James Burke shared the story with Christopher Johnson more than 40 years ago, but the life lessons still resonate with the Jets’ vice chairman.
his was early in Burke’s tenure as a high-ranking official in the Johnson & Johnson Company, which was co-founded by Christopher’s great-grandfather, Robert Wood Johnson. Burke was put in charge of developing new products, and when one of them failed miserably, he was called into the office of his boss — Christopher’s grandfather, Robert Wood Johnson II.
"[Burke] made a mistake that cost the company a lot of money," Christopher Johnson told Newsday. "He said, ‘I really laid an egg.’ He was 100% sure that when he was called into my grandfather’s office, he would be fired."
He wasn’t. In fact, he received some advice that never left him — advice that Christopher relied upon during his stewardship of the Jets in the absence of CEO Woody Johnson during his recently completed four-year stint as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
"Buck up, kid," the elder Johnson told Burke, as Christopher recalled. "You made a mistake. Don’t make the same mistake twice, but keep taking risks. Don’t hide, and keep slinging it."
The vote of confidence was a turning point in Burke’s career. He eventually became chairman of the company, overseeing an enormous period of growth and steering the pharmaceutical giant through one of the biggest corporate crises in 1982 when it was found that bottles of Tylenol had been laced with cyanide. Burke was recognized as one of the country’s most extraordinary executives and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton.
"I love that story," Christopher Johnson said.
Johnson thought about Burke’s experience when the Jets executive made his own missteps while running the team. Particularly when it came to the hiring of coach Adam Gase in 2019 and the delayed firing just months later of general manager Mike Maccagnan.
"I consider the most important job of the CEO is putting the people in place and then letting them do their jobs," Johnson said. "It sure looks like I made a mistake with Adam. And with Maccagnan — and I don’t mean to kick him when he’s down — but the decision rests with me and I have to suck that one up. It was less than perfect, but considering the circumstances, I’m glad I did it [moved on from Maccagnan], even then."
Using Burke’s situation and applying it to his team, Johnson kept swinging, hiring Joe Douglas as general manager in 2019 and then former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as head coach last January. Johnson also appointed Hymie Elhai as the team’s new president, replacing Neil Glat, in 2019.
"Jim Burke was like a father to me," said Johnson, whose own father died when he was 11. "He was a second father and very influential in my life."
Woody Johnson paid tribute to his younger brother this past week for making the key decisions in his absence, and those decisions largely will define the team’s near future. Christopher believes the team is set up for success, even if he never did get the team into playoff contention during his time as CEO.
"Most of us try not to make the same mistake twice, and I only hired one GM, but damn, I think I got that one right,’’ he said. "And with Robert and Hymie, I know I got the right guys. Time will prove me right or wrong, but I feel really good about those three guys."
Johnson has been highly impressed with Saleh.
"He is just a superstar," he said.
Johnson said he knew early in the interviewing process that Saleh would be the right man for the job.
"Halfway through that first interview, I was one of the many who wanted to run through a brick wall for the guy," Johnson said. "And I’m sure three-quarters of our fan base would like to see me try to do that — repeatedly. But [Douglas and Saleh] are just two peas in a pod in terms of how to construct a team, what kind of character you want, what kind of athleticism you want.
"The character comes first," he said. "To see our coach move forward, to see the players gravitate toward him, is very encouraging.
"Look, we haven’t played a down yet, so things can change. But damn, I cannot wait to see this season start. I’m not expecting us to be crushing it right out of the gate, but I think people will not look at us and think they’re rolling over us."
If Johnson’s decisions indeed were the right ones, the team will be well-situated for the future. And he remains quietly confident that will be the case.
"If two years from now we’re a team of consequence — and I know it’s going to be the case, because I put those three guys in place — then I’ll be overjoyed about that," he said.
If that scenario materializes, the lessons imparted by Johnson’s "second father" will have paid off.