Leadership Lessons From a Retired Navy Captain

Leadership Lessons From a Retired Navy Captain

Jo Dee Catliu Jacob was born into a Navy family in Annapolis, Maryland, home of the famous naval academy of the same name. Her father served as a diesel boat submariner during World War II. Jo Dee’s high school record earned her entry into the prestigious Stanford University in Northern California. As a “Navy brat,” she didn’t quite fit in with her anti-war classmates and professors at Stanford. From her dorm room, she watched in horror as students smashed windows and burned down the ROTC building to protest the Vietnam war.

“I didn’t share the anti-military opinions of my classmates,” Jo Dee recalls. “Still, I never intended to pursue a long-term career in the Navy.”

Jo Dee graduated with distinction in art history and then fought to find work in a struggling economy. She decided to accept a commission in the Navy but had not planned on more than a two-year stint. She never imagined how demanding those first twenty-four months would be. In nearly every one of her duty stations, she was the lone woman in sea of men. Lacking any female role models, she had to learn how to sink or swim on her own.

“I wasn’t expecting a cake walk,” said Jo Dee, “but out of fifteen different duty stations, I was the first or only woman in twelve of them. Even so, for every dinosaur I encountered, there were five egalitarian men who helped me succeed.”

While she was stationed in Subic Bay, the Philippines in 1976, one of those men, naval aviator Glenn Jacob, offered Jo Dee a ring. She said yes and they are still happily married to this day.

Once Jo Dee’s first two years in the Navy came and went, she signed on again, put her head down, and plowed through the next several years while working in ordnance, logistics, and international security. Jo Dee thrived in the Navy and along the way learned several important lessons about leadership. She felt privileged that most of her career spanned a time before the age of mobile phones and the internet.

“When you are eyeball to eyeball with your team,” said Jo Dee, “you can be a much better leader. I worry that too many leaders today spend way too much time in front of screens instead of leading people on the front lines.”

Through twenty-seven years in the Navy, Jo Dee worked for and with a host of excellent leaders. As in any career, she also met a few examples of the opposite. In her opinion, the difference is less about who we are on the outside, and more about who we strive to be on the inside.

 “Leadership really starts with people,” said Jo Dee. “I don’t think you can lead without having frequent interactions with people and without being kind, caring, and thoughtful. I try to treat people like expensive Waterford goblets that should be treasured. I think of them as vessels that deserve to be wrapped in velvet cases to be used again, and not just cups that are used once and then thrown away. I always place a Dixie Cup® on my desk to remind me of that.”

Jo Dee eventually attained the rank of Captain and spent her final tour of duty commanding the naval station at Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean. Not long before airplanes flew into the World Trade center buildings on 9/11, Jo Dee retired or she might have been at the Pentagon that very day. Instead, she stepped out of her military life after receiving a pivotal phone call. The voice on the line asked if she might be interested in leading a large non-profit organization in San Diego, California and spearheading their fundraising campaign.

Said Jacob, “I never hesitated even though I didn’t have fund-raising experience. I was a top recruiter and I knew it would be easier to ask people for money than for their son or daughter,” she said with a smile.

Jo Dee jumped in with both feet and accepted the position as the Chief Executive Officer of Girl Scouts San Diego. At the time, the organization had 30,000 young girls, but like many non-profits, gaining visibility and donations remained a difficult challenge. As the newly minted leader of one of the largest Girl Scout organizations in the country, Jo Dee needed to solve these difficult problems.

With 9/11 still fresh on everyone’s mind, her girl scouts wanted to send cookies to active military serving overseas. Problem was, in the middle of a major anthrax scare, and given the expense and difficulty of sending anything by mail, this seemed impossible. Jo Dee used her military savvy to launch Operation Thin Mint®. She contacted a colleague in Singapore, Captain Jeff Wagner, and gained approval to ship boxes of cookies in bulk by way of commercial APL containers. Over the next fourteen years, the scouts shipped over 2.5 million boxes of cookies to tens of thousands of troops stationed overseas.

“The girls hand-wrote notes to sailors, soldiers, and marines, personally thanking them for their service,” said Jo Dee. “This was great for the girls because it improved their writing skills along with their geography skills—they had to learn where the troops were located. It also taught them how to open their hearts and give to those who were giving so much to us.”

This task, for the San Diego Girl Scouts, entailed a lot of work, but Jo Dee and her team injected a lot of fun and laughter into the process. During hundreds of meetings across fourteen years, thousands of scouts shared moments of levity in a playful way while completing the hard work required to ensure mission success. During that time, Jo Dee and Girl Scouts San Diego gained notoriety and received numerous awards including a national Silver Anvil Award for excellence from the Public Relations Society of America in 2003, a 2005 Nonprofit Leadership Fellowship from Harvard Business School, Lead San Diego Visionary Award for Graduate of the Year in 2015, and many others.

By 2017, Operation Thin Mint® had succeeded far beyond expectations. Not only did the service project put smiles on the faces of active military members around the world, but it also opened the eyes and wallets of hundreds of donors back home. When Jo Dee retired from Girl Scouts San Diego in 2016, the organization had 42,000 members and had increased Latina membership by over 3,500 girls. Under Jo Dee’s leadership, the organization completed two successful capital campaigns to raise almost $8 million for new construction and camp enhancements. A testament to the fact that to receive, one first needs to give.

Today, Jo Dee is a past president of the San Diego Rotary Club—the fifth largest in the world. For her service to Scouting, she received the Rotary International Cliff Docterman Award. She fondly recalls her service in the navy and with Girl Scouts San Diego, and the valuable lessons she learned across all those years. For active military transitioning to civilian life, she recommends joining a veterans service organization, like the American Legion, to stay connected with fellow veterans and learn how to take advantage of valuable resources available to veterans.

This article was adapted from information found in The 7 Secrets of Neuron Leadership written by former Navy Diver and New York Times bestselling author, W. Craig Reed. Click on the Veterans Publishing link for more information.

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