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Master Chief Musician Adam Grimm Of The US Navy: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

Be authentic — Don’t try and be something you’re not or act a certain way because you think it’s how you’re supposed to act. It’s okay to be yourself, to be honest and open with others, and to have some fun along the way.

As a part of our series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Master Chief Musician Adam Grimm.

Master Chief Musician Adam Grimm is the public affairs officer for the United States Navy Band, and a former saxophonist. He joined the Navy in 2001 and holds bachelor’s degrees in music and mass communication from Towson University, and a master’s degree in marketing communication from West Virginia University. Additionally, he is a graduate on the Defense Information School and Navy Senior Enlisted Academy as well as a Russell Egnor Navy Media Award recipient.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Forest Hill, Maryland, a suburb about 30 miles from Baltimore. I started playing saxophone in fourth grade and by high school knew that I wanted to do something related to music, at the time thinking I would be a band director. In college, at Towson University, I majored in music education at first and then music performance (with a stop at political science along the way). I was determined to be a professional musician and by year four and five, was practicing many hours a day, plus teaching and performing outside of school. What I didn’t do was go to all of my classes or worry about grades, something I still regret. Though being in the military wasn’t really on my mind, I ended up auditioning for the U.S. Navy Band in 2001 and won the job. From there it was off to boot camp and then to Washington, D.C., to be a military musician.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Today I’m the public affairs officer, which is like a director of communication, for Navy Music. We have 11 bands stationed around the world and perform for live audiences in the millions each year. There’s only about 600 Sailors in Navy Music, and we spend our careers in the public eye connecting people to their Navy. One of the great things is that I get to travel with our musicians, and I’ve seen them in action in every venue imaginable: a concert hall in Seoul, a rodeo in the Midwest, an arena in Oslo, sports stadiums, schools, ships, D.C. monuments, and even ships! It’s always amazing to see audiences’ reactions to the band, and the visible pride they feel in their Navy and the nation.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

After about 10 years playing saxophone, there was an opening in our public affairs office that afforded me the opportunity to pursue a completely different career path. By 2016 I was the band’s public affairs officer. The military has been great about providing me opportunities for training and education, from tuition assistance for finishing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, to amazing schools like the Defense Information School and Navy Senior Enlisted Academy.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

Early in my career, I participated in many funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Now and again, there would be no family to attend the service. However, the band and the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard provided military honors the same as they would for any other funeral. It always stuck with me how important it is to do the right thing, even when no one is around to see it.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

In the military you certainly meet folks who’ve done what we typically think about when we hear the word “hero,” people who do extraordinary things when others are in danger or when the mission requires it. I think heroism comes in many forms, though, inside and outside the military. There are folks struggling every day and rising above that struggle to do exceptional work, whether it’s helping others or just overcoming the odds to get the job done. There’s heroism in that level of grit and determination over the long haul.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

A hero is selfless and keeps doing the right thing, despite their fears.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

No. The world is filled with amazing people doing amazing things each and every day. Open your eyes and there’s so much to appreciate all around us.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Trust and empowerment are the cornerstones of leadership

Every organization is made up of teams, and a team can only thrive when everyone knows their job and has the freedom to own it. When you trust one another and invest in one another, there’s no limit to what the team can accomplish.

Know when good enough is good enough

The work is never done. We all know that. At some point, though, you hit diminishing returns. Our job as leaders is to take all our experience, expertise, training and education and know when to move on.

Communication is everything

I get that I’m biased because I live and breathe communication, but it really is everything. In the early months of the pandemic, bands couldn’t perform public concerts, so we adapted and went almost completely online. How we accomplished our mission turned upside down overnight. The biggest struggle for some was how to communicate when you couldn’t just stop by someone’s desk, or you didn’t see them in person every day. Good leaders adapt and are purposeful and intentional with what and how they communicate.

Perspective makes everything better

It’s easy to get caught in a bubble, but when you do, your field of vision narrows and you become less useful to your peers, your team and your organization. So get out of the bubble. People tend to think of the military as this monolith, where everyone is the same. Really, at least in the Navy, it’s made up of many large and small communities. It’s important to get out and see what’s going on outside your own little world. That perspective will make you a better leader and a better teammate.

Be authentic

Don’t try and be something you’re not or act a certain way because you think it’s how you’re supposed to act. It’s okay to be yourself, to be honest and open with others, and to have some fun along the way.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

While I’m still in the military, I think there’s something we have that can benefit anyone in any field. We’re a diverse group of people from communities across the nation (and the world), but we’re united by a common purpose and a shared set of core values. No matter what you do in life, how you do it is vital to the long-term health of your organization and your people.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

We stress this a lot on active duty: if you need help, get help. There is no stigma to addressing your mental health. I think it’s important for all of us to treat mental health just like physical health, both for ourselves and those on our teams. I’ve been lucky to not experience any traumatic events, but I make sure to never make assumptions about others. You can never really know how someone else is feeling or what they might be struggling with.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In the Navy Band, we’ve been working on several diversity initiatives. We’ve seen it happen time and time again, where bringing together different people and different cultures advances the musical artform and ushers in whole new styles. Diversity makes for better music. To that end, we’ve created a composition competition for emerging composers named after the Navy’s first Black bandmaster, Alton Adams. Additionally, we’ve worked with the Sphinx Organization and multiple Historically Black Colleges and Universities to share what Navy Music is doing and the opportunities that exist in the Navy for being a musician. Finally, we’re in the initial planning stages of a diversity summit where we’ll address a lot of diversity and inclusion issues in the music world.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Just be a decent human being. Have fun and believe in your team.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Communicate your vision early and often. Whatever that big-picture purpose is, distill into something simple and weave it into everything you do. If you’re able to get everyone to understand the “why,” and you take time to develop and mentor other leaders, everything else will seem like it takes care of itself.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had more people help me along the way than I can count. I had a supportive family growing up, that included providing music lessons and buying a saxophone, and never trying to steer me toward a different career path. My wife and three sons are always in my corner and helping me learn to be a better human being every day.

Professionally, I’ve had some great bosses and mentors, like retired Master Chief Aaron Porter and retired Master Chief Mike Bayes. They really taught me the necessity of remaining calm, no matter what the situation. If it seems like the world is burning around you, take a deep breath and reach for a fire extinguisher.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’d like to think there’s something intrinsically good about music, particularly live performance. It’s a shared experience between performer and listener that transcends spoken languages, and while we certainly use music as a tool to connect people to their Navy, there’s an innate goodness to music regardless of its purpose.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Be respectful to people who think differently than you. And keep an open mind. There are usually a thousand different ways to attack a problem, and it’s rarely cut and dry. Just be cool and embrace the shades of gray!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This might sound silly, but there’s a quote in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” where the antagonist tells Brad Pitt’s character that “they’ll have your head for this,” regarding something he just did. He says something like, “Nah, more like chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.” I share that with younger leaders; don’t be afraid to do something because you might get in trouble. Sometimes, words are just words, and they only have the power over you that you let them have.

That being said, don’t break the law. Just want to be clear!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I’m a big Baltimore Ravens fan, which means I’m supposed to hate Tom Brady. But I’d love to pick his brain and see how he drives that winning culture; what goes on behind the scenes and off the field between him and his teammates. I find it fascinating.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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