We’ve all made that one bad decision that we were sure was gonna bite us in the ass, that one commonsense-less moment, momentary lack of judgment or simple miscalculation that we knew would surely be a career ender.
I’m not referring to criminal acts or cowardice, there is no recovering from those. I’m referring to the legitimate screw up that can take on a life of its own and feed on what’s left of your career.
Mine will always be a palm-sweat inducing memory. I was working inside the ADP program at LTV in Texas. My function was to be a Flight Test Technician during the day, then hang out with the UAW Local 848 guys after work and see if I could get one of them to tell me things I wasn’t cleared for – Specifically any mention of a rubber coating.
I had an expense allowance, and was expected to use it at the bars – Best assignment ever.
I made a trip to the Blueprint Crib one afternoon and on the return trip, I had a brain fart.
I forgot what was tucked under my arm and made a detour to the snack bar, an open and non-secure area of the plant, under my arm was a sealed print showing the full B-2 airframe – And not the round surfaced Frisbee we were having Clancy convince the world our stealth technology relied on.
I damn near crapped my skivvies when I realized what I had done, but I got lucky. I had the sense to go directly to security and tell them I screwed up. Getting fired from an assignment job would be hard to explain.
Some of the most revered military leaders in history screwed the pooch way worse than you or I ever thought about doing, were held accountable and somehow survived.
Some were relieved or court-martialed; Col. P D Ginder was not only relieved of command, he was escorted from the battlefield under armed guard. Yet Ginder, along with many others somehow recovered to end their careers on the top of the mountain.
USMC Maj. Greg Boyington, one of the most revered fighter pilots of the WW2 Pacific theater, was given a Dishonorable Discharge for insubordination by Gen. Doolittle personally.
He subsequently went on to lead VMF-214, “The Black Sheep”, earning both Ace status and the Medal of Honor.
MacArthur and Churchill were both pathetic failures, at one point or another during their early careers. MacArthur lost the Philippine Islands to Japan at the beginning of WW2 and Churchill was rightly blamed for Gallipoli. Patton perpetually pissed people off and Gen. Roosevelt was considered an egregious buffoon by many of his superiors.
George Washington exhibited a school girl level of ineptitude for command in the wilderness – British officers who fought with Washington during the French-Indian War had zero respect for him as an officer and thought it was a joke that the Continentals selected Washington as their Commander.
Yet… Somehow these men went from “reviled and hated” to “revered and loved”.
Gen Douglas MacArthur – MOH, is remembered as the Hero of the Pacific Theater, Washington became the father of our Republic and on D-Day +1, there were few American Officers who stood as tall as Gen Teddy Roosevelt Jr. – MOH.
They’re all remembered for their greatness not their failures.
So, How does a commander survive the epic screw up?
Obviously, chronology of events plays a part, and achieving a major success after a failure tends to soften the effect of the failure… but how did they even get a second chance? I researched some of the epic screw-ups over recent history in which the leader involved not only managed to survive… but went on to shine.
I found a Six-Pak of things they all have in common.
Six basic qualities that all great leaders seem to exhibit. Six qualities that allow them to be like the Phoenix, able to rise from the ashes of their own mistakes and go on to succeed.
- The Phoenix owns his mistakes. – If you are responsible, directly, or indirectly, accept that it’s your screw up. Don’t make excuses or try to play it down even if you think you are being unjustly dealt with.
Back in the mid 70’s I did a 3 week TDY as a Translator up in the Fulda Gap. Anyone who was fluent was just about guaranteed a trip to Fulda, but it beat the hell out of actually walking a post.
There was a Captain out on the line making his rounds between posts – “Capt. Dumbass” stopped to take a few pictures of barrier and put his map case on the roof of the M-880… then drove off.
This guy did the dance… none of it was his fault. He pointed the finger at his driver, a Pv2, saying “he should have noticed the map case was gone.”
Capt. Dumbass didn’t seem to grasp the fact he was less than 75 meters from a DDR Guard Tower when he lost the maps, or why at least 2 companies of 11th ACR and a Unit of Bundesgrenzshutz spent the better part of a day searching his route for the lost documents.
He wasn’t the first officer to lose maps in the Gap. They were eventually recovered so no real damage was done… but he was still court-martialed for Dereliction of Duty.
The Captain violated a key command quality… Accept responsibility for your actions.
- The Phoenix maintains their command presence.
When Patton angered his superiors, and lost his command over politics, he never lost his military bearing.
He kept his command persona and although he ended up commanding a Ghost Corps, made up of pretend divisions and rubber tanks, he took the opportunity to prove himself once more. He later led his 3rd Armored Division to victory.
Don’t make the same mistake twice and don’t let it diminish your command image before your subordinates.
If they see you walk away from correction with your head high, striving to improve… they’ll do the same.
- The Phoenix is proactive in undoing the damage.
Ike was completely passive about getting his own command during WW1 and ended up riding a desk the entire war. It usually surprises students to learn that Eisenhower never served in Combat.
This error in judgement would stunt his professional growth between wars. It looked like Ike was going to retire as a junior Colonel and drift off into oblivion, but he decided to be pro-active.
He spent the years between wars making himself valuable. He looked for responsibility and wasn’t shy about it. He knew he needed command time or he would end up riding a desk again. He even went as far as to beg Patton for a Regiment in 1939.
In just 5 years this “No time in grade” Colonel, with no combat experience, climbed the ranks so fast he needed a special rank invented just for him. They created General of the Army so Ike’s rank would be commensurate with his authority as Allied Supreme Commander.
- 4. The Phoenix isn’t afraid to step out on the ice and fail again.
Without exception, every successful leader I researched took it upon themselves to look for another chance. They jumped at the chance to retake command a try it again.
Like the man said… “Once they’ve seen your best they can forget about the rest…” – keep moving, learning and improving; get better with every experience, good or bad.
- The Phoenix uses the scrutiny to their advantage.
Depending on the level of your screw up you may find yourself under extreme scrutiny – Use it to your advantage. Use the visibility to make it clear you are tracking a different intercept.
The fact you still have a job is evidence your boss is hoping you recover and he wants you to prove yourself – don’t disappoint him.
- The Phoenix always puts their Country before their career.
When Churchill was at his lowest, when his career was a ball of flames crashing earthward and the entire British ruling class was elbowing each other out of the way for front row seats to the calamity; when it was an absolute that his political career was at an end… ole’ Winston did an end around and ran for the goal line.
Churchill always maintained his status as an Officer of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers.
He resigned his post as Lord of the Admiralty, then volunteered for a Combat Command and reported for duty in the trenches.
I find great humor in the fact that Adolf Hitler was a corporal in the opposing trenches and the Gas Round that wounded him was likely fired from one of Churchill’s artillery pieces.
Later when Great Britain was in an untenable position in WW2, Chamberlain left office and Churchill was called in to take the reins and somehow save the Crown from Hitler. Churchill was the perfect scapegoat.
Sir Winston knew his new-found allies would abandon him and become a lynch mob with the first NAZI troop landing on British soil. Churchill told his Driver that he would likely fail but he had no choice but to try… his people had no other hope, it was his duty.
He was right and he did somehow accomplish his task.
If you told a 1920’s historian that Churchill would be remembered as one of the Greatest Military and Political leaders in history they would have laughed at you.
Napoleon stated the obvious when he wrote, “War can’t be won without risks”. This applies to any kind of leadership or management responsibility as well… Risks must be taken, and where there are risks there are also failures and screw ups.
It isn’t your mistakes that will destroy your career… it is the the veracity and fervor with which you deal with your mistakes that will make or break you as a leader.
“One must yield oneself over completely and naturally to the will of the game’s mood”
– Winston Churchill, describing the responsibility of command.
I wanted to make sure no one took my mention of the UAW Local 848 as negative.
In 1989 I spent 8 months keeping tabs on group of technicians who had access to the Armadillo’s (B-2 Bomber) full technical drawings. They were all members of UAW Local 848 in Grand Prairie Texas.
The UAW Local 848 turned out to be the tightest most secure group of guys I ever worked.
RD Goad, Chris Comire, AJ, Ernie, Chuck, and the rest of those guys made me proud to be their countryman.