Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Impetus of Greatness

Thirty years ago this week, I raised my right hand and took the oath of office of a midshipman. I was inducted into the US Navy as part of the Naval Academy’s class of 1985 with nearly 1,400 other skinny, goofy-looking kids in ill-fitting white uniforms that were reminiscent of the Cracker Jack guy. For the next four years we would be prepared “morally, mentally, and physically” to lead sailors and Marines into harm’s way. We all learned that it was often the trivial things that really mattered, that it took teamwork to succeed, and that help might come from the most unlikely of places. Completing a course of study at that venerable institution, we all came to realize, was just the beginning of something new and although we may have earned a degree, we knew precious little about the stuff of real leadership.
Bob Owendoff's senior year (1968) Lucky Bag photo
After graduation, I was assigned temporary duty at the Academy until my Division Officer School class started in Newport, RI some months later. During that time, a salty lieutenant commander named Bob Owendoff saw me for the aimless young guy that I was.  He knew me as one of his students.  I wasn’t a slacker in either his Fluid Dynamics or Statics classes, but neither was I a superstar.  I remember I did enjoy the material though. I have always had a knack for solving problems but amid the fire-hose method of instruction at the Naval Academy, his teaching style really helped me to actually absorb the material. On a personal level, we clicked as well. He took me under his wing without me realizing it. He turned me on to planners before they were mass-marketed in big box stores and he helped me get my act together as a junior officer before I stood in front of 20-odd junior sailors looking to me for that elusive thing called leadership.  I, in turn, would ask them to work miracles…or at least keep out of trouble. Thankfully, they usually did both.
Bob also got me focused on making goals. Up to this point, my goals came in the form of curriculum and official orders. He gave me a little book called, “How To Get Control Of Your Time and Your Life” by Alan Lakein. In it, there’s a little exercise where you set long-term and short-term goals, and then there’s the question, “How would you like to live if you knew you would be dead six months from today?” Like every other 22-year old, mortality was not yet part of my vocabulary, but going through that exercise distills down what is really important. I think that was Bob’s greatest gift to me.
You see, Commander Owendoff wasn’t the picture perfect officer.  He didn’t project himself as particularly strong or dynamic, nor did he have striking features.  In fact, he had a bit of a paunch and his speech sometimes was a bit indistinct. In short, he didn’t exude the crisp image that Annapolis evokes, but he was smart as a whip and he knew a thing or two about leadership.  Most important, he had the kind of character that was willing to put reputation on the line for the sake of principle.  I know this because he had done just that.  He never told me the details that kept him from being promoted to Commander and wearing the coveted “scrambled eggs” on the visor of his officer’s cap, but I knew he had taken some sort of unpopular stand and spoken truth to power.  He weathered the storm, but it effectively robbed him of his swagger and stopped his rising star of a career. Bear in mind, this was a guy who had published and received a patent before he had graduated from the Academy nearly twenty years prior.
I went on to enjoy a fruitful naval career. After earning my Surface Warfare designation, I was able to achieve my life’s dream of being a naval aviator and earned a couple of medals and other assorted “fruit salad” of ribbons in the process. That dream had been in gestation since I was a boy and I had seized it and followed through to realize those goals, even when they appeared to slip between my grasping fingers. For that opportunity, for that experience, I will forever be grateful to Bob Owendoff, the guy to many, who appeared to be “less than,” but in reality, had the guts to do what most couldn’t because it wasn’t “career enhancing.”
Sure, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of serving with and working alongside people who had “the right stuff” and to be sure, those people influenced me in ways I marvel at today, yet there are many unnoticed, rather ordinary people who maintain their sense of self in spite of daunting challenges. They somehow escape the spotlight while becoming an unwitting impetus for greatness when those with their names in lights might have otherwise settled for “good enough.”
Not all of us are destined for “greatness” in terms of power, prestige, and wealth. Perhaps that’s a bit of a rub in today’s culture of entitlement and self-aggrandizement, but the sooner we realize the potency of being authentic, the sooner we can be truly content, even in the worst circumstances. In my experience, the best way to do that is to recognize yourself for who you are rather than trying to be someone you’re not. Coming to peace with that allows us to be great in the same way that Bob Owendoff was for me. We all have the potential to influence others, but no one is influenced much by a phony. Bob was genuine and he encouraged me to be the best naval officer I could and he pushed me a little outside my comfort zone in the process.
The last time I saw Bob was in 1991 as I was en route to Pensacola, Florida.  I was sad to hear that he had died rather unexpectedly in 2008. I think it’s fair to say he lived a full life of doing what mattered for others. Perhaps, he equipped others to be, like he had been, an impetus to greatness. Thanks, Bob, for making a positive difference in me…and in who knows how many others.
This posting was originally published July 11, 2011. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

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