Janine Davidson: “Don’t hide the truth”

“Don’t hide the truth. Let people know what you know and how you are making decisions.” — Janine Davidson In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management […]

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“Don’t hide the truth. Let people know what you know and how you are making decisions.” — Janine Davidson

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Janine Davidson.

Janine Davidson is a Commissioner of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service and the President of Metropolitan State University. Dr. Davidson has over three decades of academic and public service, including serving as the 32nd undersecretary of the United States Navy. She was a faculty member at George Mason University and the senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She began her career as an Air Force officer and cargo pilot and was the first woman to fly the Air Force’s tactical C-130.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I am a Navy brat, as my father was a Navy Supply Corps Officer. He made Admiral when I was in pilot training for the Air Force and he retired as a 2-star admiral. As a result, we moved around a lot. My entire family is from California, but most of my childhood was spent in Northern Virginia, with two years in Virginia Beach when my dad was on the USS Nimitz (during the Iran hostage crisis in ’79).

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I am a university president. I run the 3rd largest public university in Colorado. It is open access, meaning anyone can come here and take a shot at the American Dream. It is super cool. It is also one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had!

I also serve as a Commissioner on the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which had the mission I am passionate about to review the Selective Service System and increase participation in service — military, national and public. The Commission submitted our recommendations to Congress, the President and the American people last month.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I tried to join the Navy, but “flunked” my Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) interview with the officer who told me that “girls” were not allowed to fly fighter planes. I wanted to fly F14s off Aircraft carriers, so this really ticked me off. I told the interviewer that “was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard; don’t you think that will change?” he responded, “absolutely not” and was clearly unimpressed with my sassy attitude. I did not get the NROTC scholarship. So, my dad suggested that I try the Air Force (and try not to “mouth off” during the interview). That worked out. I got an AFROTC scholarship to the University of CO, Boulder where I studied engineering and went on to fly C130’s, T3s and C17s.

I was the first woman to fly the tactical C130 and was stationed during the first Gulf War in Japan. Most of my squadron went to the war, but they held me back, as they were not ready to send a woman. My second assignment was at the USAFA flying Cessnas and then the T3, a fully aerobatic prop plane, in the flight screening program. We gave cadets ground school and about 10–15 hours in the plane and chose who got to go to jet training on graduation/commissioning. My last assignment was flying the C17 out of Charleston South Carolina, Europe, the Balkans, Middle East. All over the world, really.

My other “military” experience was as a senior civilian in the Pentagon — from Action Officer, to Deputy Assistant Secretary for Plans, to Undersecretary of the Navy.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

Absolutely. The importance of people is #1. My piloting days taught me how important teamwork is and alignment on the mission, the purpose. As a leader of an organization, I recall that the best military units focused on communications and training. Helping people learn, grow, and understand the context under which we are operating goes a long way to build two-way trust. When people understand why things are happening then I can trust that they will execute — and adapt — as needed without me having to spell it all out.

My experience in the Pentagon has really helped me in this job as University President. I was a political appointee. A civilian. In that context, there is an art of “leading” senior military officers. generals and admirals, like faculty, know what they are doing. They don’t really need to be mentored or overly managed. They need to understand what value you add to their work. Getting them to shift or adapt, if you must per presidential priorities, means lots of dialogue and listening, and not always being right. The power to lead is the power to persuade in this context. It is not, like some might expect, all command and control.

My time as the deputy assistant secretary for plans taught me a lot about planning and risk management. Something that is coming in very handy in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis. Thinking through alternative futures, making decisions with data, but also understanding that the enemy (the virus) has a vote and there will be a lot of uncertainty and risk.

Later, as “Navy Under” I learned leadership at a different level. As a University President, there is no way an Undersecretary can know everything that is going on all the time or even control it. In this environment, “3D communications” is critical: up, down, and laterally. I use social media, email, speeches, deep dives on specific topics, meetings, and good old fashioned face-to-face and one- on-one’s. Everything I can do to understand the environment, gather smart ideas from all over, and, when necessary, make my positions and intent known.

Finally, the budgeting process in the pentagon is not unlike a university. As President, like Under, I can’t look under every hood or find quarters under every couch. It is too big. There are lots of stakeholders and, at a public university, the government as well, who controls a lot of my spending authority. Again, relationships, data, and communication are key — just like in the military.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The older one gets, the wiser one’s parents seem to become! My father is definitely this man. He taught me a lot about people and leadership. He tried to teach me to “keep my cool” when things are frustrating, something I work on a lot (meditation helps and humor!). Also, however cliché it is, he believed that I could “do big things.” That confidence was so important. It helps to counteract all the negative “mood music” we often let play in our minds when we have set-backs and challenges.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

A crisis is something that is disruptive to your mission, and sometimes to your life. It is not always unexpected, but it is usually not when or how you expect it to happen. In the military, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans, we had hundreds of plans on the shelf and under continual examination and construction. So, lots of bad things have been contemplated. The thing is, as they say, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” — meaning, the situation might resemble things you have thought about or even gamed out, but it will never be exactly as you expected. This means that when a crisis strikes, the processes you have put in place for reacting and making decisions as a team are the most important thing. It is a lot like an emergency in an airplane, where as a pilot I was taught to: first be calm and maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, take appropriate action. So, when someone walks in your office with a crisis, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath, maintain control (of yourself) and then systematically and swiftly gather the right people and the right information to analyze the situation. Then, think about alternative courses of action and make some decisions. Then get ready to do it all again until the crisis is over. And afterward, do a review and see what you can learn about what you might have done better for next time. Because there will be a next time.

Finally, in a large organization especially, communicate, communicate, communicate. Don’t hide the truth. Let people know what you know and how you are making decisions. Ask for help, advice, ideas (if and when you have the time).

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

In order to do all the things, I describe above, you have to practice. You need a dedicated emergency planner (sometimes an outside consultant) to walk you and your senior team through scenarios — once a quarter or something. This just gets people used to stopping to “maintain aircraft control”. Meaning breathing through your noses and getting together as a team — as you have practiced — to analyze the situation, collect all the information you can, and make some decisions on how to act. Knowing who is generally supposed to do what is key. Hopefully you have built enough trust as a leader that if you have to make quick decisions, people will act and you can trust that they will know how to adapt on the fly.

Don’t worry too much about picking the perfect scenarios to plan for. You can choose the “Most likely and most dangerous” ones you can think of, but the scenario is less important than the decision making and communications processes you think through when you practice them.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

The first thing you should do is breathe. Long, deep breaths through your nose! The second thing is to call your team together and collect all the facts. Stay calm throughout it all. Make some decisions based on what you know (understanding that you likely do not and cannot know all), and decide who will do what. Robustly communicate the situation and the decisions. Repeat.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Planning, teamwork, and staying calm all help. As soon as possible, think about what is next. In the air force, we call this “staying ahead of the jet”. Anticipating what decisions will come next and how you will approach them. John Boyd called this an “OODA loop”: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, and it can be done at a strategic pace (think futures planning) or a tactical pace (think dog fighting fighter planes). Thinking ahead of the jet, or your enemy, or your scenario, is what will get you to the other side.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I learned a lot from some of my amazing leaders in the Pentagon: Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, Undersecretary for Policy, Michele Flournoy and Deputy Undersecretary for Strategy, Plans, and Force Development, Kath Hicks. All had very different styles, but they shared a respect for informed and inclusive decision making. They fully understood the context of their roles and the importance of empowering their people and in giving the organization time (if possible) to digest the problem and come up with their own solutions. This makes buy-in and successful implementation more likely. During the Iraq war Secretary Gates also made it clear that everyone’s job was to focus on his 3 priorities: Iraq, Iraq, and Iraq. From them, I also learned the power of trying to stay calm, (which I am not as good at!) and listening intently.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

Sure, lots of them. I guess one of the first was flunking a class in college. I realized I really hated studying engineering, so I just stopped going to class. Turns out, your GPA is directly proportional to class attendance! I buckled down then next semester and the year after that and graduated with a decent GPA, but it wasn’t great. Ten years later I decided to go to grad school, to study what I was more passionate about and did very well. This taught me how important it is to find one’s passion; and I think about that a lot with my students now. They have so many people telling them what they should major in based on job markets or things vs. helping them figure out what they are great at or passionate about. I am convinced that if you figure that out, you will soar. If you try to fit into someone else’s mold for you, you will be miserable.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Stay calm
  2. Stay humble and ask for help. You may be required by your position to make all the decisions, but you do not have to have all the ideas.
  3. Stay ahead of the jet.
  4. Reflect: Learn from your mistakes (and your successes)
  5. Watch out for your own health — like the oxygen mask in the airplane

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

After spending 3 years on the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, one of the things that stands out is a bubbling trend in corporate social responsibility. Companies are recognizing that they exist in a larger socio-economic and political eco-system; and millennials don’t want to work for employers without a greater sense of purpose. I think this could have profound impacts if it is promoted in combination with our efforts to inspire more Americans to serve — their communities, their governments, each other.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have a private meeting with Bill Gates. I am fascinated by his massively optimistic attitude and his brilliance. His intellectual curiosity is intense and I would love to hear his thoughts on some of the major trends in the world and also about how he focuses his mind and energy to do great things.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @janinedavidson

Instagram: @janinedavidson

Linkedin: Dr. Janine Davidson —


President’s Video Page:

You can follow the Commission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @Inspire2ServeUS

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