Jerry White: His Leadership Journey from NASA to The Navigators

“The biggest thing that derails leaders’ careers is not understanding themselves and their own gifts and limitations.” -Jerry White

[00:00:00] Jerry White: The best lesson that I have learned is that I need to accept responsibility for what I do, to admit when I need help and to be absolutely of high integrity and faithfulness in carrying out what I say I will do. The second thing that I would say was that people are my most important asset.


Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Jerry White, The President Emeritus for The Navigators International. Jerry enjoyed a distinguished career in the United States Air Force, starting out in mission control during the very early days of the American space program. He retired from the Air Force as a two-star general. 

I must confess that I was a bit nervous about interviewing Jerry. Aside from his distinguished military career, he’s an accomplished writer and is very prominent in Christian ministry circles. I even went so far as to ask Doug Nuenke, a previous podcast guest and close friend of Jerry’s to be my co-host for the episode. 

But on the day of the recording, Doug had a family emergency and had to bow out. In the end, it turned out to be a wonderful experience for me. Jerry was a great guest, very genuine and transparent. Let’s pick up the conversation. 

[00:01:24] Tommy Thomas: Before we get too deep into your professional career, take me back a little bit to your upbringing and your childhood. What was that like? 

[00:01:31] Jerry White: Let me just summarize that for you. And I’m headed back there within the next day or two because a cousin just died and I’ll be performing a memorial service.

I grew up in a little town in Iowa by the name of Garden City, 100 people, a farm community north of Ames, just off I-35. My mother had me when she was 17, my father divorced her, abandoned us when I was an infant. So I was raised in that little Norwegian farm community by my mother and my grandfather, and had a wonderful upbringing.

I still go back there, and I know all the families and they know us. And then that, of course was a disaster for my mother. What was a disaster for me is at age eight, my mother remarried, and we got in the car with a new stepfather whom I did not really know at all, and headed west for Spokane, Washington, leaving behind everything that I knew and loved and cared for.

And I was one upset and anxious kid. And I should say that my stepfather was a wonderful person. I have absolutely zero negative to say about him. He was stuck with us as a new father with a spoiled young eight-year-old. We got to Spokane, Washington, and it was in that context that a group of businessmen in post-World War for our country and the USA veterans were coming back and we had a community center there, and we were in a neighborhood where there was no church.

And he and a group of business guys, ordinary men, started a Sunday school. And I started going to that and really started thinking through and being confronted with who Jesus was and the gospel. And so, at about age 11, I made a personal commitment to Christ. And this man, Bob Sheffler, was my mentor for his entire life.

He guided me through those early years. My parents did not know the Lord and they later came to faith, and he didn’t know that he was discipling, but he was discipling me. And when I went off after high school, by the way, having been very involved in Youth for Christ and my church and many other things, off to study electrical engineering, it was Bob that drove me across the state of Washington to Seattle at the University of Washington, told me where to live, and dropped me off.

And it was there that I met The Navigators. My first roommate had been led to Christ by The Navigators and he started to disciple me, teach me how to have a quiet time, scripture, memory, and study the Bible. And so that was my early childhood. And it was traumatic. It was not easy. And but God stepped in and really changed my life, and I made Lordship commitments and ended up at a university in touch with The Navigators.  Though, The Navigators weren’t really very big then.

[00:04:47] Tommy Thomas: So how did you choose electrical engineering? 

[00:04:50] Jerry White: I was pretty good at math and none of my family really had gone to university and so I just fell into it. I said that’s one of the more difficult subjects and I’m pretty good in mathematics.

So, when I signed up, I signed up for electrical engineering. I didn’t know hardly anything about it, to be honest with you. And so that’s how I ended up there. And I struggled through, I made it, I didn’t know whether I was smart or whether I wasn’t, and stayed with electrical engineering and ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in it.

[00:05:27] Tommy Thomas: I was the same way. I studied EE and it was a hard road for me. It was a hard way to go to college. 

[00:05:32] Jerry White: Yeah, it was. We had a whole bunch of navy veterans who were electronic technicians and all the labs I would go into, I didn’t know what end was up, and they just did it just like this.

They knew everything and I was just struggling to figure out what end was up. And I worked my way through college. I did not have any scholarships of any sort. And so, it was a hard time, but it was also a time of tremendous growth spiritually. And it was there that I met Mary and we were married before our senior year in college, and she went to work for Boeing Aircraft Company, dropped out of school and I doubled up to 21, 22 and 23 hours and just forced my way through that last year of school. And on the day I graduated, I was commissioned in the Air Force and we jumped in the car and headed into the United States Air Force.



[00:06:31] Tommy Thomas: So, when you went into the Air Force, were you thinking it would be a career at that point? 

[00:06:36] Jerry White: No, everybody had to serve in the universal draft. I went through the Air Force, ROTC, and went into pilot training. And I was just going to serve. I had no idea, Tommy, whether I’d be a career or not because Boeing Aircraft Company had a job waiting for me.

And so, I figured I’d serve whatever time I need to serve and probably end up coming back to Seattle. But it didn’t go the way I planned. I flew for a year and was just near the end of pilot training. And though I didn’t know it, they needed to get rid of about a third of the pilot training class.

And never having failed at any flights or anything, I had one not too good of a ride in formation jet and went up and took the next ride and the instructor landed and he said, Well White, you can fly two ship jet formation. Okay, but I don’t think you’re gonna be able to fly four ship formation, and within three days I was out of pilot training.

Done. No recourse. So, we said, what in the world is going on? I’d never failed at anything. 

And so, we prayed and said just told the Air Force, send us anywhere you want. Just give me an engineering job somewhere. And with absolutely no hint from me or any input from anybody that I know, the Air Force sent me to Cape Canaveral in the New American Space Program.

Tommy, I didn’t even know who it was . And I became a mission controller, got right smack in the middle of all of the new stuff that the Air Force was doing. The man flights, the Mercurys, the Geminis, Atlas, Titan, Polaris, you name it. And every conceivable kind of rocket. And in that I got a new glimpse of the future.

[00:08:35] Tommy Thomas: What do you remember about your first management job? 

[00:08:39] Jerry White:  The first management job was in the Air Force. I was one of six mission controllers, and we had to manage all the assets on the Atlantic missile range for all of the contractors and projects that were going on at the time.

And the first thing I remember is how do you please everybody when you can’t give everybody what they want? And so, I would put together each week a plan for the entire missile range, for all the tests, all the launches, all the ground tests, and then walk into a session of 50 contractors at each other’s throats and mine for vying for time on the range.

And it really taught me how to navigate some hard waters. And it taught me that I needed to know what I was doing. And so it was a good time. It wasn’t classically a management job because I wasn’t in charge of anybody, but I was in charge of assets and had to work with people over whom I had no authority. And that was probably the best thing for me.

[00:09:53] Tommy Thomas:  I was going to say you may not have had the authority, but you had to have the influence. 

[00:09:58] Jerry White:  I did have authority in the sense that I could say no to anything when I worked as a mission controller, if I had to make decisions related to the range and the tests and with people who were far outranked me.

Because when you’re in the spot, you have the authority.

[00:10:17] Tommy Thomas: You’re the third general officer that I’ve had the privilege to interview. One of them, Jack Briggs at the Springs Rescue Mission, of course. And I don’t know that you’d ever have met Mark McQueen. He was a two-star in the army.  He’s a city manager at Panama City now. And he stepped into his job as city manager 10 days before Hurricane Michael hit Panama City.

[00:10:36] Jerry White:  Oh my goodness. 

[00:10:38] Tommy Thomas: That was a baptism by fire for him. I asked both of these guys the question, 

What’s the most important lesson you learned in the military that you’ve carried forward?

[00:10:48] Jerry White:   The best lesson that I have learned is that I need to accept responsibility for what I do, to admit when I need help and to be absolutely of high integrity and faithfulness in carrying out what I say I will do. I’d say that was the key thing that I learned. The second thing that I would say was that people are my most important asset.

Nothing happens without people. I also learned that even though you’re in an authoritarian environment in the military you don’t misuse your authority. You don’t lord it over anybody, but everybody. The colonels and generals who worked for me, I told them, I said, ladies and gentlemen, we’re overhead.

We don’t fix airplanes. We don’t fly them. We don’t create them. Our job is totally to clear the way so that the people really doing the work can actually do the work out in the field. I learned that by the school of hard knocks in terms of making a lot of mistakes and watching some pretty good people who were leaders.

[00:12:04] Tommy Thomas: I want to ask you a second chances question. I’ve got some good responses from this. Richard Paul Evans, a novelist, said, “Sometimes the greatest hope in our life is just a second chance to do what we should have done right the first time.” And I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity in the past to make that kind of decision.

What goes into your mind and heart when you’re thinking about giving somebody and senior leadership a second chance for something fairly egregious? 

[00:12:33] Jerry White:   If you have something fairly egregious it depends on several things. One is moral, the second is legal, and the third is judgment.

In other words, they just made a mistake. The moral and the legal. You have to abide by the policies in place and you need to hold people accountable. And I’ve had that both in The Navigators as well as in the military, but when a person’s performance is not up to par, then well, what I ask them, I said, okay, here is my highest value.

My highest value is if you tell me you’re going to do something, then I expect you to do it. And if you can’t do it, I want you to tell me. And if you need help, please ask. But please do not tell me that you’re going to do something and then not do it.

So, I hold them accountable and then if they, nobody is perfect.  I’ve had people who didn’t do all that I wanted them to do, and I have to discern whether it’s an issue of competence, character, or some other thing that they just did not know what to do. But the basic thing is not to wait until they fail. In other words, to walk with your subordinates, if you want to call it that, as they’re going through the process.

So both of you can catch it if it isn’t going the right direction. And in that regard, particularly in The Navigators, which is a volunteer organization, you really want to give people a challenge. But I still remember so many challenges I had that I did not have a clue what to do and had to get lots of help.

And I made lots of mistakes and people were very tolerant of me. Didn’t make any egregious mistakes, but ones that were enough to know that I wasn’t performing as well as I could have. 



[00:14:40] Tommy Thomas: Let me go to maybe a deeper side of that, and let’s think about dangerous behaviors that you’ve seen that derail leader’s careers.

The biggest thing that derails leaders’ careers is not understanding themselves and their own gifts and limitations. But the worst is when they have a moral failure. And I don’t necessarily mean sexually moral, a moral failure in terms of integrity and judgment.

[00:14:47] Jerry White:  The biggest thing that derails leaders’ careers is not understanding themselves and their own gifts and limitations. But the worst is when they have a moral failure. And I don’t necessarily mean sexually moral, a moral failure in terms of integrity and judgment. The thing I look for in a leader is that they’re a learner.

That they know what they know. They know what they don’t know, and they’re always on the grow. That is, they are learning to develop themselves and they don’t make excuses. When they don’t do quite well, they take the responsibility rather than trying to cover up for themselves.

 Anybody who will admit that they did something wrong and said, I need to learn how to do that better, I’ve got a lot of hope for that person because then they’ll grow, they’ll continue to engage. People gave me second chances. People took a risk with me on many things.

And put their own careers on the line instead of just saying, oh it’s too much of a risk. And I’ve had several things where that’s happened. I remember one situation, I was going over into a war zone in a critical area of Croatia, and there were some questions at the Pentagon as to why I was doing this.  And I had a reason. And the latter says, if Jerry says it’s important, we’ll back him and let me go. Because they trusted me. 

[00:16:23] Tommy Thomas: Let’s change over to mentors for a minute. You mentioned the guy early in your life that gave you the road to the University of Washington and helps you out there.  Who else has been an influential mentor to you?

[00:16:32] Jerry White: There were several people. This was a businessman, Bob Sheffler, who was my early mentor. Then in the Air Force when I failed out of pilot training, there was an instructor pilot by the name of Bill Waldrip. He became very significant in leadership in the Officers Christian Fellowship.

And Bill and Doris really were our friends, and he was a mentor who was always there. We worked together through the years, both with The Navs and with Officers Christian Fellowship (OCF) and I would ask him for council when I was going to leave the Air Force and come full-time with The Navigators. Bill is one of the men that I called and asked for counsel.

I had a pastor back in Dayton, Ohio, who was a wonderful man, and he really believed in us. Here we were just young. Officers, little kids. And he believed in us and he encouraged us. And then later on Loren Sanny, the former president of the Navigators and Leroy Eims, one of our key early leaders in The Navigators, all were wonderful mentors to me.

And whether it was intentional mentoring, I don’t know, but what they did is they gave me opportunities and they gave me counsel and they interacted with me. And I would listen to them very carefully as to their teaching and learn from them. Each of these people were very different.

I don’t know if any of them thought, oh, I’m mentoring Jerry. They were just giving their life to me at a point in time in my life when I needed them. 

[00:18:13] Tommy Thomas: Do you think the most mentoring that you’ve done, has it been intentional, or do you think you just showed up?

[00:18:19] Jerry White: Tommy, in these last years has been more intentional because through the Lausanne Movement and through other places people have asked me to mentor them and I make a difference between discipling. Of course, when you’re doing like we do in The Navigators, it’s one-on-one discipling, not exactly mentoring.

That’s helping people with spiritual growth, getting the going in their lives. Then we have what I call coaching. And coaching is where somebody really wants you to help. Send in the place, give guidance as they do it. But mentoring for me, working on their agenda and with a few people I’m mentoring right now I say, what do you want to learn?

Where can I help you? What kinds of issues do you have? I have one man in Hawaii who calls me every three months and has a list of things he wants to talk about. And I go by his agenda, not by mind. Now, if I’ve got a young leader and perhaps someone who works for me, I’ll be a bit more structured in terms of what I’ll ask them to do and to coach them, to give them experiences, guided experiences and opportunities.



[00:19:37] Tommy Thomas: Thinking back over maybe the Air Force and or The Navigators, what’s the most ambitious project you’ve ever tackled and how did you bring your team along? 


[00:19:45] Jerry White: There were a lot of ambitious projects. Probably the most challenging was taking the responsibility for being president of The Navigators from Loren Sanny, who had been in the role for 30 years following Dawson Trotman.

And the biggest project that we took on is who are The Navigators? What are we supposed to do and how should we do it? We needed to reassess the entire direction of The Navigators as we were growing by leaps and bounds internationally and in the US, and I still remember with my team trying to come up with things that we needed to do to bring these people together.

And two of the attempts were wonderful attempts, but they didn’t work. They were good. But they didn’t work. And finally, as a team, we decided to bring the core leadership of The Navigators worldwide together in Cypress. And I’d say, okay, we’ve got a blank sheet of paper. Who are The Navigators? What has God called us to do and how should we do it?

And God brought us through that time with an affirmation of what we call the core, our calling core vision, core values and vision. And we just did a review of that a few months ago. After 20 years. I expected it to last for 10 years, and it’s lasted 20 now. It was not just me. What I did, I gave permission for the leaders to speak.

Their heart. And I had a team that was a phenomenal team to help guide that along the way. That was probably the most ambitious thing I’ve ever undertaken.

[00:21:50] Tommy Thomas: If we learn from our mistakes, why are most others so afraid to make mistakes? 

[00:21:55] Jerry White: Usually it’s pride and ego that we don’t admit when we make mistakes. I think a big issue is that we don’t understand our own limitations and who we are. And that’s why I think that, as people grow in leadership, they need to assess who they are and what their needs are and what they can grow in.

The one thing that keeps people from taking risks is fear. They’re afraid they will fail. And if there’s an atmosphere within their company, their ministry, their organization of not tolerating mistakes and failure, then you’ll walk in fear.

And if a leader has to have someone coming up to them every other day and asking, is this okay?  Is this okay? What must I do? That’s not going to work. They’ve got to be willing to take risks and I have to be willing as a leader to take risks on them and to give them the reins and say, go after it. You do this. Do what is best in your own eyes, and if you need some help, let’s talk about it.

[00:23:12] Tommy Thomas:  What are you most excited about in life right now? 

[00:23:16] Jerry White: Oh, I am most excited right now about the whole concept of the theology of work. That God calls us to our jobs, to our work, to be an engineer, to be a crane operator, to be a computer programmer, to be a manager, and to understand that God’s great calling is not just to quote what we call ministry, but our ministry is our work.

And the reason for that is that is where the lost people of this world are. They are the people that ordinary believers work alongside every day. And I’m very excited about that and I’m doing a lot of work with the Luanne movement and the theology of work and for our next Luanne Congress in September of next year to have upwards of 40% of the 5,000 coming out of the workplace.

And besides, Tommy, the future of missions is going to be people going in their professions because we can’t get into most countries that we want to go to. 



[00:24:34] Tommy Thomas: Let me get you to respond to a couple of quotes before I jump over into board service some, because I want to make sure we have some time there.

John Quincy Adams said, “Patience and persistence have a magical effect before which difficulties and obstacles vanish.” Any thoughts from your experience where you’ve seen patience and persistence work for you? 

[00:24:55] Jerry White: They’re two very different things. Patience is awaiting not seeing the results right away.

The biggest one is persistence. When I look back over my career, I didn’t think I was all that smart, but I was persistent, and I worked hard. So even when some of the most boring jobs or some of the most distasteful things, you are persistent and work through it. I have a little series of things when I say, okay, this is a good employee, someone who’s competent.

That as they know what to do and that they have character, obviously that’s a huge one. But beyond that, they’re faithful. And I will take faithfulness over the most competent person because I know that person will get the job done. The smartest guy or gal around, if they’re not persistent and faithful, they will not get the job done.

Everything has a deadline. And now the patience part, I’ve not given quite as much thought to that. But if there’s patience, it’s patience with people. And not usurping what they’re doing and overriding them. I had to learn that early on that I, even though I could do it better than some other people, certain things I needed to let them do it.

Just like your kids riding a tricycle or a bicycle, you have to let them fall. Maybe catch them when they fall, but patience in trusting them. 

[00:26:43] Tommy Thomas: Somebody has compared leadership to a boat with two oars, one of the oars is people and relationships, the other is results.  Your thoughts? 

[00:26:53] Jerry White: Certainly, the people are a key issue.

I have to be a little careful about the results on that one. Certainly, everybody needs to have results. I would probably make the other, or goals and directions. In other words, to know where you’re going. Because now do I want results? Yes, I do want results, but in so many cases we can’t create the results, particularly in an organization like The Navigators or any of our Christian ministries.

You can’t make anything happen. The only thing you can do, Tommy, is to make an environment where something can happen and then see God miraculously work through it. But even in the secular world there is limited control over results and you have to let people do their job. And certainly, we need to have clearly defined outcomes that are adjusted quarter by quarter. 


[00:28:00] Tommy Thomas: Thanks to Jerry White for a great conversation. Jerry will rejoin us in a few weeks to share leadership lessons on board governance that he has learned over the years. 

In Episode 81, Christin McClave was our guest. We discussed her leadership journey from Johnson and Johnson to Cardon Industries and beyond. In addition to Christin’s corporate leadership experience, she has a lot of experience serving on both private sector and nonprofit boards. Christen joins us next week to share insights on board governance. 

[00:28:42] Christin McClave: The boards that I’ve been on that have been very well-functioning from a nonprofit standpoint, really do have a nice balance of people who are still in industry. People who are very well versed in audit and finance and can pick out what might not look right on the financials or where things are, could potentially go wrong in the future if they’re not managed properly. 

“The one thing that keeps people from taking risks is fear. They’re afraid they will fail. If there’s an atmosphere within their company, their ministry, their organization of not tolerating mistakes and failure, then you’ll walk in fear.” -Jerry White

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

Jerry White is a very accomplished writer.  Most of his books can be found at NavPress (  Others at Thrift Books (  Three are listed below.

Honesty, Morality, and Conscience: Making Wise Choices in the Gray Areas of Life – by Jerry White

Friends and Friendship: The Secrets of Drawing Closer – by Jerry White

Dangers Men Face, 25th Anniversary Edition – by Jerry White


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