Just the Facts, Ma’am

By | June 13, 2021

[June 13, 2021]  Don’t embellish your story.1  Only state precisely what has happened and do so without embellishment or adding your opinion.  Just the Facts, Ma’am, is attributed to the 1950s TV series Dragnet where Sergeant Joe Friday is the main stoic character. The show was one of the highest-rated series of the decade.  I watched it many times as a young teenager.

To provide just the facts is difficult.  More importantly, for someone in authority, they often need more than the facts.  Often, leaders need to know what others are thinking, even if they don’t align with the facts.  Leaders also need to understand the emotional state of others involved.

Leadership is complex because it involves more than the facts.  That is why I have been surprised when leaders take recommendations from advisors who provide detailed information.  Leaders do more.  They do much more than consider just the facts.  That is why “expert” advice should never be considered alone without context.

When we work with people, a range of emotions comes into play, most notably fear.  Fear will cause one to think in ways that can make you forget to see things as they did not occur.  Fear raises our blood pressure, puts us into a fight or flight mode, and narrowly focuses our attention.  Police officers are trained to ask questions that help get around the shock of fear when pursuing leads to a suspect.

The character Sergeant Friday, a no-nonsense man, was known for his realistic portrayal of the details of police work.  Jack Webb starred in the production that made him a household name across the nation.  Once while I was teaching at Penn State University, one of my female student’s name was Jo Friday (her dad wanted a boy).

“The story you are about to hear is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” – the opening line of the Dragnet TV show2

It turns out that Joe Friday never did say the exact phrase, Just the facts, ma’am, but that doesn’t matter to us here.3  The character, it seemed in every episode, told a female witness or victim to provide the facts, please.  No matter, the phrase swept the nation and is now a part of our lexicon.  Recently out of favor, you can still run across it from those older, like me.

To be a leader, one must be aware that you can have all the facts in the world but require more when making decisions of importance.

————–

  1. https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/Just+the+facts%2c+Ma%27am
  2. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/just-the-facts/
  3. The actual phrase credited to Sergeant Joe Friday was, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Somehow it got truncated to “Just the facts, ma’am.”
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.

16 thoughts on “Just the Facts, Ma’am

  1. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Great. I always enjoyed the show. Haven’t seen it in decades. But I remember the phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

    Reply
  2. Rusty D

    “To be a leader, one must be aware that you can have all the facts in the world but require more when making decisions of importance.” Some people will never learn this and will continue to be lead by the nose to their doom by the experts of the world. Just look at what Dr. Fauci did to ensure we are locked down in our homes and close businesses by politicians who listened to him. Shame on him and those who listened to him.

    Reply
    1. Wesley Brown

      Good point Rusty. Too many listen to experts but fail to put that advice into proper context and use that along with their experience to do the right thing.

      Reply
  3. Max Foster

    Excellent point. Let’s not overlook it. Leaders, especially senior leaders must take into account MORE than just the facts. They must see things within context and yet be capable of extracting the most important info and place it within the right environment to ‘see’ the future (as Gen. Satterfield says). This includes taking into account things like emotion and other social assets of those who are around us. Humans are not just facts, but much much more and that is why we are so rich.

    Reply
    1. rjsmithers

      Yes, and well said. This is why relying on the “experts” will not guarantee failure but nearly always does so.

      Reply
  4. Army Captain

    I went out to YouTube (I don’t like it either since they are censors like Stalin) to look the tv shows up and found a few free to watch. Any one interested can go there. I’ll find them on my tv sometime.

    Reply
    1. E.T.

      Ah, the youngsters here. You probably don’t remember that the series was a radio show before it was a B&W tv series. Dragnet the 50’s radio show can be found here at this archive. I highly recommend them. Great resource.
      https://archive.org/details/Dragnet_OTR

      Reply
      1. Yusaf from Texas

        Hey, thanks ET. Nothing better on a Sunday morning than to listen to one of these shows after getting home from church.

        Reply
  5. Doc Blackshear

    The actual phrase credited to Sergeant Joe Friday was, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Somehow it got truncated to “Just the facts, ma’am.” Yes, you are correct, Gen. Satterfield. But it matters little to those of us who remember the television series. We still watched it and remember it.

    Reply
  6. Janna Faulkner

    I loved that show. The cops always got their man. And, I use the word “man” because, if I remember correctly, all the criminals were men. Typically so.

    Reply
  7. Greg Heyman

    I’m so old, even I remember watching the Dragnet shows. 😢

    Reply
    1. Doug Smith

      Ha Ha, just like Gen. Satterfield, I presume. Just the facts!

      Reply
    2. Eva Easterbrook

      Of course, thanks Greg for a great start to my Sunday by reminding me of my age and my tv habits over the ages. Nothing better, however, than watching old tv shows for the purpose of remembering my youth.

      Reply

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