You never forget the smell of jet propulsion fuel. The fuel, a derivative of kerosene, powers land and sea-based aircraft. The heavy, sweet, chemical odor hangs heavy in the air above U.S. Navy aircraft carriers at sea.
For that reason, the smell stays with Leah, director of communications and sector Communications Leader for Aeronautics Systems, who joined the U.S. Navy in 1999 as a journalist. When she smells even the faintest trace of jet fuel — at an air show or while working on-site in Palmdale — she is instantly transported to the USS John F. Kennedy (JFK), the conventional aircraft carrier aboard which she served.
It brings her back to the countless nights she spent watching nighttime flight operations, when she would ascend the ship’s island to the Crow’s Nest, a lookout platform high on the vessel’s mast. “Going up to the Crow’s Nest and watching night launches at sea was a unique experience,” she said. “There are stars for miles — like no other night sky I’ve ever seen — and these amazing aircraft.”
To Leah and thousands of other Sailors, the JFK is more than the ship she served on; it was her community, post office, grocery store, restaurant, and most importantly, her home. At sea, Leah worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Leah said she was motivated to continuously demonstrate high performance in the Navy, powering through her 72-hour work weeks. “My boss saw something in me that I don’t think I saw in myself. It was more than leadership; it was a work ethic. She tapped into that and made me see that in myself,” Leah said.
As a relatively junior Sailor, Leah was named the leading petty officer for the public affairs department. “Having to step into that position at a young age and navigate going from peer to leader was hard,” she said.
“One big thing I took away from that (Navy) experience was that being a leader doesn’t mean you are leading the team, it means you are part of that team.”
Leah, Northrop Grumman Communications Leader
That’s where Leah learned about the kind of leader she would become. At sea, Leah’s team was responsible for hosting distinguished visitors and escorting civilian media almost 24/7, along with writing articles and news releases that helped tell the JFK’s story to the public.
She also learned to tap into what motivates others to perform well. “I’m driven by being made to feel special and recognized, even it’s just a ‘thank you,’” Leah said. “My boss on the JFK did that and thereby taught me the importance of that leadership attribute. I still try to recognize what drives people and reward them for high performance in a way that matters to them.”
“One big thing I took away from that experience was that being a leader doesn’t mean you are leading the team, it means you are part of that team,” she said. She carried that lesson with her to other duty stations, including a deployment to Qatar, the Naval Support Facility in Diego Garcia, Defense Information School at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, and across the U.S. with the Blue Angels.
When she decided to transition from Navy Sailor to private citizen in 2007, she tapped into another lesson she learned in the Navy: professional networking. Leah reached out to a former colleague from the Defense Information School who helped her make a connection to a Communications leader at Northrop Grumman.
The month before her separation, Leah interviewed for a position at Northrop Grumman. She was with the Blue Angels at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California, for winter training when she was offered the job. “I was drawn to Northrop Grumman because we have a similar mission in service to our nation. Instead of being the warfighter, I was going to support them,” Leah said.
Her last day of service, March 19, 2008, was the day before her birthday, and she started at Northrop Grumman the next week.
Leah said she feels fortunate to have had high-quality leaders in the Navy. “I’ve had the same caliber of leadership at Northrop Grumman, and I know those leaders have my back even if I make mistakes.”
Leah strives to do the same for her employees. Though Leah left the Navy in 2008, the Navy and its lessons have never left her.
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