Suzanne Miller: “Don’t be afraid of an uncertain future”

“our human legacy means we are built to live, survive and prosper on this planet, under conditions of adversity” — Suzzane Miller 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 […]

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“our human legacy means we are built to live, survive and prosper on this planet, under conditions of adversity” — Suzzane Miller

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 Suzanne Miller.

Suzanne Miller is a retired Navy commander, who supplemented that uniformed service by civilian service in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations and the National Security Agency, and was an executive, program manager and staff scientist in several of the nation’s largest and most respected aerospace firms. For ten years she also was president of her own consulting firm, leading teams of highly-skilled scientists and engineers in successfully “doing the impossible” on issues of national importance. Between times, she also served for five years as the lay vicar of an Episcopal parish and now serves as a writer on spiritual subjects as well as singing both within the country and worldwide in prestigious choral groups.

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 grew up during World War II (WWII) in the tidewater Virginia area where my dad worked to help build the Navy’s warships. Most of my family that were of age served in the military during the war, and I listened to all their stories (my uncle, my older brother, my cousin) plus the family has a tradition of military service in all its forms that goes way back. Robert E. Lee was a first cousin on my dad’s side, while one of my other forbears served as a private soldier in General Washington’s Continental Army, for example.

As a child, I saw the wreckage of lifeboats from torpedoed ships that washed up on shore. That had a great impact on me. I learned about evil and how to confront it.

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

I tell my story of surviving and prospering under severe adversity; it’s a unique story but my abilities to endure and prosper were formed by military service and tradition.

To tell that story, in a credible, compelling way requires me to draw on some other personal traits that aren’t usually associated with the military.

I am a singer and writer, having finally retired from defense work about two years ago. Prior to that, I was president of my own consulting company. At the government’s request, I started up that company after suffering a severe heart attack. Doctors were finally able to stabilize me and keep me from dying but working full-time in government facilities was no longer possible because I lacked stamina. Instead, I continued to form and lead my teams to do the “impossible,” mostly from home until good medical treatment and diagnosis restored my vigor and, surprisingly enough, also brought back my singing voice I had lost at age 22, for reasons unknown at the time. As it turned out, that loss, as well as the heart attack, were due to the same immune system disorder that turned on my own body to destroy important body systems. The singing and vigor problems were both caused by a lack of thyroid, the body’s energy hormone. This problem was solved in 24 hours, once properly diagnosed.

Despite impaired health, at that time I was at the pinnacle of technical and managerial success. My latest team had just received a prestigious award from the Deputy Director of National Intelligence, for the most impactful and innovative scientific and technical work done that year in the intelligence community. Even so, I thought I had something more important to do: Share how new, fulfilling situations sort of evolved for me despite my disability.

I think this is so important. My young 18-year-old nephew Taylor (the son of my “former Marine” little brother) continued the family military tradition by becoming a soldier in the 101st Airborne but died a hero from a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan.

I knew some of his buddies who were severely injured by that bomb but did not die. I remember his units’ medic at my nephew’s funeral in Arlington. That soldier was severely injured by the blast but was not killed. He checked himself out of Walter Reed to be at the service and insisted on following the caisson from the indoor service to the gravesite, pushing himself along with his badly injured leg in a “wheely cart.” He cried when he told me how Taylor taking the blast had saved his life and that of others and how much he loved and missed him.

My nephew willingly gave his life to save others. The focus we need to have as military people is to remember and honor our dead heroes but also to uplift and support our wounded and disabled warriors so that they know life is still worth living. I felt I needed to tell them, and civilians too, my story, so I closed my business and embarked on this new path. We all need hope to both persevere as well as to find the courage to rebuild.

As my singing abilities unfolded, and once I was freed from the health-imposed sedentary lifestyle I had been forced into, I lost 50 pounds, burned all my jeans, let out my “girly” side and proceeded to develop my singing abilities. I’m now singing first soprano in some prestigious musical organizations, both here and abroad, and have just released my first song album (titled, “It Ain’t Over ‘Till It’s Over”). I also just published a new book, “Walking in Love: Why and How?

The goal of all this is to give people hope. To show them that nobody is very good at predicting the future. Look what I would have missed if I had just checked out under adversity. Even though I’m now 82 years old, don’t you dare tell me it’s all over. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. If I don’t tell the story, who will?

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

In 1959, I had embarked on a career in music, singing professionally at foreign embassies and a local bar in Washington, DC, (and making good money) when suddenly I lost my singing voice for unknown reasons. Instead, I finished my engineering degree, got a Regular Navy commission, and proceeded both to get married as well as see the world. The Navy had expected me to be an engineering officer, but I wanted to be a warrior. Once the Navy adapted to me and my personality, I ended up serving at a fleet command, as a watch officer. Then the Cuban Missile crisis hit. Circumstances had placed me at the eye of the storm. I performed well under crisis. The Navy really liked me! Unfortunately, I had other plans, so I resigned my regular commission, took a reserve commission, and came off active duty in order to have a family.

The Navy wouldn’t let go. I started doing technical work on Navy surface-to-air missile systems, and was encouraged by a co-worker, who was a retired Navy captain, to apply for a job in the Chief of Naval Operations “think tank.” I was accepted and found myself eventually ending up as the science advisor to the commanders of several major Navy operational commands, in sequence. As the admiral’s “science advisor” I had lots of opportunities to get things done, to engage and solve major operational warfighting problems. Of course, I had picked up degrees in management as well as science to give credibility to all my creative suggestions.

By now, the Vietnam war had started so I was deeply involved in successfully developing ways to save aviators from being shot down by the North Vietnamese. Then the Soviets started deploying nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines off U.S. shores. I became the chief scientist for the Navy Task Force formed to engage and neutralize that threat. Even though I was a civilian, I was specifically included in the military award given to the Task Force in recognition of our work. I also used my reserve officer status to do an interesting thing. I would figure out where there was an important problem facing the Navy that needed attention, call or write the admiral in charge, and offer him two weeks of my best efforts for free. This really blossomed and was one reason why the Navy kept promoting me as fast as possible up to Commander. I always got results.

I had also worked on some key Navy-related intelligence problems and did the preliminary design of some major intelligence systems. Two things resulted. I finally went to work at Lockheed Missiles and Space and later at another major aerospace company, TRW. In addition, I finally retired from uniformed Naval service in 1986. There was no way for me to go further at the time, but that wasn’t the Navy’s fault. They gave me every opportunity that wasn’t limited by the laws of Congress. The Navy always gave me a chance.

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

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was the senior watch officer (as a lieutenant, junior grade) in an Atlantic Fleet Command Center when a major incident erupted with a Soviet submarine that was equipped with a nuclear torpedo. That submarine became the object of an unfortunate accident when a U.S. patrol plane accidentally salvoed its store of explosive signals on top of the submarine. The submarine commander went a little berserk and started preparing to launch his nuclear torpedo to take out the Navy aircraft carrier close by.

Once the pilot reported on the command net what had happened I used the opportunity to contact a close-by Navy destroyer and ordered him to train his guns on the submarine and prepare to open fire at my command. I told the person on the destroyer that, once they opened fire, it was of the utmost importance that the submarine is sunk immediately and decisively. I could not tell him why, but I reasoned, “Better a Soviet submarine sunk by conventional weapons under mysterious circumstances than an American aircraft carrier sunk by a nuclear weapon.” If that happened, I figured World War III would likely break out.

It all worked out. The Russians got the message although I would have fired if necessary. Fortunately, the Soviet submarine squadron commander (on the same boat) relieved the distraught commander of the submarine on the spot and reversed that person’s order to the crew to arm the “special weapon.”

I learned some important things from this. The first one was how scared I was and how I handled the fear. I wasn’t afraid to die, I was afraid to let my country and family down, so I “prayed” to all the members of my military family (current and past) and asked them to send me the strength I needed. I then was overwhelmed with a massive surge in confidence.

The second thing I learned was that important national events are usually settled by worker-bee kinds of people whose actions can make a big difference. When the incident erupted, I immediately sent for the command duty officer and the admiral, but they weren’t located and showed up until it was all over. The whole incident occurred and was resolved in the space of about a dozen minutes.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

The reason I could take the action I did was that the U.S. Naval Attache in Russia was directly informed by some incredibly brave and noble Soviet Naval Officer that the submarines were being deployed with nuclear torpedoes for the first time and to be very careful in whatever we did. But for that, I would not have acted as I did, and World War III would likely have happened. The Navy immediately passed this sensitive information out to only those people with a compelling need to know.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

Someone who does their duty under incredible stress, without thinking of their own selfish interests but only their highest duty.

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

Yes. The Navy taught me the importance of doing my duty, as best I saw it, whatever the personal cost to me. It also taught me leadership. It taught me that all people are not suited to all jobs. You, as a leader, do your best to pick the best people to do the jobs required from those who are available but, also, even more importantly, nobody is all that great at predicting the future. A prime job of a leader is to motivate those whom he or she leads to bringing out the best in them. A key requirement for good leadership in both civilian, as well as military venues, is to use your position to form a common vision, giving everyone to option to provide input. You then synthesize all this into coherent whole and “cast the vision” to all involved, so everybody knows what the goal is and how what they do relates to that goal. This is so incredibly powerful. Once the vision is formed and cast, you could disable the leader (and a host of others) and successors would rise to fill in the gaps.

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

My boss at the Navy’s “Think Tank” was Dr. Ervin Kapos. He was the director of the Operations Evaluation Group. He saw talents in me (and others) that I was not even aware of then and put me in a place to use them where the Navy would benefit.

Later, he was still my boss when I was given an assignment to lead an important new project. Several people didn’t like me being given the job and even questioned (behind my back) why I was still around. A few days later, at an all-hands meeting, he told the assembled staff that he had heard rumors there were some people who were questioning his judgment regarding me. He told them he had made his decision but if anyone could not accept that, they should come to him and he would do his best to help them find work elsewhere.

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?

I define a crisis by its characteristics — unexpected but demanding an immediate, effective response to prevent serious bad consequences. In such a crisis the most important thing to understand is what everyone in the military must learn to be effective — that your ability to understand and control the future is limited, to say the least. You must learn to be comfortable with that, knowing bad things may happen no matter what you do. Even so, you must not let this awareness cause you to freeze under the challenge. To not act is, in itself, a highly reliable way to produce a terrible outcome.

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

They should pick the best people they can to be part of their team. “Best” in this case, means people having technical skills appropriate to their role, a certain humility about their own limitations while understanding the importance of principled action instead of inaction. If possible, they should also show evidence of being open to inspiration from within themselves. Part–time musicians are great at this.

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? What should they do next?

First, they should understand that our human legacy means we are built to live, survive and prosper on this planet, under conditions of adversity. If this were not true, humans would have died out eons ago. They must then choose an action based on the best knowledge they have. Creativity can be critical here.

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

As mentioned, humility together with not freezing under the challenge. Humility doesn’t mean ignoring the possibility of failure but also to allow for the possibility of unexpected success. We all need to do whatever we can do to help and let the chips fall where they may.

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

Retired Navy Captain Robert C. Hagen. I met him in the Naval Reserve after he had already retired. He had been the gunnery officer of the destroyer Johnston during the Battle off Samar, in the Philippines. During that battle, one Navy destroyer, four smaller destroyer escorts, and a bunch of “jeep” aircraft carriers successfully held off a huge Japanese Battle Force on its way through the strait to destroy the Leyte Gulf landings. They were well on their way to success when they were detected and met by an improvised rag-tag U.S. Navy force. The Commanding Officer of the Johnston, Commander (Cmdr.) Ernest Evans, USN, immediately led his ship, by itself, towards the enemy force to deliver a damaging torpedo attack and lay a smokescreen to blind the attackers. Cmdr. Evans then came back and took command of the destroyer escorts (who still had their torpedoes) and led them in a second attack, even though the Johnston had used up all its ship-killer torpedoes in the first attack. Lieutenant (Lt.) Hagen spoke to Cmdr. Evans as they went in, asking what were they doing attacking without any torpedoes left on their ship? Cmdr. Evans reminded Lt. Hagen that he was the gunnery officer and his five-inch guns could do great damage to an enemy if they were close enough and Cmdr. Evans would make sure they got close. He also reminded him to, “Do your duty.” A gunner’s mate overheard the conversation and asked the Lieutenant, “What’s going to happen, Sir? Are we going to die?” Lt. Hagen told him, “Probably so.” The sailor then said, “What are we to do?” Lt. Hagen said, “We do our duty and do our best to make it count.”

Lt. Hagen and the gunner’s mate didn’t die, although their ship was destroyed. This incredible action, together with unceasing air attack from the planes of the “jeep” carriers, forced the Japanese Naval commander to break off his attack, saving the Leyte landings and securing victory in the Pacific. Both Cmdr. Evans and Lt. Hagen were awarded the Navy Cross for their efforts. Incidentally, Cmdr. Evans was of Native American heritage. The last people saw of him, he was walking down the deck of his badly damaged and sinking ship, with one severely damaged arm hanging loose, smiling. He was singing his war song in his heart!

This story epitomizes the traits just mentioned as needed to survive a crisis. We won’t all survive the pandemic. All we can do is do our best to help and hope for a good outcome. Afterward, we are to tell the story and comfort and support the injured who survive and work together to rebuild the world but make it better than before.

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?

I had a severe heart attack about 12 years ago. The doctors tried everything — stents, bypass surgery, electric shock and a total pacemaker — but nothing worked. On a random basis, my heart would stop beating and then restart. The doctors spoke straight to me. They told me to put my affairs in order. They said, at some future time, my heart would stop and not restart and that would be the end. They could not predict when, but it would happen.

In my desperation, I searched the internet for some information that might help. I found a medical paper about an experimental new surgical procedure that seemed like it might help. I showed it to my doctor who convened the practice to discuss the matter. They all agreed it might work but was too risky. They had neither the tools nor the practiced techniques to do the surgery and there was a great risk of the patient dying on the operating table. They did, however, forward my case to the doctor who developed the new procedure. He was resident at the Cleveland Clinic. He thought I was an excellent candidate. I was in Cleveland two days later.

He examined me and said everything he saw confirmed his assessment. He recommended I undergo the procedure early the next morning. The operation consisted of inserting tools through my thighs so they could go up into my heart and repair the damage from the inside. The tools were a snippy tool (to snip away scar tissue) a light, a camera, a skin resistance meter (to map out improper electrical paths) and an ablation tool to close off those bad paths.

He explained the risk — that they would start snipping away live tissue or blocking an important electrical path, which would then initiate the fatal final heart attack. They would handle this risk by having me sedated but conscious on the table for 8–9 hours. If my heart started to protest I was to tell them immediately so they could stop and work elsewhere. I agreed.

It worked. He signed me out of the hospital the next day. There have been no heart stoppages since, but I was left weak, with no stamina.

The government really treasured my work. They asked if I would form a consulting company to be run out of my home, where I would form my teams of experts and manage them there except for occasional short trips into government spaces. I did this very successfully, for ten years. Then, three and a half years ago my cardiologist was doing his routine twice-yearly checkup on me. He cheerfully announced my heart was now healed and was pumping within the normal range so I could do anything I wanted, within my physical limitations. I asked him why was I still so weak? He said they had thought it was due to residual damage to the heart muscle, but that was not the case; I should get in touch with a good endocrinologist (hormone specialist) so I did.

He diagnosed me as having a life-long auto-immune disorder where my hypervigilant immune system would attack and destroy healthy parts of my body. He said the auto-immune disorder was incurable, but the lack of stamina was eminently treatable. He prescribed a small pill containing ground-up animal thyroids which would supply my system with the form of the thyroid (the energy hormone) that my body so desperately needed. He said within 24 hours of taking the first pill all my old energy would come roaring back. It did and, surprisingly, later, my singing voice that I had lost at age 22 also started coming back.

I am now full of energy and have fully recovered my youthful singing voice, which I use to sing with several prestigious music groups, both locally as well as worldwide. My rebound from adversity is obvious and telling the story with my book and singing is a perfect way to give hope to others sunk amid adversity.

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. Never give up. Humans have a terrible track record in predicting the future and death is a certain end to all future possibilities. Ergo: my heart attack story.
  2. Don’t be afraid of an uncertain future. You never know what will happen. The Capt. Robert Hager story.
  3. When unable to figure out what to do, do something, no matter how far-fetched it is. Follow your gut instinct. It’s better than freezing up and doing nothing. Had I frozen into inaction after my heart problem I would be dead now.
  4. Train yourself to go to that creative place inside yourself from which all great new ideas and inspiration come from. Then use the acquired capability to help you find your way in the present situation. The Cuban Missile Crisis story.
  5. Whatever you do, find some joy in it. Don’t you know a person can feel two different ways at the same time? — fear and joy, for example. I have known of warriors who went into battle while joyfully singing their war-song in their heart, as in the story of Cmdr. Evans of the U.S.S. Johnston.

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. 🙂

Teaching people by example and their own experience how to tap into that special place within us to find joy, strength and inspiration.

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 🙂

President Trump, to thank him for the incredible, sacrificial leadership he is exhibiting in the present crisis and to offer my finely-honed skills to help. For some reason, I am often able to see opportunities that others have missed or identify a fallacious assumption that, if discovered and removed, so often opens the path to what people (wrongly) consider achieving a modern-day miracle.

How can our readers follow you online?

Use my email address: while my most recent book web site is being developed and deployed.

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

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