Once a Pilot

John Jumper portrait

a Pilot

John Jumper reflects on his leadership journey through military, business, and family


pi·lot [pahy-luht] noun
A guide or leader:
The pilot of an expedition

June 11, 2014
Written by: Brandon Buckner

The Pilot only glances at his portrait as I slide it across the table, his eyes bouncing away with the speed of a fighter jet like the F-22 model he's holding.

"What are your thoughts on this one?"

"That's my official Air Force portrait that hangs in the hall of the Pentagon. You know, that's just something you've got to do."

"Not even the general can get out of that?"

"No, you can't get out of that [laughs]. I wouldn't have my portrait hanging anywhere if it were up to me."

The Pilot represents a throwback style of leader: self-assured and authoritative while maintaining humility and good humor. Unpretentious to the core.

I'm calling John Jumper the Pilot, affectionately, because it characterizes his leadership journey dating back to his earliest days in the United States Air Force. Jumper always seems to be piloting something—a fighter jet, an air force, a business. Later this year, he will step aside as Leidos CEO but remain chairman of the board of directors.

"What will your legacy be?"

"I got this question a lot when I retired from the Air Force, but I'm not overly enamored with this idea of a legacy. I don't expect the memory of my accomplishments to linger into antiquity [laughs]. You always do the best you can, you're a hard worker and a good friend, and you're loyal to your country, your family, and your friends. I don't know how much more you can ask for."

Jumper's tenure as chief of staff of the United States Air Force began with all the calm of a surface-to-air missile strike. On the morning he assumed command, Jumper abruptly found himself, along with his three-star generals, rushing to divert everyone they could away from the Pentagon's outside ring. Jumper ran upstairs to warn the Secretary of the Air Force, getting as far as the hallway outside his office, when an airplane struck the opposite end of the building.

John Jumper at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, overseeing rescue operations for 9-11 victims
Jumper (middle) at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, leading rescue operations for 9/11 victims.

John Jumper at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, overseeing rescue operations for 9-11 victims
Jumper (second from left) and others pay their respects during a ceremony honoring those killed during the 9/11 terrorist attack on The Pentagon.

John Jumper at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, overseeing rescue operations for 9-11 victims
Jumper in reflection at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

"What's amazing about situations like this is that it's sort of what you're trained to do as a military person. You're trained to be alert to these sudden changes in the environment and to respond to them. What happens is that a lifetime of training takes over and you start to organize yourself for whatever the crisis. So, instincts took over the second the airplane hit the Pentagon."

Jumper and his battle staff retreated to their basement command center, where they conducted response operations until the building started to fill with smoke. They quickly evacuated to a secondary command center.

"We were working to figure out what we could do to help the New York situation. So, we immediately—that day—picked up truckloads of field medical equipment and sent them up to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, and set up a field hospital to ferry wounded back and forth. But as it turned out, of course, there weren't very many wounded. Most of them—the people in the building—were killed. So, that setup ended up being the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] headquarters for much of their operation. We had a place for them to move right into. We then started with the planning operations to figure out who did this and what we were going to do about it."

"Do you consider it providential that 9/11 was your first day as the boss, or just a coincidence?"

"I tend to draw trouble. When I went off to Europe, it was the beginning of the Kosovo crisis. I was the commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe when that crisis emerged. I was immersed in that. I was in the Pentagon in my first couple of weeks as a brigadier general when Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm started. I have this reputation of having to deal with a crisis no matter where I go."

"Maybe that's your legacy."

"I've certainly got a lot of experience at it, that's for sure [laughs]. But that's what the U.S. military has people like me for. You spend your career doing this stuff, and they depend on you that way. That's the way they train you to be. It was an extraordinary event that shook the world, but we're just proud we were able to do our job. As profound as it was and as shocked as we were and as angry as we were, we knew that we had to work through all of that and get the right people in place to start the planning — start dealing with the situation."

"Anger—was that your prevailing emotion?"

"The prevailing emotion is to be the role model, be the picture of calmness, of deliberate action. You don't want to be over-reactive to these kinds of things because everyone is in a very tense state. People react to these things differently. You've got to be the guy that demonstrates that we've got a team, and we've got a job to do—let's set ourselves up and let's get started on it."

"It's the same in combat?"

"Exactly. You've got a strike package and you're being shot at by a bunch of surface-to-air missiles. You've got to keep a disciplined formation. You've got to get your electronic warfare equipment going. You've got to do the right maneuvers with the airplane. Anybody who deviates from that is not part of the team anymore. You can't stand to have that sort of thing. It's all about trust in the people around you and confidence in your training."

It's hard to deny John Jumper was born to be an Airman. His first memory is of his father, then a U.S. Air Force aviation cadet, moving the family to Japan during its occupation following World War II. His father climbed the ranks to two-star general during the "dream era" of United States' air power. When Jumper was a senior in high school, the family lived on the same street as Gen. Chuck Yeager and the Mercury 7 astronauts at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va.

"I got to know all those legends. They used to hang around the house. I'd listen to their stories, and they became my role models and heroes. I became captured by the notion of being just like them."

He pursued his dream, enrolling at Virginia Military Institute and earning a commission in the Air Force. He became a qualified pilot, and he was good at it.

I slide another photograph across the table.

"What about this one?"

"That's the heyday of my combat career right there. Udorn [Royal Thai] Air Force Base. My flight commander's final mission. I flew some missions in Iraq, too, only I was a general at the time. This was just a typical mission. We had just finished the mission and were about to go through the debriefing cycle. I've been in touch with everyone in that picture for all these years."

By the end of his command pilot career, he had logged more than 1,400 combat hours, covering two tours in Vietnam. By the end of his storied 39-year military career, he had followed in his father's footsteps and more, becoming a four-star general and serving as chief of staff of the Air Force from 2001 to 2005. Each of Jumper's three daughters carried on the family tradition, enrolling in Reserve Officers' Training Corps and serving in the Air Force.

In Jumper's life after the military, when he's not running a company or spending time with his family, he likes to golf, bird hunt, and fly-fish. He rides a Yamaha™ FJR 1300 motorcycle and loves to work on his 1972 E-Type Jaguar®. He's an avid reader and recently finished reading Robert D. Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography.

"It's sort of a counterpoint to [Thomas] Friedman's The World is Flat. Very interesting."

Jumper lived in 26 houses during his 39-year career, which is why he and his wife, Ellen, are committed to living in one house in their retirement.

"I think I went to 20 schools to get through 12 grades moving all over the United States. It will be nice to just settle down and have a place to call home."

"Where will you be, and what will you be doing, on day one of retirement?"

John Jumper, CEO of Leidos
Jumper will retire as Leidos CEO later this year. He will remain Chairman of the Board of Directors.

"I'll probably be right here, plotting the next step for Leidos—helping the new CEO and helping with the transition. I'll be very much involved with strategy development and other things I can do to be helpful to the company. I don't consider myself leaving. I still consider myself part of the team. I'm going to play whatever role I can play in the continued growth of Leidos and its maturing into the great company we all know it's going to be."

"How did you know it was your time to step aside as CEO?"

"When you employ the U.S. military, the first thing you do is pack it up, because it's mostly in the United States, and you take it half way around the world. You set it down, unpack it, then put yourself into a command structure and make yourself ready to go fight for your life in 72 hours. That's real change management.

"I took the skills I had practiced over a career and put those into practice in the business setting. We got through the hard work of the separation. My skill set was to get the management team aligned on where we needed to go, to make sure the management team was aligned with the board, and to keep the employees and investors informed of what we were doing. My skills were to try to organize that human endeavor of change management.

"The needs of the business are different now. You really need someone who is thoroughly immersed in skills of continuous improvement and driving the business. So, I think with myself going back to the board and with a new CEO that is able to capitalize on those new sets of skills—I think that's the best way for us to go."

Once a Pilot

"What are you most proud of?"

"Getting through the separation was the major achievement. Getting through the separation on top of sequestration, government shutdown, and the other headwinds we were facing made things even more difficult. I'm extremely grateful for the loyalty of our employee force that stuck with us through all of this and the talent we've got in this company that will allow us to realize our ambitions."

"What will you miss the most?"

"The most pleasant memories are when you have a chance to go out in the field and see what our people are doing that is creating the business. That's always the most memorable stuff—to see the exciting things this company is known for and continues to pursue. As Walt Havenstein used to say, it's 'worthy work,' and it remains so.

"You look at some of the research work we do for the intelligence community that you can't even talk about. There are equal stories out there in every aspect of what we do in the company. It makes you proud that you have people who can create these things, build them, and put them to work. Projects like Leidos Biomed, Plainfield, and our bio-thermal plant out in Nevada are all big, visible manifestations of what we do, but it's equally impressive when you go see what we do in the intelligence community, which in many cases are pieces of software or analytical tools that produce unbelievable results.

"I remind people, I got to see this from the customer side, too, when I was on active duty—watching some of the initial capabilities to locate IEDs [improvised explosive devices] —those are exciting capabilities I was able to see from the very beginning."

Jumper meeting with Leidos founder Dr. Bob Beyster.
Jumper meeting with Leidos founder, Dr. Bob Beyster.

"Dr. Beyster had a quote hanging above his desk for years that said, 'All of us are greater than one of us.' Is there a quote for your life?"

"Sure. It's all about being a part of something bigger than yourself. That's the way I describe it. It was first articulated to me — in a way that stuck with me forever — from a 19-year-old recruit who had just gone through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. I used to go down there and watch these ceremonies. Every Friday morning we bring a thousand new people into the Air Force. It draws a huge crowd, and it happens every week.

"If you ever want to be inspired, go down there and watch one of the graduation ceremonies. Watch these kids who haven't seen their parents in eight weeks come back together with their parents, and their parents don't even recognize them. You sit there, and you just sort of watch this phenomenon, and it's pretty inspiring. The transformation is absolutely amazing.

"I used to ask the kids, in front of the parents, 'Are you proud of yourself?' You'd have people say things like, 'This is the first time my dad said he was proud of me for anything' or 'This is the first time I've been proud of myself for accomplishing anything.' But this one young female said, 'This is the first time I ever felt that I was part of something bigger than myself.' Coming from a 19-year-old, that is a great testimony to life.

"It's a life-changing thing, and the door to new opportunities, all described by one simple trait of human nature, which is the importance of feeling that you're part of something bigger than yourself."

"You've led everything from a family, to an air force, to a Fortune 500® company. What characteristics tie these experiences together?

"The best thing you can do in a leadership position is to set the right example—by the way you live and conduct yourself, by the values you exhibit and portray, by the standards by which you live your own life. This is the best role-modeling you can do for people who are in your organization. For me, the key to success has always been the same: do the job you're doing right this minute the best you can possibly do it, and you'll be shocked at how lucky you get. That's always served me very well."

"Looking back on it all, at this very moment, what goes through your mind?"

"To me, it's all part of a life well lived. Looking back, I have no regrets. You asked me about the hand of providence. I feel the hand of providence in almost everything I've done. If I would have been asked to predict the next thing at any step in my career, I probably would have gotten it wrong most of the time. But things happened that put me in a place and a time that gave me opportunities that turned out to be extraordinary.

"The other thing is the importance of basic values that we seem to be losing as a nation—the importance of family, the attention we pay to our children, the importance of the example we set, and the higher order of virtues that are critically important in order to be satisfied with your life as you approach the end of it.

"Somebody told me once, and I've always remembered it, 'This is not the practice life. This is the real life.' The idea that we're going to get to these things later on that we know we should be doing—you're never going to get there. Start being that person and living that life and setting that example and being your own role model—starting today. That's what I think we need to get back to—the notions that made this nation great at its founding and the notions that make good people able to be satisfied with the life they've lived."

"As a father and grandfather, that's what you're after?"

"That's what you're after. Make sure you're not quiet about the things and the people you love."

The pilot sitting across the table, debriefing me on the span a life's mission, has rarely sounded more reflective, presenting a case with the abiding conviction so familiar to those he has served alongside, that his is not an occupation from which one may retire.

John Jumper will continue to pilot Leidos on its next maneuvers of critical importance to the world and pilot his family toward the same virtues that have collectively been his enduring wing man.

Image Credits:
John Jumper oil painting: photo by Airman magazine, painted by Peter Egeli, used and modified slightly under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license; The Pentagon background photo courtesy of David B. Gleason, used and modified slightly under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license; Photo of John Jumper at McGuire AFB shot by Gary Ell for the U.S. Air Force; Photo of John Jumper at Pentagon memorial ceremony shot by Linda D. Kozaryn; Photo of John Jumper at National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial courtesy, Airman Magazine, USAF Photo; C-7 Caribou photo by Wikipedia user, FlugKerl2, used and modified slightly under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license; C-17 Globemaster photo used and modified slightly in the public domain, shot by Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, U.S. Air Force; C-20 Gulfstream photo: by Ronnie Macdonald, used and modified slightly under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; C37 Gulfstream V photo used and modified slightly in the public domain, U.S. Air Force photo; T-37 Tweet photo used and modified slightly in the public domain, U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy Dunaway; T-38 Talon photo used and modified slightly in the public domain, U.S. Air Force photo by Sgt. Jeffrey Allen, USAF; F-4 Phantom II photo by Jon Hurd, used and modified slightly under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license; F-15 Eagle photo used and modified slightly in the public domain, U.S. Air Force photo by Shannon Collins; F-16 Fighting Falcon photo used and modified slightly in the public domain, U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway; F/A-22 photo by Rob Shenk, used and modified slightly under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license; Photo of John Jumper at Udorn (Royal Thai) AFB courtesy of Jumper family; Photo of John Jumper in his office courtesy of the Washington Business Journal; Photo of Leidos Executive team at NYSE, courtesy of the New York Stock Exchange; Photo of John Jumper at Nationals Park by Jay Townsend/Leidos, Inc.; Photo of John Jumper speaking at podium by Jay Townsend/Leidos, Inc.; Photo of John Jumper with Dr. Robert Beyster by James Aronovsky