[June 4, 2019] Leadership does not follow a predetermined path. Good leaders do not base their decisions on a matrix, checklist, or a process but on what is right and moral; anything else is wrong and will fail. That is why leaders are given little or no fixed path to success. Often, the best guidance I got was simply don’t screw up!
“Don’t screw up.” – my maternal grandmother, Bigmama, while advising me as a 7-year old, on throwing rocks at passing cars
I learned from Bigmama; don’t screw up was her guidance to me on just about everything. She was a no-nonsense; life is hard but doesn’t lose hope kind of person. Her “big six” laws on being a good person stuck with me throughout life, and these can be found on an article I wrote about her late last year (see link here).
Later, as a senior military officer, I still heard echoes from Bigmama. During the 2007 “surge” in Iraq when U.S. President Bush sent an additional five brigades to shut down a reconstituted insurgency, I was told by General Petraeus that it would be a bad idea to screw up the massive engineer buildup that was underway at the time. In 2012, when revising war plans with several advisories like North Korea, I was told not to screw up as other engineers had done.
While camping with the Boy Scouts, I learned that the flame on our Coleman Gas Stove was prone to going out and not heating the coffee pot. There would be hell to pay if adult leaders didn’t have their early morning coffee. We could backpack for miles, pitch tents in the rain and snow, sleep on rocks, and with bugs on us, but never, ever could we go without coffee. I didn’t screw that up, and we always had a hot cup of coffee.
Don’t screw up was common advice. It meant that leaders above me didn’t have the answer either. They expected me, the person on the ground with the best firsthand information, to make an intelligent, creative decision. What else could they say? They didn’t know the conditions or circumstances under which I was operating. They trained me, had confidence in me, and had provided the best resourcing available. “Just go for it.”
I never screwed up that bad; at least I didn’t make errors so egregious that I was kicked out of my commander’s position. In fact, after not making unforced or stupid errors – with a little creativity – I was promoted again and given greater responsibilities. As a kid, I was given extra work cleaning out the barn for hitting a few cars with rocks.