LT Jason Knudson is an Information Warfare Officer and member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell. All comments are his and his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy.

Sometimes inspiration comes when various experiences blend into one to create a new concept we had never thought of before. This is the story of why I consider candy jars the true test of leadership.

On September 11, 2001, I was a young Cryptologic Technician Technical Second Class (CTT2) in San Diego going through Special Warfare Combatant Crewman (SWCC) training at the Naval Special Warfare Training Center on Coronado. On a normal morning, we would be out and already conducting physical training (PT) before 0500 local time (Pacific Standard Time/PST). Getting up that early ensured we could complete the first of our three or more PT sessions for the day. After our pre-breakfast crushing, we made our way, sandy and starving, to the mess hall. At 0446 PST, the first plane hit the first tower of the World Trade Center. At 0503 PST, the second plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. At 0537 PST, the Pentagon was hit, and at 0603 PST, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Because of our early schedule and delays in reporting, we ended up watching these events in real time sitting in the mess hall. Our training staff did not pick us up until 1000 PST. When we marched out of the mess hall, one of our instructors gave us a pole with an enormous American flag on it. I became one of the primary flag carriers. We carried that flag at the front of our formations throughout training. We crossed a public road from one side of the base to the other at least twice a day. When we reached that road, we would give out a war cry and charge across the road, flag streaming out over us.

We knew the local population was watching as they were stopped waiting for us to cross. We also knew training had changed. We were headed to war. None of us really knew what that meant. We did know it was a serious thing. In a small way, we gave a little bit of ourselves to those people stopped at that road.

One of the Navy civilians killed in the Pentagon on that day was James T. Lynch Jr. To many in the Pentagon, he was called the “Candy Man.” During lunch hours, he would walk around the halls of the Pentagon and hand out Werther’s Originals to whomever he met. Some stories said he did it just to make people smile, which is reason enough. I don’t know what is true, and there are certainly some who read this who knew The Candy Man. If so, forgive me if I embellish a bit on his legend. I cannot find a reference for what follows.

Shortly after 9/11 I read about his story. Whether it was in the story, a conversation that followed, or some combination of things in my own mind, I developed my own legend of him.

In this legend, someone once asked The Candy Man “Why do you give out candy?” His response was, “Because whenever you meet someone, they should never leave without you giving them something of value as well.” I interpreted this as, if someone comes in your office, at best you should be able to solve their problem. If not that, you should be able to help guide them to the right answer. If not that, you should be able to pass on some advice to help them. At the very least, they should walk away from your desk with a piece of candy. The Candy Man’s desk just happened to extend to the hallways of the Pentagon. He left everyone he engaged with something of value, a smile and a piece of candy.

His picture is up on the wall at the Pentagon where the plane hit. When I walk by, it reminds me to make sure whomever comes to my desk, wherever it may be, that they leave with something.

Following SWCC school I deployed with the Special Boat Teams aboard the MKV Special Operations Craft. I deployed to Iraq among other places in the events following 9/11. I have plenty of good stories about that to tell in other venues. For this story, the important part is, my mentors encouraged me to put in for an officer package and I was selected out of the Boat Teams for the Seaman to Admiral 21st Century (STA-21) Program. Under that program, I received orders to the University of Colorado to study physics and eventually get commissioned as an officer. While students, we were attached to the local Navy and Marine Corps ROTC unit.

The Commander of the unit was led by an old, crusty Marine Corps Colonel. He was firm, but beloved by those he commanded. My first day at the unit I was told to go see the “Captain.” Dutifully, I walked right up to the Colonel’s office, knocked and presented myself as the newest member of the unit. As I looked around the room at the folks gathered around his desk, informally chatting away, I realized I was definitely in the wrong place. While I was used to a Navy Captain commanding a ship, the Marine Corps Captain who I was supposed to go see is the equivalent of a Navy Lieutenant. As I abashedly explained my mistake, the Colonel waved me into this office, brought me into the group, and said, “Well, I didn’t ask you to swing by, but I am happy you did. Everyone, meet Officer Candidate Jason Knudson.” He reached onto his desk gave me a Werther’s Original and said, “You had better get along to the Captain’s office. I’m sure she is expecting you.” Some gifts come in the form of ignoring mistakes.

The Executive Officer, on the other hand, was not beloved. She ruled with an iron fist and made it a habit of running officer candidates through administrative punishments as a training aide. I learned much from her, but mostly about what not to do. After completing an office call with her to discuss the quality of advice I was giving the Midshipmen about enlisted personnel, as I walked out, I noticed some sad and lost pieces of candy sitting in a dusty Naval Academy Class of ‘XX crystal bowl. I remember them distinctly. There was a Tootsie Roll that appeared to be left over from a mid-1980s Halloween Party. There were mini Snickers left over from Easter. I was sure that had I opened up the Snickers, it would have been white on the outside as the cocoa butter separated over the years from the cocoa solids. Finally, there was a lonely Werther’s Original, hiding under the flap of one of the Snickers.

The Executive Officer’s Candy Jar was set on a plant stand next to the door. If you had cared to, you could have grabbed a candy on your way down the hallway. Then an epiphany happened. I realized, even though the candy was available, no one wanted to cross the threshold to take a piece.

I ran down the hallway to verify my theory was true. The Commanding Officer’s door was cracked open and he had two Midshipmen in his office seated in front of his desk. He was sitting casually on the corner of the desk. Each Midshipman had a bulge in their cheek where I had to assume a Werther’s Original sat. To my surprise I was wrong! In the middle of his desk sat his candy jar with a fresh set of Star Brites Peppermint candies! He had been forced to change out his candy! This was profound and I needed some good thinking time.

Fortunately, the Executive Officer taught Naval Leadership, so I had plenty of spare time to think about my experiences. This concept had sat in my brain for over seven years from 2001 until 2008. It took me a full semester to merge them into a single leadership lesson. I still use it to this day. The leadership lesson is this:

Good leaders have a candy jar they keep on their desk that constantly needs refilling. Poor leaders have a candy jar they keep where all can reach it, but never need to refill it.

I ask you to ponder on this as a metaphor. Please don’t go out and buy a candy jar and place it on your desk in hopes it will work for you. For me, I don’t have a physical candy jar on my desk. I simply strive to ensure everyone I interact with leaves with something of value; a smile, a problem solved, a new way of thinking about something, or a piece of candy. Doing so keeps my “candy jar” fresh.

  • Where do you keep your candy jar?
  • Do your subordinates, peers, and seniors feel comfortable taking candy/advice from you?
  • How might you ensure everyone you interact with gets something of value?
  • How often do you refill your candy jar?