Don’t Screw Up

[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.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

25 thoughts on “Don’t Screw Up

  1. Steven Voller

    Reminds me of the story of the young lieutenant reporting to his first duty position and meeting with the Brigade Commander, a Colonel:

    COL: Lieutenant, what are your career aspirations?
    2LT: Sir, I want a full career and 25 years from now I’d like to be asking that question of a new lieutenant as Brigade Commander of this very brigade. What advice can you give me?
    COL: Don’t screw up.
    2LT: Yes, sir. [writing it down in a notebook] Sir, how do I do that?
    COL: Get experience!
    2LT: Yes, sir. [writing it down with exclamation points, underline and a “N.B.”]
    2LT: [after a slight hesitation] Sir, how do I get experience?
    COL: Screw up!

    Which is not to challenge General Satterfield’s sage advice. We certainly want to avoid career-limiting mistakes and by all means, any mistakes that negatively impact the health or welfare of others (or ourselves!) However, we will screw up, especially as we enter “Roosevelt’s arena” and “strive mightily”. So, how do we screw up successfully?

    Screwing Up Successfully

    1. Don’t screw up successively! Don’t repeat your mistakes. Recognize when a mistake has been made (very easy to live in denial) and make course corrections. Follow Albert’s grandmother’s advice and ask yourself, “Why did I screw up?”
    2. Screw up early!
    a. Early in your career is the time to make mistakes, not when you are in a position where you report directly to General Petraeous.
    b. Early in battles means do your screwing up in training so that you bring your “A” game to combat.
    c. Early in a new process or venture, not when you are about to launch the next Mission to Mars.
    3. Expect increased scrutiny when you screwup! In the 82nd, we called it “being in the spotlight.” This was not like an actor on a stage but more like the POW trying to cut through the perimeter fence! Expect it. It’s your opportunity to show just how good you really are. Everything you do in the spotlight has to be done with greater precision and speed. How you perform under pressure is a great mark of the type of leader you are. Hint:

    What other ways can you think of to screw up successfully and “fail forward”?

    1. Steven Voller

      Wondering what the “Hint:” was in number 3? I was just going to make a joke and had deleted most of it.

      So, Ha! I screwed up! The battery was dying on my laptop and seeing the warning, I hit “Submit” without a final review. So, why did I screw up? In a hotel overnight and the outlet I plugged into doesn’t get electricity when the light switch that controls the floor lamp is turned off. Corrective measures: I could have realized that when I turned off the light using the switch. I also could’ve paid more attention to the battery level, and finally, I could’ve brought the charger with me down to the hotel’s continental breakfast. Lesson learned.

      If only all my screw ups were so minuscule!

  2. AutisticTechie

    Easy advice “don’t screw up” but hard to implement. That is what leadership is all about.

  3. Mikka Solarno

    Great ideas here , General Satterfield, thank you.

  4. Max Foster

    This is the kind of stuff that should be taught in school, starting in the first grade or earlier. When we wait until adulthood to start thinking of leadership, then we are giving our kids a serious disadvantage.

    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      True, but that is why we have the Boy Scouts and sports teams, etc. that augment what our schools teach. There was a time when our schools taught good citizenship and that it was based upon moral values. No longer, teachers have become indoctrinated to teach global warming, sexual attitudes, and such. Teachers are failing our kids.

      1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

        I think that is why they were created in the first place; to fill a void left by our education system.

  5. Willie Shrumburger

    Good morning everyone, I see that many have already made some excellent points. Like others, I come here to stretch my mind and to see if I can learn newer ways of thinking. To now also see that leaders often don’t get good advice only builds upon the idea that leadership must have at its base a moral character beyond reproach. Otherwise, you get something like a Hitler, Pol Pot, or Stalin.

  6. Darryl Sitterly

    It wasn’t that long ago ….. I was a kid and rarely got advice or mentoring from any person. There was little respect for kids. Maybe they just wanted to toughen us up a little by ignoring us. I would think that teaching us “how to” respect others and provide us kids with some advice would have been more than just a little bit helpful. Now as an adult, I’m still learning social/leader things most kids learned in high school.

    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      The idea of RESPECT differs a little across cultures but we find it universal as a human behavior. Respect means trust and all human relationships are built on trust at some level.

    2. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      There are places on this Earth that respect is only given based on what tribe you belong to. That concept is rejected in most Western nations because besides being a primitive idea, it doesn’t work in larger, modern societies. We see an emergence of it today but it will die out as soon as people realize that it’s not to their advantage.

  7. Army Captain

    Good article. Common advice for those of us growing up to be in leadership positions.

    1. Joey Holmes

      Hey Army Captain, do they really only give you vague advice like ‘don’t screw up?’ I find that weird. Cheers!

      1. Roger Yellowmule

        Joey, great to see you back. I’ve not heard from you in a few weeks. Hope all is well at home and school.

      2. Army Captain

        Hi Joey, leadership (getting people to do things they would not ordinarily do) never has a pathway marked out for just anyone to follow. There are often only guidelines (which are usually pretty weak) but it is up to the leader to make the right decision in a timely manner. Hope that helps.

        1. The Kid 1945

          Thank you for reinforcing what Gen. Satterfield wrote here in today’s article. We don’t find this kind of down-to-earth advice much any more. That’s why I keep coming back to this blog. Plus I get to read what others say about it.

      3. Harry B. Donner

        Right, I have been given things to do, for example, and no one had ever done it before. So I had to come up with new ideas. That’s what a leader does and then gets others to follow him to that new idea.

  8. Albert Ayer

    My grandmother usually said it another way, “why did you screw up?” It was always (it seemed always anyway) that she was giving me advice after the fact. It eventually sunk into my thick skull that I’d better pay attention more. At least I didn’t hurt anyone badly so that was a good thing.

  9. Georgie M.

    Ha ha…. good one. Thanks for sharing some of your childhood stories. Loved it!

    1. Tomas C. Clooney

      I also enjoyed it immensely. Another article worthy of my early morning time.

    2. Eric Coda

      My dog, my coffee, and my time here on Gen. Satterfield’s blog. Now that makes for a great start to the day. It gives me something to talk about at work.

      1. Lady Hawk

        Yeah 🙂 I thought so too. I wish my dog would sit at my feet and not bark so much.


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