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100 Days: Thirteen Questions with the 13th Superintendent – Part 2

As we said last month, Rear Admiral Jack Buono, the 13th Superintendent at USMMA spent a few minutes with us discussing his vision for the Academy and some of the current initiatives he is interested in for the future. Last month he discussed his views on leadership and his vision. In this second installment of three, RADM Buono discusses his commitment to the four pillars of the Academy, and how our leadership development experience prepares graduates for a life at sea.

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Do you have a view about how the leadership development experience here trains midshipmen for a life at sea?

JJB: I asked the midshipmen a week after the change of command ceremony, “What did I mean when I said, any act of disrespect towards a shipmate is an act of disrespect towards the regiment.” One brave midshipman in the front row said, “Sexual assault and   sexual harassment?” I said yes, exactly! You need to understand that behaviors like that are not only egregious forms of disrespect towards a shipmate, but they affect all of us, every single one of us in a very negative way. Obviously it is important to make sure that no one experiences disrespect or harm, but we also have to realize that the institution itself and all those involved with it are harmed whenever something like this happens. To be clear, my message was that I would not tolerate those violations. I consider them violations against us all, and I want the midshipmen, faculty and staff to share that perspective and act accordingly.

My vision allows leadership to develop so that midshipmen recognize they are not just classmates at an institution of higher learning, rather they are beyond that, they are shipmates. Those that have been to sea understand what that term means. It means you are bonded by the rules of and traditions of seafarers… that you have each other’s back. It means that whether I like you, whether I associate with you, whether you were raised the same way I was, whether you embrace the same cultural attributes that I have, whether you were assigned to the same company at USMMA as I was; it is irrelevant. In a shipboard environment, we are shipmates. I expect you will always do the right thing and take care of your shipmates. You, in turn, should expect us to do the same. If we do not do that, we will suffer in the battle against the forces of nature or any of the other challenges we are going to face together. The shipmate relationship, the special nature of the relationship, is something that most lay-people know nothing about. Our midshipmen however develop the shipmate ethos throughout their four-year experience here.

They are shipmates. When the parents hear that term, they should ask questions of their midshipmen - What does this term mean? I hope that they will hear, it is a higher level of responsibility and respect among members of a ship - and I believe the Academy should be run like a ship – where one shipmate watches out for another.

I’ll close this by saying, our midshipmen have to learn a lot more going forward than I felt like I had to learn a few years ago. A mariner today, a ship’s officer today is many things, and a lot more than a ship’s officer was back then. No better, no worse, but a lot more.

Can you talk about your commitment to the four pillars of the Academy?

JJB: When I began the selection process to become the 13th Superintendent, I interviewed with more than 70 individuals and many different panels. It was both very intense and very satisfying at the same time and the themes were generally consistent. As you might expect, many of the issues we discussed zoomed in on my values as a potential leader. This gave me many opportunities to discuss my commitment to the four pillars of the Academy – Academics, Regiment, Athletics and Sea Year. I received many questions related to what I think is most important, and my answers always revolved around my commitment to the pillars – remember, leaders know what is important. I strongly believe in all four pillars of the Academy. In order to produce an exemplary leader to serve and protect the economic and national security of this country, it is not enough to have a degree. We must be leaders and we must be strong in all aspects of leadership. I have a strong opinion about the diversity of my leader development journey at Kings Point. The leadership development I experienced in playing extracurricular athletics and the leadership development that came from the regiment, coupled with the personal discipline required for success in the academic program were key.

I feel academics are most important. You do need to pass in order to get through this program, but not to the extent that it compromises the other three pillars. The discipline that comes from the regiment is staggering. Taking the best of the best from every state and throwing them all together, making them all the same – the way they look, the way they talk, the way they walk - the individual molding of each individual, on and off the athletic field, in the classroom and out, is extremely important in creating the foundation for a leader. I strongly believe the regiment serves that purpose. By the way, on a commercial ship, when the emergency signal sounds, on a grey ship when general quarters is     sounded, you immediately revert to your training and in the case of our graduates; you shift to that regimental education. Everybody has a job to do, everybody has a station billet function to observe, the welfare of the crew depends on everybody doing what they were trained and stationed to do. It is not a management-by-consensus type of exercise. There is no debate. It is a military, regimented function. Hopefully, those are very rare moments, but our midshipmen will be prepared should they occur.

So that takes you to Sea Year. Sea Year is the work-study program. This is where our young leaders get to see examples of leadership in action out there. I will say frankly, I think sometimes these could be better examples, and by my interaction with midshipmen, I think they agree with me. However, they have also seen some very effective and positive examples of leadership. That is a wonderful thing to have before you graduate and have to exercise your leadership lessons in a real world environment. To have had the benefit of a year (Sea Year) of observing, watching, and participating in that is invaluable and I think it makes us unique among the other federal service academies.

You recently said you consider USMMA a military institution. Would you elaborate?

JJB: Of course. I believe strongly that we are a military institution. Every single one of our midshipmen will be military officers either in the Reserve or on Active Duty upon graduation. We provide 80% of the SSOs that will round out our military sealift capability in times of war. I take that requirement very seriously. We are preparing to put young men and women in harm’s way. I can’t be any clearer when I say that. Whether it is by the forces of nature, or warring nations, it is going to happen. My job is to make sure they are ready to do that, and I believe they absolutely will be.

More than likely, they will scrape their knees a few times while they are here. They need to make certain types of mistakes here in the training environment so they can learn from them. I have asked our parents to be a little less empathetic towards their midshipman. As a parent myself, I know what I’m asking, but midshipmen experiencing too much empathy may find their leader development challenged. None of this is a comfortable process - constant state of mild discomfort - but the more we can accomplish here at Kings Point, by learning from our mistakes and becoming a bit wiser as a result, the better off our young leaders will be. That is a real tough ask for parents, but I really do feel strongly about it and I believe parents have embraced it too. I appreciate that.

Before we move on, let me make clear that while I do believe strongly that there are certain mistakes that individuals should be allowed the opportunity to learn from and remain at the Academy, there are certain other mistakes that - if made - should result in separation from the Academy. There have to be clear lines of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. That’s a process of change we are working on currently.

When you first came on board, we got some Social Media feedback hoping that you would spend time with the   midshipmen. Would you comment on your efforts in that regard and the level of activity you have experienced since arriving?

JJB: Spending time with midshipmen is the most important thing I do. To the Social Media commenters, yes, I do spend time with them. We chat during regimental training, I eat with them in Delano Hall, I attend virtually every athletic and many club events, and I simply stop and talk with midshipmen. Each and every time I do that I am reminded about how important it is because I always come away with some nugget of wisdom or some valuable piece of information that will allow me to help them more. I think anyone reading these words would say, of course, that makes sense, but I would offer that it is very hard to do. I had a pretty responsible job before this and it did involve a tremendous amount of email traffic, administrative duties, HR and other duties, but here it is far more difficult. The potential to get sucked into the office and the computer is so much more dramatic here than what I have experienced in the past, that I have recently taken to scheduling time out of the office in order to continue to meet with and interact with midshipmen. What I am saying is, leaders know what is important, and spending time with midshipmen is the most important thing I do… and will continue to do. I think I can do better on this by controlling the demands on my time. It’s a work in progress and I look forward to sharing my report card on it at a future date. I’m certainly not bored here, I’ll tell you that. I am actually in a constant state of mild discomfort. I’ll also tell you I couldn’t love this any more. It is so active, much greater than a 12-hour workday. There are after hours demands too, sporting events, club activities, leadership events, you name it, and how wonderful is it to be able to go to all these things and interact with these young men and women right here at Kings Point.

-End of Part 2-

Look for part three of this three part series next month.

Updated: Monday, April 1, 2019
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