Kings Point, I would start the vision by saying, “What do I think is important?”

Number 1: I think it is important to eliminate complacency.  I personally believe, as human beings, we tend to drift towards complacency, if we allow ourselves to. It is a lot easier to sit on the couch and eat a sandwich, sip a soft drink and watch television than it is to go in the other room get on an exercise bike or pump out 50 pushups. If we do not have something that compels us towards what we know we really should be doing, we are likely to drift towards complacency. Therefore, I think it is very important here, at the Academy and inside the regiment, inside of our athletics programs, inside of our academic programs, inside of our clubs, and while we are at sea, that we recognize we need to push each other so that we do not fall into a state of complacency.

Bad things happen there. In my view, complacency is a root cause for some pretty bad behaviors, so I believe by maintaining our midshipmen, faculty and staff in a constant state of mild discomfort, we will eliminate complacency. I have used that descriptor – constant state of mild discomfort - for a number of years now. People chuckle over it, and I do want to elaborate a little bit because it could be taken in the wrong way. It is not something that is a negative; rather it is intended to be a positive. When you graduate as officers, and you are on either a grey ship or a commercial ship, deck or engine, you will find yourself standing your first watch. I promise you it will be a very uncomfortable situation, even though - as a cadet-midshipman at sea - you participated in watchstanding. This is your watch now and even though you know you passed all the tests and got the license, you have never been solely responsible for 25 crewmembers or hundreds of teammates, or multi-millions of dollars of cargo and equipment. Nope. You are it. You are down in the engine room or up in the bridge. It is your watch. You are in a state of mild discomfort, but it is not negative. You wonder if you checked every gauge, or put the right positions on the chart at the right time. You wonder if you are looking out the windows enough and you are mentally quizzing yourself… “What should I be doing now?” “Am I doing everything I should be doing?” Then you blink and your first watch is over. You will probably remember it as one of the best watches you ever stood, perhaps for the rest of your career. By staying in that state of mild discomfort, we’re always wondering if we are doing everything we should be doing - we are in our most productive state and we are optimizing performance. I expect my colleagues to hold me to that standard as well. This is a concept I would like our midshipmen to embrace. If they do, the culture here will actually change. I’m not suggesting that it isn’t in a good place, but I am suggesting that we can take it to a higher level if the midshipmen embrace the challenge. I can, and have started this at USMMA, but it takes the midshipmen - who are together all of the time - to embrace a higher standard and to hold themselves accountable to that standard to jumpstart a transformation that is going to serve each of us into the future. We’re going to start there. We will keep people in a constant state of mild discomfort. We will battle against complacency. I think we’ve already started doing that now, I really do.

I mentioned earlier I would get back to leadership as part of my vision. I just gave you three components of effective leadership that resonate with me. The next component of my vision is the description of leadership I used during the change of command. In my remarks at the change of command ceremony, I discussed how leadership is not about standing taller than your shipmates, but about helping your shipmates stand taller than yourself. I think that is a key component in the development of young leaders. I believe, all too often at this stage of their lives they believe leadership is about raising their hand, waving it and saying come, follow me, I’ll take you to another place. That is one form of leadership, and it is effective and necessary at certain points, but most of the time, leadership is about helping everyone around you be better. Inside corporate America, the people that migrate upwards in the organization tend to develop the reputation of being the type of person everybody wants to work with. When you work with that person, you find that you are at your productive best, you are satisfied, and you’re happy to be producing at that level. You are optimized and fine-tuned. That is the leadership model I want to see here. Midshipmen helping each other reach a higher level of performance.

Since my arrival, I have mentioned being the best kept secret no longer. This is also part of my vision. I believe for far too long and because of some unfortunate circumstances for others, we have been proud to say we are the best kept secret among the five federal service academies. That can be no longer and I am working very hard to make sure that our institution is not only well-known as one of the five federal service academies, but is respected as a unique service academy. We are the United States Merchant Marine Academy and we offer a very different product to the Nation’s well-being. We offer only two majors and they involve a very difficult engineering-based curriculum. The programs are very challenging, and because our midshipmen go to sea for a year for experiential training, they have to complete the classroom work in just three years, rather than four. In addition, they must acquire a U.S. Coast Guard license as a merchant officer, in either deck or engine disciplines. Sitting for a Coast Guard license is a daunting task for an undergraduate. We liken it to defending a Master’s degree program or taking the GRE twice a day for five days. It is not easy. It is difficult and it is something no other federal service academy commissioning program requires.

Our mission, simply stated here, is to graduate exemplary leaders that go on to serve and protect our economic and national security – Boom! That’s it. I think the average member of the public doesn’t understand the term merchant marine, or what it is. It is not a uniform and it is not a person. It is vital and critically important to have the ships able to transport the products that serve our economy in peace and in war. We need to tell that story more broadly, not only to the average citizen, but perhaps to more of our elected officials as well. I will make it my job to tell that story wherever my travels take me. I hope every parent, every alum, every midshipman and every industry partner shares in that responsibility as well. Our story is a good one and we need to tell it everywhere.

To review, my vision for the Academy includes… Dispel the best kept secret, Develop leaders of exemplary character, and Fight complacency. We do this by telling our story, embracing the characteristics of effective leadership while becoming shipmates, and steering away from complacency by staying in a constant state of mild discomfort.

Editor’s note: This is the end of part one. Look for the next installment in about two weeks. 

Updated: Friday, March 1, 2019
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