A personal reflection: a leader who mentors can be a lifelong influence

In an effort to use the COVID lockdown as productively as possible, I took on some long-deferred projects, including getting a few old photos professionally restored.  One of these was a 1975 group photo of the Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol (WCBP) on which I served from 1973-1975.  Looking at that photo after all these years brought back memories of some of the best mentorship I’ve ever received.

Throughout college and law school I spent my summers working in Wildwood Crest, a beach resort on the South Jersey Shore.  During those years I had a variety of jobs  (often simultaneously!), including laundry worker, janitor, rooming house manager, busboy, and waiter.  But the most memorable are the three summers I spent as a lifeguard, an experience that taught me a lot about myself and life in general.

(Because I had a military service obligation from ROTC, I never worked in a legal job during my law school summers, and didn’t even take a bar review course – something I do NOT recommend, although somehow I did pass).

The reason I sought the job is complicated, but suffice to say it was something I believed at the time I just had to attempt, whatever the cost.  As you’ll discover, I was concerned since I knew I had rather limited talent for what could be a very demanding job that occasionally required actual rescues – and I also knew the ocean can sometimes be a very dangerous place.

(l) talented lifeguard; (r) me

I learned a lot serving with the WCBP.  Among other things:

  • I found that at times we can rally ourselves to punch above our weight
  • I internalized the inescapable importance of taking responsibility for our own readiness
  • I discovered how crucial it is to figure out how we can best contribute to group success
  • I learned the extraordinary value of teamwork
  • I took to heart that wisdom and great ideas can come from everyone, and
  • I experienced how a mentoring leader can be a lifelong influence.

All these lessons and more proved invaluable to me in the the decades since…and continue to be!

Several years ago I tried to express some of my thoughts about how Bud Johnson, the WCBP’s chief, mentored me to success.  The essay below is a lightly edited version of what originally appeared in the Wildwood Leader on Oct. 25, 2006:

Seaside Summer Sage

Have you had a life-defining experience?  Had a mentor that influenced your life in a crucial way?  Lots of popular books these days like to claim that everything the author needed to know about life was learned at… (Well, you fill in the blank). Of course, nothing is ever so simple, but people do have experiences and meet people that can set them on a life course, for good or ill. ·

As an Air Force general officer with more than 30 years’ service as a military lawyer, I am sometimes asked about just such things, often framed as a question about my “secret to success.”   Quite honestly, the word “luck” is the first thing that comes to mind.   As true as that is, there is more.

Most people expect to hear about some military adventure or senior officer with whom I served. Yet for me the most defining experiences of my life occurred during the 1970s when I worked as a lifeguard on the Wildwood Crest beach. It was not the rather ‘Zen’ experience of watching waves and tourists that mattered so much; instead, it was unique mentorship of Bud Johnson, the captain of the guards, that turned those summers into real leadership labs.

It was no easy trick for me to get the job. Frankly, nothing I have done in life, to include the bar exam, deployments to tricky Middle Eastern hot spots – or even actual ocean rescues – was as difficult as the lifeguard test I took in June 1973.  It involved swimming [50] yards or so out into a rough, 56-degree ocean, and somehow pulling a 220-pound lifeguard posing as a victim back to shore.  What made the test especially difficult was the fact that I was (and am) a rather mediocre swimmer.

When I expressed uncertainty as to whether I could do this, Capt. Johnson told me something I often think about: he said “you set your own limits; if you think you can’t, you won’t.”  And he’s right; he was teaching me about the importance of positive thinking, and about digging down deep within yourself to ‘[punch] above your [weight]’ when you really must.  Believe me, that’s a lesson I’ve valued greatly over the last several decades.

I somehow passed the test, but Capt Johnson continued his mentorship.  He told me that given my ‘limited’ swimming ability, I had to figure out a way to contribute to the overall team effort.  So I worked to make myself the best runner on the beach, the guy who could get into the water quickly from blocks away.

No, I never really was the “best” runner, but I managed to become respectable, and I was able to do my share when it counted.  Discovering how to optimize your talents to productively fit into a complicated enterprise are things executives today pay big bucks to hear about at chic seminars.  All it cost me were some cut feet as I spent many an hour pounding down the shell-strewn beach learning to maximize myself.

But the most valuable lesson Bud Johnson left me with was the importance of what others can teach, regardless of their station in life.  I had already finished my first year of law school when I began my rookie summer.  Early that season he stopped by my stand for a quick chat.

“Charlie” he said, “you have a lot more education than most of these guys, but if you ever think you have nothing to learn from them, you’re done.”

He was right, of course, and I’ve repeated those well­-grounded words to scores of military officers over the years.

Thanks to Bud Johnson, lifeguarding for me was more than hot days, warm girls and cold beer (though there was all of that as well).  I guess I would say that everything (or most things) I needed to know about life, I learned on the beautiful beaches of South Jersey.

Bud Johnson, who also worked as a public school administrator, still heads the WCBP during the summers.  Under his leadership the lifeguard selection process, training, and equipment has evolved over the years to befit the sophisticated and elite organization that is today’s WCBP.  The reality remains, however, that the mentoring true leaders so generously provide their charges can make all the difference to those fortunate enough to be led by best.

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