Helping Others Transition: A Lesson in Leadership from the High Command

And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’ – John Fitzgerald Kennedy

This sweet-faced boy is my father at 17—the age at which he enlisted in the Navy and went off to boot camp to prepare to serve his country in World War II. Happily, the war ended the month before he was slated to ship out and so, by the age of 19, he was a veteran, back home with his relieved parents, and planning to start college with the aid of the GI bill.

He is now 90, and although his time in the Navy lasted just a few short years, his military experience has had a lasting positive effect on his character and identity. As one of America’s “greatest generation,” he has always viewed his service in the Navy with great pride. His love for both his country and the sea has never died, and he still wears a Navy ballcap as he heads off to the VFW meetings in his retirement community.

My brother recently found this treasure—one of the few letters my father has ever kept. Personally addressed to “My Dear Mr. Nelson”, it was signed by James Forrestal, the wartime Secretary of the Navy, and dated July 1946, the month after received his my honorable discharge.

It is hard to read Forrestal’s eloquent message of appreciation to those under his command without wiping away tears. He begins:

“I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed. I have done so because, without formality but as clearly as I know how to say it, I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and to remain with you always.”

What a lesson in leadership! James Forrestal was concerned with helping his sailors transition back into civilian life. He strategically timed the letter to arrive after the veteran was back home and engaged in the difficulties of reintegrating into civilian life. He wanted the justifiable pride that each of his men women could feel about their service to their country to help ease their path and to continue with them all of their days.

Lesson #1 TIMING

“And how delightful is a timely word!” – Proverbs 15:23b 

Forrestal brilliantly planned for the letter to arrive at the veteran’s home at a time when he would need it most. When you encourage those you love or lead who are facing unwanted transition, anticipate the difficult times when they might especially need to hear from you.

In the weeks or months after a funeral, when the casseroles are finally gone from the freezer and the attention of friends has turned back to their own lives, make that phone call and remind your bereaved friend that someone is still praying for them. Remember, too, that anniversaries or birthdays of lost loved ones are difficult. Send a card, or a least a prayer of gratitude on that particular day. Do you have a teacher friend who has lost her job? Give her a call and invite her to get together for something fun in September when she would have gone back to work. Go on a hike or to the beach with some fellow empty-nesters to remind yourselves that you were a couple who had friends and knew how to have fun long before you had children who now no longer need your fulltime attention.


“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Hebrews 6:10

If God doesn’t forget the work of those who help others, we shouldn’t either.

Forrestal takes time to vividly detail the vital contribution of the Navy in winning the war and retaining our freedom:

“You have served in the greatest Navy in the world. It crushed two enemy fleets at once, receiving their surrenders only four months apart. It brought our land-based airpower within bombing range of the enemy, and set our ground armies on the beachheads of final victory. It performed the multitude of tasks necessary to support these military operations. No other Navy at any time has done so much.”

Research in educational best practices has shown that for praise to be effective, it must be specific. Simply saying “good job” is simply not as helpful as detailing the reasons the effort was successful. In his letter to his troops, Forrestal gave a stirring account of what his fighting force had accomplished. For those who had served and returned home to face an uncertain future, a reminder of the victories won and the strength they’d developed as a result would have been heartening.


“The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” 1 Samuel 30:4

The letter concluded:

“For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The Nations which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude.”

Forrestal recognized the unique and indispensable contribution of each of the men and women who had served under him. Although my father never reached the battlefield, his willing service as he trained to do so was counted as just as valuable in the overall war effort.

As you look around at those who serve in your community, at your workplace, in your church, even in your home, whose contribution, however unobtrusive, can you commend today?

This Memorial Day weekend, as we remember those who died in service to our country, let’s also take time to express words of gratitude to those still living who made the sacrifices that enable us to enjoy our freedom today.