Cutler Dawson’s New Book Provides A Model For Leading In Every Area Of Life – Episode 094

LFL 94 | Leading Model


Whatever area you’re in, leaders, more or less, have the same responsibilities and obligations. In Cutler Dawson’s book, From the Sea to the C-Suite, he shares a model he developed for leading, and in this episode, he breaks down what leadership should be. As a retired President and CEO of an 85-year-old company, he shares the experiences he amassed and the practices he was able to carry over from the Navy to the corporate world. Understand what loyalty should be like and what truly shapes a leader. Listen in as Cutler explains the importance of listening and the difference between listening to hear and listening to understand.

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Cutler Dawson’s New Book Provides A Model For Leading In Every Area Of Life

We’re going to be talking to Cutler Dawson, who’s the author of the book, From the Sea to the C-Suite: Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office. This was such an incredible opportunity to speak with him about his book. The stories that he tells in his book are both from his career in the Navy as a Vice Admiral, through his career as the CEO of Navy Federal Credit Union, which is the largest credit union in the world. If you’re a learner as a leader, you will walk away with ideas and inspiration on how to become a better leader.

Cutler, thank you for being on the show. I had the opportunity to read your book and it was one of the best books that I have read. From the Sea to the C-Suite, you’ll explain what that means to us. That would be a great place to start out in terms of what was the decision to put this book together?

When I retired from the Navy and went to being the CEO of Navy Federal Credit Union, I thought about how I was going to reach out and talk to the people that worked there, many of which had never been in the military. I found over my fourteen years there that I would tell a lot of sea stories to paint a picture on what I was trying to convey to them, and they were real-life experiences that I had. They kept telling me that they enjoyed hearing them. I truly thought that they did. People started telling me, “You need to write a book with your story,” particularly my wife. She set me up with this wonderful lady named Taylor Kiland, who is the co-author. We worked together and it came together. I decided that I wanted to write the book for the employees of Navy Federal Credit Union, but also for aspiring leaders and including those that are coming out of the military that want to continue their leadership travel.

What I found interesting was even when I read the foreword you said, “We wrote the book.” To me, that stood out. I was wondering if you could speak to that because hat says a lot about your leadership.

“We” is a word that should be used all the time. A lot of people slip into the trap of using the “I” word. In this particular case, Taylor Kiland, who helped me has ghost written eighteen books. When we started the project I said, “Taylor, there’s one requirement that’s that we have to have, and that is I want your name to be on the book. You’re doing a tremendous amount of work. I can’t do this without you.” She said, “No one has ever asked me for that before.” That’s how we came about. There are many people that are like me who wouldn’t feel right and most of the people that deserve the credit, get the credit.

One of the quotes that I will often use in a lot of the work that I do around leadership was a quote by John Quincy Adams. It says, “When your actions inspire somebody to dream more, do more, learn more or become more, you’re a leader.” What stands out to me in that is actions are inspiring and its behaviors. You exemplify that in the book as you write it through those stories of your interactions. I was wondering maybe if you could speak to that a little bit in terms of your naval career?

First of all, I love the way you described leadership as behaviors because that’s spot on. You’re not born brilliant and you’re not born a leader. You’re shaped as leader on how you behave, then it results in how you behave to other people. Not only the people that you work for, but primarily the people that work for you. It’s important that you exhibit the proper behaviors to get the best out of your people. I used to put it this way at Navy Federal. If you take care of your crew, they’re going to take care of you. You would be amazed how a Navy crew on a ship knows when their Commanding Officer has their best interests at heart. They will do extraordinary things for him or her if they believe that. If they don’t believe that, they may do the minimum to get by, but as John Adams has described, they won’t do extraordinary things. They will far exceed anything that you could do it by yourself.

If you take care of your crew, they're going to take care of you. Click To Tweet

What drew me to that is the inspiring part, “It’s not because I have to, but I’m inspired to do it. I want to do that for you because of how you treat me.”

How many people have we all worked for where we’ve said to ourselves, “I don’t want to let them down, I respect and like them, I don’t want them to be disappointed in me?” I had a Captain early in my career that took over from a Commanding Officer that everyone hated. He was mean and nasty. I was fortunate that I survived, and then this new captain named Pete Hedley comes aboard and he talked to you, he got around his ship, he learned who everybody was. All of a sudden, we were working so hard before we knew it, that we were working hard because we liked him and I’ll never forget that.

You talk about that in the book. You were questioning getting out at that point like, “This isn’t the place for me.”

Also, we were questioning getting out and this is a good lesson where the other officers on the ship, some of whom have never seen another a leader other than the one that was nasty and bad. Fortunately, I had seen others before and I knew there was Pete Hedley in my future. Lo and behold, he showed up. Those officers that were also thinking about getting out all stayed in.

He sounds like he was a pretty special individual.

He is and he was. We all have Pete Hedleys in our backgrounds.

There was a story that I remember reading about, and I’m not sure if it was with him or not, but it was when you were trying to raise morale and you had some of the sailors out on a power boat around burning gas. I’d love if you could talk about that because that’s a great story.

LFL 94 | Leading Model

Leading Model: You’re not born a leader. You’re shaped as a leader on how you behave, and then it results in how you behave towards other people.


That’s a Pete Hedley story. He was trying to raise the morale of the officers particularly on the ship because he figured that if the officers had high morale, they’re going to inspire their sailors to have the same and it worked. There was a small boat that was attached to the ship that he would use to go out in the Harbor in Guam and we would go water skiing. Unfortunately, it was during the 1974 fuel crisis. He got called to task to see the Admiral to explain why he was burning fuel waterski in Apra Harbor. Pete thought his career was over. He went over to see Admiral Morrison, the father of the singer, Jim Morrison. He looked at him and said, “Why are you doing this?” He said, “To improve morale and to make being in the Navy fun.” The Admiral said, “Good for you. Mrs. Morrison and I would like to join you in the next time you go out.” We all can relate to that and it’s particularly relevant in the pandemic. Don’t lose your sense of humor and your sense of well balanced. It might be easy to like in a fuel crisis, but hang in there and try to do the right thing.

It’s a point that certainly should be listened to. In the book, one of the things that stood out to me too is you talked about wanting to be a high-quality employer for entry level employees. I was wondering if you could speak to the focus on that, but also how did that benefit Navy Federal?

Navy Federal has had a long history of being good to employees. My goal was to try to take it to another level. In fact, in many years of existence, Navy Federal Credit Union has never had a layoff, even in the great recessions. They believe in a bond between the employee and the organization. It’s the entry level employees in most cases that are going to have the contact with the customer or as we call them in the Credit Union world, member. You need a high-quality person to do that. To get them, you have to be high-quality. For example, another thing that Navy Federal does, we need part-time employees but we would give them full-time benefits to work part-time. That drives tremendous loyalty. In Federal, I used to say, “Loyalty is a two-way street. I want you as employees to be loyal to Navy Federal but in return, Navy Federal needs to be loyal to you.” That’s no different than the bond that existed in the Navy when I was there. To some extent, that’s one of the things I brought with me.

I’ll transition in the conversation around walking the deck plates and how important that was. How did that transition over from being on a ship to being in the credit union? What was the value to that?

It was a tremendous value and it was no different on the ship. I used to spend a tremendous amount of time getting around any ship that I was in command of. It had an electric impact on the crew. I also warned officers in command to not retreat to their cabin. We all need to remember that or not retreat to your office because the longer you’re in a position, the more you think, you know everything, and you have a tendency to want to stay in your comfort zone. I remember all my cruiser that I had command of. It was near the end of my tour and I’m out around the ship and I’m crawling under the number three generator in the up part of the ship. I got tired and I said, “This is hard work.” I said to the good parent on the other side, “You need to be out here. You need to see what your people are doing because they’re crawling under that generator and you need to be there and see that.”

You talk about it in your behavior items and you call it empathy. One of the ways I did that at Navy Federal is I did tremendous amount of branch visits. I would go and visit branches. I had one requirement when I visited her branch and I had to speak to every employee that was in there that day. I would talk to them about themselves. We might talk about business and we generally would get around to talk about business, but I’d ask them about them. I’d ask them about their family. I’d ask them about their background. I’d ask them about where they wanted to be five years from now.

I can’t describe to you what it did. I remember near the end of my fourteen years, I was visiting a branch and this young lady in San Diego said, “Mr. Dawson, there’s a rumor going around. We want to know whether it’s true or not.” I go, “What’s the rumor?” She said, “The rumor is there’s a picture of every employee outside your headquarters office and you know everybody by name.” I said, “We’ve got 18,000 employees. There’s not a picture outside the office. I don’t know everybody’s name, but I know your name.” She said, “Thank you.” What a nice rumor to have go around and that’s because I’m walking the deck plate. It’s what everyone needs to do. Once again, my point is the longer you’re in a position, you have to make sure that you get out and do that because you get new employees, you get new crew members and they may have never seen you before.

Loyalty is a two-way street. Click To Tweet

I’ve worked for organizations in terms of coming in to have to do leadership work with different levels. I’ve had executives that will say, “I don’t go out in the group. That’s not my place. I’m here doing something else.” To me, what happens is that employees give them the right answer, whereas I get the real answer in terms of what’s going on within the organization. There are many people that are unhappy and this person is removed that they don’t realize that their behaviors are creating such a poor environment.

You have to also think about what you’re doing when you get out and about. You learn things but you can’t come back to the headquarters and punish people for things that you pick up out in the deck plates. I got in the Navy Federal and on my first trip I went to Pensacola. This young manager down there was assigned to take me around. My wife was with me on this trip. We’re going to the first stop and I started asking her questions. I’ve been the CEO for one month. I see this look of terror in her face, “What am I going to do?” She’s thinking, “How can I get these answers embedded through my chain of command before I answered his question?”

I figured that out quickly and I said, “Michelle, we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” She said, “What’s that, Mr. Dawson?” I said, “The easy way is I ask you questions and you give me answers. You tell me the best answer that you have. The hard way is I reach in my briefcase and pull out this rubber hose and beat the hell out of me.” My wife jived in at the time and said, “Michelle, he wants to know what you have to say. He does not have a rubber hose in his brief case.” Fast forward fourteen years later, I’m saying my goodbyes and I see Michelle and she presents me with a rubber hose. I still have that rubber hose.

There was another one along those lines that I remember you talking about where you were going into a branch and the answer seemed to be canned. You were getting the same answer. I was wondering if you could speak to that.

Everybody wants to think things to go well for the boss. My philosophy is it is what it is. You can’t deal with it unless you know where your challenges are and what they are. I noticed in a branch visit to San Diego that I was getting the same questions and the same answers to my questions. I figured out quickly that they had been scripted by the regional manager. I completed the visit and I called him up. I said, “You can’t do this. This doesn’t help me and they’ll do it again.” When I left fourteen years later, he’s still at Navy Federal. He learned quickly but I’d have gotten rid of him if it had happened again.

Which is important because the frontline employees look to you as they need you to defend them. As a leader, if you want the real answer and they give it to you, but it doesn’t look favorably, then they’re looking at you like, “Who’s going to protect me?” That’s what happens in organizations a lot is they would love to say what’s going on, but they don’t feel that somebody truly is going to be an advocate for them. They’ll say it and then they’re expendable. It’s over.

Other things can happen too. I had an experience. Even though I’m retired, I visited a branch in San Diego in the beginning of this crisis. I’m the ex-CEO but I still care about them. I wanted to check on their morale and how they were doing. They were doing great. It turns out there’s a young lady that I had helped many years before that was in the brand. What had happened many years before was I had made a visit and I was talking to her. I sensed that something wasn’t right.

LFL 94 | Leading Model

Leading Model: The longer you’re in a position, the more you think you know everything. You have a tendency to want to stay where you’re in your comfort zone.


I left and I’m with the regional manager. I said, “What’s going on with this young lady?” He goes, “We moved her branch at her request because she got married and she’s gotten a divorce. Now, she can’t get back up an hour away to our other branch because we don’t have a billet for her.” She wasn’t going to tell me that. She wasn’t going to burden me with that, but I sense that something was not quite right. I said, “We’re to create a new billet for her up North and I want her transferred tomorrow.” Many years later, I come in. I hadn’t seen her since then, despite all the social distance and I got the biggest hug I’ve ever had in my lifetime. The message is it’s beyond immediate. You’ve got to pick up on the sense of things too.

In the book, you talk about that in terms of listening to hear versus listening to understand. To me, that seems to be an example of even what wasn’t being said, you were listening to understand that something didn’t jive or something was wrong.

That makes sense that sometimes you can learn when people don’t say the truth.

It’s what we don’t say or what our body language says. We don’t have to say a word. That speaks for us.

Without speaking or listening, I had a thought for everybody that I also believe the longer you’re in a position, the more tendency you have to talk rather than listen. You do it for good reasons. You do it that you’ve seen things and you’ve experienced things and you want to impart your experience and your wisdom on the people that work for you. The problem with that is if you overdo that part, you’re not listening anymore and you don’t learn anything when you’re not listening. You’ve got to try to reach the right balance.

I always remember being in sales starting out. We were always told, “You have two ears and one mouth. Use that ratio.”

I was working in Congressional Affairs for the Navy. One of my officers took a trip with a Senate staffer. When he got back, I said, “How did it go?” He goes, “It’s great. I like him.” I go, “That’s not important. How did he like you?” How does the customer like you? You may like the customer in what he or she spends, but are they liking you in return?

The longer you're in a position, the more tendency you have to talk, rather than listen. Click To Tweet

Your employees are your ultimate customers.

I was at a conference on Wall Street many years ago. I’m talking to the CEO of Hartford Insurance Company. He said to me, “What’s the most important thing to you at your work at Navy Federal?” I said, “My employees are my most important thing because if they’re not taken care of and they’re not motivated, our customers aren’t going to be happy.” He goes, “My shareholders are my most important entity in my business. Maybe I should say employees.” I smiled at him and said, “You’ve got to do it. You can’t say it.”

You talk about four answers in your book. That was interesting the way you laid those out. It sounds like that was shaped in you growing up, but it certainly transferred over. I’d love to hear you talk about those four answers.

When I entered the Naval Academy in 1966, that was one of the first things that was taught to all of us. In the Navy, there are four acceptable answers to any questions and it’s a generic response: “Yes, sir.” “No, sir” “No excuse, sir” and “I’ll find out, sir.” “Yes, sir and no, sir” are obvious but let’s talk about the last two. “No excuse” means that if you make a mistake, you own the mistake. You don’t blame other people. You don’t blame the people that work for you. You don’t blame the fact that you didn’t have all the information you needed. You said, “No excuse. I will do better.” With regards to when you ask a question, if you don’t know the answer, don’t make up an answer because that can have disastrous consequences.

As you can imagine in the military, if you turn to your navigator and say, “Are we on a safe course to clear the harbor?” They don’t know and they say, “Yes, we are.” You might run a ground. It’s better to say, “I’ll find out.” If you’re the Captain, you can say, “Let’s come to all stop and not go out any further until we find out where we are.” I find those two answers to be the best. Let me give you an example of “No excuse.” I had a young lady that worked for me at Navy Federal. I had told her to put some controls in because I was concerned that we were going to be defrauded by a vendor that we were working with. She put them in and then two years later, she decided to take them out. That’s when he hit us. We’d lost money with him.

When I talked to her she said, “This is my fault. It’s none of my people. I’m the one responsible. I feel that I’ve let you down.” I responded, “You should have talked to me about this and we could have talked it over.” She lost her bonus money that year. It was about $20,000. She worked as hard as she could. She worked her heart out that next year. She got an out-of-sequence President’s Award for $20,000. That happened to equal what she had lost the year before because she was truly a person that believed in “No excuse” and she lived it.

When I hear “No, excuse,” the ownership to me goes right into another piece that you’ve talked about and that’s about the true north.

LFL 94 | Leading Model

From the Sea to the C-Suite: Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office

We all have to do some soul searching on that. One of my mantras has always been, “Do the right thing.” I pick that up early in my career when I went to command my first ship. I was 27 years old. I had five years in the Navy and my boss was in charge of seven ships like mine, but he had 32 years in the Navy. He wore a World War II submarine combat patrol pin. He had been in combat in submarines in World War II. When I made my arrival call on him, my first meeting with him, he looked at me and said, “Lieutenant Dawson, I only have one instruction for you. You do the right thing and I’ll back you up all the way.” That’s the way he did. I tried to tell everybody that worked for me, “Do the right thing and I’ll have your back.” Sometimes the right thing to do is not the expedient thing to do. That resonated with the employees of Navy Federal. It empowered them to do what was right for the customer and the members. At the same time, they knew that when they did that, it would be right for our organization.

One of the things that I think about, and I believe it was in the beginning of the book but certainly toward the end, could you talk to the growth success of Navy Federal Credit Union? The focus of it was almost like the byproduct of the people that created that. That really resonated.

Years before I got to Navy Federal, there was a Chairman of the Board at Navy Federal that put it very well. He said that, “An organization like Navy Federal should not grow for growth’s sake. It should grow because it’s providing superior service that people want to be part of.” Everyone at Navy Federal takes that to heart and I took it to heart too. We quadrupled in size by the time that I was there, but we didn’t think in terms of numbers. We measured our success in two things. One, member satisfaction and two, employee satisfaction.

One of the things that I would suggest for anyone that’s leading an organization, people don’t always know that they are in a powerful organization. For example, the Navy Federal came out on the Fortune 100 top places to work in the country list. In the past years, Navy Federal was number nineteen. It allowed them to realize how good they were and how good their organization was and that’s a powerful thing. One needs not to lose sight of that. With regard to member satisfaction, the other thing was that Navy Federal has become one of the most trusted institutions in the country. People believe that if they work with them, if they trust them with their finances, they will return the trust and that’s a powerful thing as well.

You have given many examples for anybody that’s either a frontline leader or an executive in an organization. The things that you talk about and your examples is a must in terms of understanding these things and what that can provide. I’m grateful for you for all that you’ve shared with us and for writing this book because there’s so much there that we can all learn from. Thank you for your service. What’s the best way for somebody to get contact with you as well as get your book?

If you make a mistake, own the mistake. Don't blame other people. Click To Tweet

The title is From the Sea to the C-Suite: Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office. It’s a good read for people that were in the military or not in the military. People in any leadership level will get some nuggets out of it. You can order it on Amazon by the title or by my name. You can also order it on the Naval Institute Press. It’s a little book with big print.

It’s a great read. I’m wishing you all the best.

At the end of each chapter in Cutler’s book, he lists what are called foot stompers. The term foot stomper in the Navy applies to if there was something that somebody wanted to make sure that they understood to pay attention to, that it was going to be tested on later on, that they would stomp their foot. That gave everybody the alert to pay attention. His book has many foot stompers in it in terms of the messages and the stories that he tells, in terms of helping to build better organizations wherever you are.

If you know somebody that would enjoy this episode, forward it onto them. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please subscribe. It would mean the world to me if you would leave a rating or a comment in regards to this episode or any other. When you do that, it allows this message to continue to get out there about finding a better way to inspire others. That’s what these episodes are about. There is a better way when we re-imagine what leadership can look like. Until our next episode. I hope you’re able to go out there and rise above your best. Peace.

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