They say mistakes happen as a part of life; they’re not preventable.
That was part of my planned response for an interview this week for a promotion board. And the particular question was among a dozen others that I had reviewed in preparation: Give an example of a mistake you made and how you overcame it.
I’m certainly not short of personal examples as a photojournalist. I’ve messed up pretty well throughout my 21 years of military service.
I’ve shown up at the wrong place for a photo assignment as well as arrived without a battery in my camera. Misspelled the name of a senior military leader? Yup. And I’ve heaped on countless typos, grammar errors, and just … moments of utter disappointment.
But I don’t let mistakes stop me. Thanks, in part, to good leaders.
My biggest blunder to date was my most deflating. I felt as if I had let the entire nation down. And it took a four-star general, U.S. Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, to turn himself around while walking down the street in Munich, to say to me, “Get over it,” and enjoy the trip.
Please make no mistake; it was a terrible mistake. It affected the general’s mission and left me combat-ineffective, but it was already forgiven and forgotten by him. (Although, he did consider it fair-game for some lighthearted humor later; maybe his way to strengthen the lesson that I learned.)
I believe that exceptional leaders give us an escape door of hope in a mistake. They step forward to provide cover for us. They lessen the harsher punishment that we place on ourselves.
Not all are similarly forgiven these days on social media. There was this LinkedIn post of a friend of mine that I recently liked:
“A typo in a post, a word spoken out of turn, a socially awkward moment. It’s easy to judge someone. It’s easy to label people as unsuitable or ‘not a good candidate.’ It’s more difficult to understand. That takes effort, compassion, and emotional maturity. Quality matters, but make sure you’re judging others on more than the occasional mistake. When you do, you’ll find a world rich with talent, friendship, and achievement. You might be surprised at how often others have withheld their judgment of you.”
That insight rings true in online journalism, where a mistake is known instantly and by many. I’ve run through that gauntlet of mean criticism. But in truth, your errors don’t affect me, even though I might see them. I probably don’t know you. I don’t pretend to know that I would not make the same mistake in similar circumstances.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, recently shared his embarrassment and mistake of having his uniform ribbons on wrong during attendance with the Joint Chiefs at the nation’s State of the Union Address.
“Well, we’re all human, including me,” he wrote. “And, as I made a final check in the mirror just before I walked out the door, I missed it… Plain and simple. I hope this is a lesson for everyone who wears the uniform, and really for anyone…They put erasers on pencils for a reason. When you make a mistake or miss a detail, own it and move on. One thing is for sure…My ribbons will NEVER be upside down again.”
Responses to his post gave the general credit for the leadership shown in his public admission. I and a very long line of others would also testify to his outstanding leadership. We might even be so bold to say to him as subordinates, “It’s already forgiven and forgotten, Sir. Enjoy the trip.”
Finally, my current commander at the Air National Guard’s education center here advised me to consider the full range of mistakes. Did someone die? Did the world come to an end? It’s a perspective to think when mistakes channel up and down a chain of command.
I’m not so brave to share the particulars of my whopper. I will say that it involved losing some crucial photos that I took. But I am forever thankful for the kindness of a great leader who once took the shots for me and told me to get back to work.