A ‘fireside chat’ with RADM Melissa Bert, TJAG and Chief Counsel for the USCG

One of the real highlights of our 27th Annual National Security Law Conference was the ‘fireside chat’ I had with RADM Melissa Bert, the Judge Advocate General and Chief Counsel of the U.S. Coast Guard.  We had a very wide ranging conversation, and I’m pleased to tell you the video of the 25 February discussion is now available here.

I did not know RADM Bert before asking her to participate in the conference this year, but–wow–what a leader she is!  As you’ll see in the video, she exudes not just a keen intelligence but also the kind of authenticity one sees too rarely.  Unpretentious, personable, and downright fun to talk with, RADM Bert has a refreshing brand charisma you’ll see in only the finest leaders. 

So what will you hear?  Lots!  You’ll learn she leads a 500-person team of military and civilian lawyers, paralegals and administrative personnel who have responsibility for providing legal advice in a myriad of areas: law enforcement, port security, environmental, cyber, immigration, maritime matters, military justice, intelligence, administrative law and much more. 

Unlike the military services in the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard (which is part of the Department of Homeland Security) has ‘police’ authority, and this seems to make their operators especially oriented towards collaborating with lawyers.  As RADM Bert put it:

Everything goes through a lawyer. So even in the middle of the night, if there’s a big oil spill or there’s one of these narco trafficking cases that’s heading toward the US and we have intelligence on it, they still have to call an attorney and make sure that they’ve met all their wickets so that we don’t do something wrong.

One of the unique things about the Coast Guard is that their JAG officers can be detailed to operational jobs.  As RADM Bert explains, this can pay dividends:

And, also, it’s easier for me as an attorney because I’ve had so much time in operations that, the way I work with our operators, the way I work with our senior leaders, I’m just very comfortable with what they’re doing. I hate to talk to an attorney in the administration, whatever administration it is, and they’ve never even been aboard a ship or seen a port. We actually took a port field trip because we were trying to show people, this is how a port works.

She also shared some of her personal story as to how she went from being a high school student who hardly even been on a boat to being a senior officer in a maritime service bigger than many of the world’s navies.

She self-deprecatingly claims to be “an accidental two-star” admiral.  Of course, I don’t believe that because her leadership talent is very obvious, and advancement in the military has a undeniable Darwinian aspect. 

Consequently, budding leaders would do well to note how she underlines the value of determination and perseverance:

Don’t count yourself out because you see people who you think are more skilled than you or more polished than you or better than you in whatever way because people disappear along the way for one reason or another. And then you’re the one left. Don’t count yourself out before you’re pushed out if you really want something.

In her career she also saw the value of challenging herself:

When I was a prosecutor, I loved that. It was a lot of fun. But you can’t do that your whole life…I realized that I wanted to have a Coast Guard experience while I’m in the Coast Guard. So that’s why I’ve gone back and forth and done different things along the way.

Another lesson she shared was how to do your best work and–equally or more important–how to lead others to do their best work (and it isn’t by being the stereotype of the overbearing officer):

[Another] lesson is do what you enjoy because that’s how you’re going to do your best work. And, obviously, as a leader, you try to make the environment enjoyable so that people are excited to do their best work.

She covers a lots of other topics in the conversation: the Coast Guard’s dealing with Russian Border Guards; the challenge of China’s Maritime Militia in the Pacific, emerging issues related the Arctic, and much more.  As I said at the time, we could have talked for hours. 

RADM Burt is a confident, “tell-it-like-it-is” leader who also has a great sense of humor.  You’ll really enjoy watching this one (here)!

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