Thoughts on Being a Three Star Flag Officer…Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek, SC, USN

Newsletter: Do you have a role model and why?

Harnitchek: That’s a tough question as I have been fortunate to work with and for many great leaders – civilian, enlisted and officer. So if I have to pick one it would be Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb, former Commander, U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM).

Newsletter: And why is he your role model? What did you learn from him?

Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek

Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek

Harnitchek: The first thing I learned from him is that you’re never too old to learn. In the long haul of my career, I learned the most about leadership when I served with Gen. McNabb as his Vice Director for Logistics on the Joint Staff and then as the J5 and Deputy Commander at USTRANSCOM.

One of the big things he taught me was the importance of thanking people for what they are doing. Thanking people, a lot, goes a long way, makes people feel good and it doesn’t cost a thing (and I was surprised how many folks don’t do it).

Gen. McNabb was also always perpetually enthusiastic and eternally optimistic and the command became very much like him – a determined bunch of go-getters ready for any challenge and confident in their belief they could do anything. Adm. Clark, when he was the CNO, talked about the importance of something called self-talk. And he didn’t mean talking to yourself. Instead, he meant that you and your organization become what you say you are. Gen. Powell, in his 14 leadership points, says the same thing – that optimism is a force multiplier. Adm. Stavridis also put it very well (Shipmate, June 1990) when he said, “A final element of the good officer’s approach is that he or she realizes that the world is little more than an enormous mirror, and that you tend to have reflected back whatever you send out. If you are sullen, overworked, exhausted and downtrodden, you amazingly will find yourself surrounded by others with a very similar attitude. Enthusiasm really is contagious, and people most frequently become what you think they are.” That’s some good stuff!

Gen. McNabb was also great at communicating his expectations with the command. His strategic guidance was clear, simple and consistent year in and year out. He was very clear in his guiding principles on how he wanted the organization to behave in terms of mission execution. In fact, they were so good I wrote them down and carry them with me. Here they are:

• We are living in historic times … doing things we’ve never done before … go make some history yourself.

• Push for smart things to do…don’t wait for the requirement…or for folks to ask.

• Nobody knows this stuff better than we do … so act like it.

• I trust and expect you to get things done … prioritize, do it your own way but get it done or ensure it gets done … and if that doesn’t work then do something else.

• This is your time … do big things and make it better … and if you are not sure you should do it, ask yourself: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

• Relationships are key … build them and use them.

• Keep promises.

• Take care of one another.

Finally, Gen. McNabb understood that planning is one thing, but that execution is everything. And while he rarely followed the details himself, he always ensured that someone was paying exquisite attention to them. You’ve likely heard the old saying about “the devil is in the details.” He hides in the details because people rarely look there. So don’t assume away the details.

Newsletter: What motivates you and how do you motivate others?

Harnitchek: What motivates me is the thrill and the honor of getting to serve this great country for as long as I have. It’s taking advantage of, and being thankful for, the wonderful opportunities I’ve had since I came in the Navy in 1977, the belief that we live in the greatest country in the world and the country expects nothing less than giving it everything we’ve got all day, every day, day in and day out. That’s what motivates me, plus it’s a lot of fun. In fact, I have never had a bad job and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is the best one I’ve ever had. So I’m very thankful for the great fortune I’ve had.

In terms of motivating others, it’s really pretty easy when you have a world class organization and world class people. All I do is assign the missions, ensure the crew is fully empowered to do a bang-up job and turn them loose. All I do is watch and cheer from the sidelines – that’s pretty easy.

Newsletter: What’s the hardest thing you had to do as a Supply Corps officer?

Harnitchek: The hardest thing is doing the right thing when the right thing is not the popular thing, when the right thing is hard, or when doing the right thing puts your career or your standing in jeopardy. Again, Gen. McNabb had some good advice. He told me that when you are faced with a tough call: take a quiet moment, look at all the other concerns that are clouding your decision, put them aside and simply think about the right thing. Once you’ve done that, doing the right thing, no matter how hard, is easy. And those other things take care of themselves or they just don’t matter.

Newsletter: What makes you love coming to work every day?

Harnitchek: A great mission, great people, the honor of service in the Navy of Farragut, Dewey, Nimitz, Halsey, and King, and the joy of accomplishing things in service of our country.

Newsletter: Tell me about the accomplishment that you consider most significant.

Harnitchek: The most significant accomplishment in terms of scale and strategic import was the Northern Distribution Network in the Baltics, Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus region. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of some big logistics operations, but that by far was the biggest. Since 2002 we were relying on Pakistan as our only way in and out of Afghanistan. And our relationship with Pakistan, like any other relationship, was good and sometimes not so good. So when you’re talking about supporting 100,000 soldiers in the field, Pakistan had become a logistics single point of failure and we needed some redundant capability. Our mission was to talk to those nations, with the Ambassadors and the country teams and see if we could establish that capability. We started that process in the late fall of 2008 and by the early spring of 2009 we had thousands of containers in the network. It worked great and in 2011 we lost Pakistan for over a year. Thankfully, we had the Northern Distribution Network to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

Newsletter: What in your career are you most proud of?

Harnitchek: I am proud of DLA’s response when Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard in 2012. The minimum DLA was supposed to do was to supply the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with one million meals and 200,000 gallons of fuel. However, given the scope of the disaster, we increased the 200,000 gallons of fuel a day to 800,000 gallons of fuel a day. We were fueling generators to power Verizon and we were supplying fuel to first responders, to hospitals and hospital workers, to police departments and to public transportation. Later, we got a call from Office of the Secretary of Defense…the President wanted to know if DLA could put fuel in gas stations. We had no idea if we could, but we knew that if anybody could, we could. The next day we were pumping gas into gas stations in New York City and Long Island. And when all was said and done, we put gas in 800 gas stations and hired a barge to move thousands of barrels of heating oil from Hartford, Connecticut, to NYC. Likewise, we supported FEMA with over a million meals per day. We leased industrial strength pumps to dewater basements, subways and tunnels. We assisted the Army Corps of Engineers with generators to power up gas stations and apartment buildings that had no electricity. We pumped drinking water up 10-story apartment buildings, hauled away over 75 million pounds of trash and debris and hired tug boats for the Navy to get the Port of Hoboken working. Watching our folks was a beautiful thing!

Newsletter: What piece of advice would you give to today’s Supply Corps officer?

Harnitchek: Create your own set of guiding principles or do what I did – learn them from leaders you respect and adopt them as your own.

Newsletter: What do you think you’ve learned over your career that will help you into retirement?

Harnitchek: The biggest thing I learned is that every problem, no matter how tough, is easily overcome when you boil the issue down to its essence, when you explain it in a way that everyone understands, when you approach the problem as a team, and when you hold yourself accountable for the result.

Newsletter: Did you ever think 38 years ago that you would be a three-star admiral?

Harnitchek: Absolutely not, I never even thought I’d be a Supply Corps officer. Back in the Stone Age I was half way through flight school and couldn’t pass the flight physical. I was getting ready to go to surface warfare officer school and one day the Supply Corps detailer calls and asks how would I like to be a Supply Corps officer? I didn’t know what a Supply Corps officer was and politely told him no thanks. A few days later, I mentioned this conversation to an old aviation maintenance officer from WWII. He said, “Mark, call that guy right back and tell him you’ll take the job.” That was a Friday, and Monday I was off to Athens. I’ve been taking good advice ever since!