Lawrence B. Brennan: “Know your limits and set boundaries”

“Don’t overreact; it’s embarrassing to abandon a ship which didn’t sink.” — Lawrence B. Brennan 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 […]

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“Don’t overreact; it’s embarrassing to abandon a ship which didn’t sink.” — Lawrence B. Brennan

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 Lawrence B. Brennan.

Lawrence is an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York City where he teaches Admiralty and International Maritime Law and is a Captain, US Navy (Retired). He served nearly 34 years afloat and ashore on active duty and in the Navy Reserve while commanding two Navy reserve units during wartime. He has extensive litigation experience in private practice and at the US Department of Justice, as an advisor to the US Department of State and US Department of Defense.

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 native New Yorker, the only son of a World War II and Korean War US Navy veteran. My paternal grandfather was a World War I US Marine and all of my father’s brothers served in the military between World War II and the mid-1960s.

My family has served in the US armed and naval forces since at least the Civil War. Three of my forbearers served on ships that were sunk. Two were lost — one at the end of the Civil War and the other during World War II when his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat in the Mediterranean Sea. A great uncle survived the sinking of his ship by a U-boat in July 1918.

I attended an all-boys high school during the Vietnam War, finished Fordham College in three years, and immediately went to Fordham Law School. I was in the US Naval Reserve while in school and went on active duty within days of being admitted to practice law in New York.

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

I teach admiralty and international maritime law at Fordham Law School. I write and appear on television and radio, discussing legal and national security issues. I advise about maritime and international trade disputes and litigation.

I was interviewed on CBS NEWS THIS MORNING the day that Iran admitted it had shot down the Ukrainian International Airline jet killing all on board. I discussed the fog of war and the need to protect innocent civilians and commercial aircraft from attack largely based on my experience with the 1987 incident when USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iran Air jet over the Persian Gulf killing 290 souls.

I write, speak, and teach about naval history, the law of war, admiralty and maritime law, leadership, crisis response, individual accountability and institutional culpability, military justice, unlawful command influence, and philatelic topics particularly naval postal history.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I served nearly 34 years with the United States Navy in both an active and reserve capacity from the end of the Vietnam War into the post-9/11 conflicts.

Some of the major crises in which I have been involved include:


As a Navy Lieutenant, I was the lawyer on board USS Nimitz when it launched eight helicopters as part of the Iranian hostage rescue mission in April 1980. We were welcomed home by President Carter on Memorial Day, marking 144 consecutive days at sea, then the record.


A year later, I was the counsel for the Navy investigation into the fatal air crash with 14 deaths and more than 50 serious injuries on board Nimitz. This incident led to the “Zero Tolerance” anti-drug program.


Twenty years after the Iranian hostage rescue mission, I was in New York on 9/11 and heard the first aircraft pass overhead seconds before it struck the World Trade Center (WTC). The sound of the engines being used to line up on the WTC was reminiscent of hundreds of days of listening to aircraft recover (land) on board Nimtiz. I reported to multiple naval commands that the aircraft intentionally targeted the WTC. I witnessed the fall of one of the towers and many of the survivors who streamed to Midtown Manhattan covered in dust and debris.


During my career, I served as the Navy’s Senior Admiralty Counsel, commanded two reserve units during wartime, and have been a consultant to the Departments of Defense and State. I have been involved in actions including the fatal collision between the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville and the Japanese school ship Ehime Maru off Honolulu in 2001, and the USS Vincennes shoot down of Iran Airbus 655 in 1988.. I investigated and prosecuted the two senior officers on a ship for poaching lobster in 1979.


I commanded two Navy Reserve Units during wartime. I served at the US Naval War College, the Navy Staff (Policy, Plans, and Operations) in the Pentagon, the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Admiralty and Maritime Law Division, International Law Division, and Management Division), Naval Legal Service Office, Charleston, SC, personal counsel to Commander-in-Chief US Pacific Command, Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic, Commander, US Forces Panama, counsel, Naval Space Command.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

The Iranian Hostage Crisis was the most profound event. It is an example of failure caused by multiple faults, not just the technical failure of some of the helicopters that were launched from Nimitz bound for Desert One.

The Iranian Hostage crisis has formed the basis of US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, for more 40 years. It has become the site of multiple conflicts involving US forces directly. Trillions of dollars have been invested in providing US forces in the region, expanding from the Rapid Response Force to CENTCOM. Navy went from a few ships to Fifth Fleet.

The Iranian Hostage crisis (1979–1981) was the most important political-military event between Vietnam and 9/11. It placed the United States firmly in the role, abandoned by the United Kingdom a decade before, as the protector of the Empire East of Suez.

There has been little, if any, national public long-term planning and assessment of the economic and human costs.

The Iranian Hostage Crisis was a military-diplomatic failure on the scale of the quickly aborted effort by the Wilson Administration (1919) to support the anti-Bolshevik forces with US Army and Naval forces in North Russia and in Siberia for a longer time.

The Carter Administration failed to recognize the risk it faced when it allowed the exiled Shah of Iran to enter the US for medical treatment for terminal cancer. The USAF flew many missions to remove people and material from Iran long before the fall of the Embassy. Contractors supplying military equipment sold by the US to Iran were ordered home and Perot removed his employees. There were multiple concurrent failures by the Administration contributing to the 444 day crisis that spawned a 24 hour news cycle.

  • The President’s failure to close the US Embassy and recall all personnel.
  • The President’s reliance on an understanding of Iranian representations to protect the US diplomatic personnel and property in line with International Law.
  • The total absence of a contingency plan in light of the known risks of the embassy.

I served as the Legal Officer in Nimitz during the Mediterranean deployment that began in September 1979. The days the hostages were taken, I was at Garmisch, Germany, for an Army international law course, thanks to Admiral J. R. Sanderson, and his flag lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Steve Coonts, soon to be a successful author. Nimitz departed Naples, January 4, 1980 and would not touch land again until May 26, 1980, 144 days later.

It is clear that there was no coordinated air plan for the two-part mission. The helicopters were an all Navy Marine Corps function, maintained on board ship and flown by USN and USMC naval aviators. The fixed wing C-130s were flown from friendly air bases by USAF aircrew. The two parts did not fly together and the USAF air mission commander never visited his helicopter component, either on board ship or while the aircrews practiced in the United States, until they were deployed in April 1980. The lack of a properly coordinated mission and the absence of a fix wing pathfinder aircraft were serious shortcomings. Most important was the failure of the Air Force to share with the helo pilots that Iran did not have functioning radar in the area of the flight path from the coast to Desert One. This was a fatal failure and the result of the inability to create a coordinated team. Intelligence provided to the helicopter crews stated that Iran had surface to air radar and that the helicopters should fly at low altitude to Desert One. Probably, the failure to share this intelligence was due in large measure to the President’s concern about secrecy — perhaps a lesson from his time as a nuclear-trained submarine officer.

Another contributing fact was the President’s near-absolute refusal to accept the risk of loss of life as aresult of the mission. While an admirable human concern, military mission planning is based on consideration of risk including the loss of live — friendly and hostile. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in protest of the decision to the launch the mission but agreed to delay the publication of his resignation until after its completion.

If the mission had to fail, it failed at the last possible safe point. None of the hostages were killed by Iranians and no Iranian nationals were killed by US forces.

While the main causes of the failure were strategic planning shortcomings, the operational failures of Operation Evening Light occurred after the launch of all eight helicopters from Nimitz, while en route to Desert One and later while attempting to refuel at Desert One.

The USAF C-130s and the Delta Force troops enjoyed a safe trip to Desert One at high altitude in air conditioned aircraft. After landing, they encountered Iranian smugglers and a bus load of travelers who were “retained” by US forces and released before Desert One was abandoned.

The naval aviators flew the eight old, brutally hot RH53s “on the deck” to avoid non-existent Iranian radar. There was no direct communications between the helicopters and USAF aircraft or headquarters. The helicopters had to land and rig a secure communications radio. One helicopter was lost to a mechanical failure but its crew rescued by its wingman; another returned to Nimitz. While flying over the desert, the helicopters encountered two haboobs, well-documented sand storms mentioned in the Fodor’s guide for Iran.

Belatedly, six helicopters arrived at Desert ONE; there another helicopter, a third RH 53, was grounded because of mechanical failures. The number of operable helicopters fell below the six minimum. This resulted in a decision, approved by the President, to abort the mission.

The refueling disaster was caused by having too many aircraft in too small a place with no traffic controllers. It resulted in the loss of six helos, one C-130, and eight men. More troubling, it denied the opportunity to again attempt the same mission in the near future.

A serious planning and operational failure was the near-total lack of Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (C3I) support.

The decision to abort was made despite the fact that there were five functioning helicopters, the number required by the plan that could have flown on to Desert Two. Even fewer helicopters were required to fly from Desert Two to the compound and back.

The lack of a contingency plan was a major factor in the mission failure. There never was a practiced mission alternative to have Delta Force act as paratroopers and drop at a jump site near Desert Two, and join up with the necessary minimum number of helicopters, trucks, and drivers prepositioned near Teheran The plan required near perfection and lacked an alternative (Plan B) for the complex long-range missions.

Personal heroism was present in the midst of disaster. Men rescued others from burning aircraft. Delta Force retired Command Sergeant Major Mike Vining “cut out” a helo pilot from his cockpit seat straps in a burning RH53. One of the great failures was the loss of classified mission papers which were found by the Iranian forces because the helicopters were not destroyed.

Nimitz returned to Norfolk and was met by President Carter on Memorial Day, May 26, 1980. It was the first time a president visited a returning ship at least since President Truman participated in a victory fleet review in New York on Navy Day, October 27, 1945.

The failed Hostage Rescue Mission was a major issue in the 1980 presidential election. .During the next 12 years US policy was far more aggressive in the Persian Gulf area. Just over a year after returning from the rescue mission, Nimitz and Carrier Air Wing Eight had two F-14A Tomcats from Fighter Squadron 41 shoot down a pair of Libyan fighters near the “Line of Death” drawn by Colonel Kaddafi in the Mediterranean Sea beyond the Gulf of Sidra.

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

Planning, being prepared, communicating, remaining calm and focused, anticipating, and having alternatives are essential for success.

The Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is reminiscent of time I spent at sea, during the Iranian Hostage crisis, on board Nimitz; in 1980 we spent 144 consecutive days underway, mostly in the Indian Ocean. That set a record for consecutive days at sea, something facilitated by nuclear power and a worldwide logistics system.

Nearly 20 years later, I was in New York City on 9/11. A Navy shipmate escaped her WTC office and we spent the remainder of the day planning what to do and seeing if we could be of help. Perhaps the most brutal memory of that day was offering to donate blood at an uptown hospital and being told that there was no need — a clear message that there would be no survivors from the Twin Towers. The view of the smoke rising from WTC that had stood there 10 hours before was indelible.

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?

Captain Herbert Fox Rommel, Jr., U.S. Navy was a Pearl Harbor survivor. He was an Ensign on board the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB 37) which capsized with the loss of 419 officers and men, the second-highest number of fatalities following USS Arizona (BB 39). He famously announced to Oklahoma’s crew “General Quarters. Air Raid-no shit.” Herb, who disliked vulgarity, added the course language for emphasis.

As Ensign through Lieutenant Commander, he served at sea in the Pacific from December 7, 1941 through the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, for 42 of the 44 months of hostilities. He returned to the United States for two months to marry and to attend school before becoming Commanding Officer USS Wilkes (DD 441) after serving in USS Gridley (DD 380) rising to Executive Officer. He was one of only five naval reserve officers to command a destroyer in combat during World War II. In total, Herb commanded five ships and then the Washington Navy Yard before retiring at Newport in 1969.

During my seven years at the US Naval War College, I visited with Herb nearly every month. We frequently talked about our shared hobby of collecting envelopes (covers) with postmarks from US warships. I thank him for the patient lessons in naval history, the finer points of covers and postmarks. Most importantly, I learned much about being naval officer, a leader, a man, and a father.

Along with my father, Herb taught me the value of support from senior officers. He explained how his career was advanced by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN — the great destroyer warrior of the Pacific. After coffee in the CNOs office, Admiral Burke said, “Herb, I will tell Jimmy [Holloway] to write orders for you.”

Over the decades, I repeatedly served with two naval officers who also had been involved in major incidents that failed to succeed. Admiral Bob Lunney was on board, SS Meredith Victory, operating for Navy’s Military Sea Transportation Service, during the Korean War. At the end of the Chosin Campaign near Christmas 1950, Meredith Victory rescued more than 14,000 refugees from Hungnam, North Korea. Among those was the family of the current South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Captain Lee M. Fuller, Jr. was a junior officer on board USS Essex (CV 9) during the Bay of Pigs.

During the course of my career, shipmates took care to help. Frequently, it was an invitation to follow them to a new command. Occasionally, it was a suggestion that someone would make orders available at a command where I should serve. In every case, it was a senior officer who invested thought, time, and effort to advance my career.

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 can be defined as a range of events that cause or threaten serious harm to individuals, organizations, groups, municipalities, nations and, as we see in the spring of 2020, the entire world.

Harm includes physical, economic, environmental, accidental, intentional (war) damage or threats to institutions and fundamental structures (governments, churches, school, and now media), as well as human rights.

A crisis can range from an existential crisis to a brief event, i.e. in retrospect, the physical threat on 9/11 was limited to the morning hours after 8:47 AM, and the days immediately after.

Like medicine and damage control on a ship, the first rule of addressing a crisis is to “do no harm”. Corollaries include the following:

  • Survive, fight the ship, assess the extent of damage, and address it.
  • Save lives, protect people, and treat the wounded.
  • Know your limits and set boundaries and secondary boundaries.
  • Be flexible and stay alert to changing circumstances.
  • Prepare for the long haul; not every crisis is going to end in minute, hours, days, weeks or even months.
  • Determine the temporal and spatial limits of the dangers.
  • Plan ahead and trust your teammates and verify reports.
  • Report to seniors immediately and request help in a timely manner.

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

There are few cases of first impression. Think, plan, organize, and prepare before disaster appears.

It is difficult to decide and act while under pressure. It is necessary to have anticipated the crises of a general nature and planned a range of options. Those serving at sea normally consider a range of problems such as fire, collision, grounding (stranding), storms (heavy weather), hull failures, injuries and death, oil pollution engine and rudder failures, etc.

Most planning is limited to “ordinary” or “common” adverse events. Economic problems are fairly common and normally can be anticipated. Most medical events have been encountered earlier. Even the COVID-19 pandemic has historical precedent but clearly there has been deviation between this case and other global medial crises since the 1918–19 Pandemic.

At the Naval War College in Newport we conducted a variety of war games culminating with the annual Title 10 War Game. These were designed to test the short- and long-term capabilities and plans of the US Navy, other services, allies and friendly forces against a not quite “real world scenario.” The games probed for the known unknowns as well as the illusive unknown unknowns.

At the end of World War II, Fleet Admiral Nimitz explained the value of two decades of vigorous and repeated Naval War College war gaming which ensured “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise. . . except the kamikaze tactics.”

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 moto of Top Gun, Naval Fighter Weapons School, has been “You fight like you train”.

Train, plan, review, expand and study risks and developments during the days, weeks, months, so that when a crisis inevitably arises the response will be well-known and people will know how to respond.

  • This does not mean that the response must be inflexible.
  • Define the extent of the crisis and the immediate and long term risks.
  • Stay calm, do not panic, and convey a sense of responsibility to everyone; work with everyone.
  • Take immediate action to prevent exacerbation of the threats.
  • Implement the appropriate plan and continue to modify and improve as required by developments.
  • Communicate with others, leaders, governments, even competitors to inform and request assistance.
  • Never forget Colin Powell’s reminder that “Optimism is a force multiplier.”

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

Mental toughness and physical stamina

Focus, positivity and encouragement

Never slack off or allow the quality of effort to lapse

Recover and accept personal failure

Adapt and revises short-term survival plans and long-term recovery plans for most crises.

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

Captain Richard A. Stratton, US Navy. A Vietnam POW, Dick Stratton consistently is positive and rooted in ground truth. His personal heroism is well-known. He was instrumental in having a young enlisted sailor, who was freed by Hanoi; memorize the names of all the known POWs. This was essential intelligence.

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?

Soon after 9/11, I lead the efforts of a national law firm to promptly respond to questions from the world’s leading insurers regarding coverage for claims arising out of the attacks. Because of years of professional experience, I was conversant with the issues concerning conflicts between war risk coverage and general liability insurance. Within 72 hours, we put together an initial report allowing clients to promptly resolve nearly a billion dollars of claims arising from the area near the WTC. This was an essential service while the nation’s economic capacity and communications network were in doubt. Soon after, the major US insurers publicly announced that they were taking the same course as we had suggested.

The importance of professional knowledge and experience is to provide timely advice and instruction to those who have to act. Few have the luxury of unlimited time and budget to conduct lengthy discussions that delay decisions and action.

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.

The fundamental rules in crisis management for leaders are:

  • Cause no further harm
  • Be prepared and always anticipate
  • Remain in control and project confidence and optimism
  • Communicate clearly and concisely; always follow up
  • Briefly express concern; praise while encouraging.
  • “Breathe through your nose.” Diver’s advice to stay calm and in control.
  • Don’t bring home everyday crises. When there are serious issues that could impact the family define them, plan, and respond calmly. “Hair on fire moments” are destructive. If you are not calm, no one else will be.
  • Find an outlet or a friend to provide a sanity check. We all need outside help to define our parameters.
  • Anticipate and plan ahead. Define the range of issues and options available. Don’t overreact; it’s embarrassing to abandon a ship which didn’t sink.
  • Life needs a voyage plan. Plan for tomorrow’s tomorrow.

Every day, every week, every month and every year is part of a continuum. It is the result of where you have been and the future may be the result of what you have planned. Short range planning is not enough. When I finished law school I went on active duty in the US Navy knowing that I would come back to NY and private practice. Chief Justice Burger’s admonition about the lack of courtroom experience was my prime motivation. I tried many cases ashore and had some success as defense counsel and prosecutor. At sea, I had a wide range of issues including the investigation and instigation of courts martial. Here, my priority was to limit trials to the most serious cases. Still we convened hundreds of special courts martial, held thousands of Captain’s Masts (non-judicial punishments) and many administrative proceedings. I extended my active duty tour to get a job I wanted-at sea on board Nimitz. I planned and knew I would take a pay cut and would lose the luxuries of living ashore in Charleston.

After those years, I came back to NYC and in a few years, took advice from a friend to work for the US Department of Justice. It was a troubling job for many reasons but I learned much and became a more experienced and rounded lawyer. I went back to the first firm and stayed until it imploded economically. I did not have a proper long range plan for economic disaster.

I went to another firm for 17 years until I was unexpectedly hospitalized twice within 90 days for acute pancreatitis. I had not planned for this risk and the end of my time at that firm. It is tough to plan and recover after an unanticipated lengthy illness and surgery.

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 🙂

Colin Powell. I want to thank him for holding the door open for me in the “Tank” when he was Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: lawrencebbrenn1

Also, I am considering creating an online blog soon.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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