[February 28, 2021] Make no mistake about it; I have been insulted and threatened in more ways and languages than most people. Most of the time, I came out ahead of the game (and alive). One of my top insults was, ‘You’re 15 seconds from stupidity.
This 2-Star U.S. Marine General in Iraq told me that I was about to screw up big time. Our army Engineers had deployed three IED-detection teams an hour ahead of a major offensive operation. He wanted me to recall them immediately. In his opinion, these teams would give away the planned operation.
I refused to take the “advice” from this Flag Officer, usually not a smart move. At the time, I had to make a choice. Recall my Engineer teams or allow them to continue. There will be times when a leader – or just any ordinary person – will be on the edge of a situation that demands action and the right decision. Lives can hang in the balance, as they did then.
Mediocre leaders will find themselves 15 minutes from stupidity and simply fold up their tents and go home. Mediocracy will fail when put under high-stress. That is a lesson we all learned quickly in combat. I witnessed at least a dozen Colonels removed from the combat zone for a failure to lead. Two of these officers were from my Engineer section.
I’m reminded of U.S. Army Major General Henry J.F. Miller, who was relieved of duty and reduced in grade to Colonel by General Dwight D. Eisenhower for breach of security. While drunk in a London hotel, he gave away the planned D-Day invasion date. Like Miller, we are all only seconds away from stupidity.
Leadership is not easy. It does not mean you are some fat cat sitting in an overstuffed office chair, cigar in hand, giving out orders to your minions. Some say that being a leader means walking on the edge of chaos; you could unexpectedly fall into the abyss anytime. Fear of failure (or of stupidity) is a real problem, and this fear can drive some over the edge to drink excessively or to other less healthy behavior.
But, leaders are always are, and always will be, 15 seconds from stupidity.