Personally, I know very little about this man.
No doubt, there are others whose feats of bravery are recorded elsewhere in more glorious detail than is generally tolerated in a simple blog post. Still, in the course of 20 minutes one evening, this dude deeply impressed me with a type of courage rarely seen in men of his position and stature. So much so that months later, it hasn’t left my mind.
Fact is, he could have said far less and made a simpler and yet equally effective point to satisfy the requirements as the speaking “guest of honor” at this gathering.
Instead, he choose to go deeper, taking his listeners higher and brought a level of honor and humility to what was likely one of his most embarrassing personal and professional failures. More than doing his duty; to the room full of young cadets assembled for this ceremony, he represented a level of achievement and success they could aspire to. The sight of him alone was enough to inspire awe. But what he wanted them to see that evening would take them far beyond the glossy shoes, crisp uniform and chest full of ribbons standing at the front of the room. He had something much more awesome to offer them.
He told his story in more detail than I can recall but the “once upon a time” gist of it placed him in command of an intelligence detail stationed in a well-known place of conflict. He and his team were responsible for gathering and disseminating information and intelligence, and then producing reports used to give guidance to the following day’s activities.
Highly classified information was gathered, processed and released to various other offices while other bits were sanitized to be released for more public consumption. His rank and position placed him very near the top of the dog pile— the “buck” stopped almost at his door with only a small leap to the next person in charge. Not a bad place to be when things are going well.
His job was slightly more than supervisory and managerial. He was responsible for checking and clearing each detail and for making sure the information went where it needed to go— and no further. He explained the tremendous pressures to produce each night while others slept, which sometimes outpaced the amount of time and space given to his team. As things got “hot” the need and pressures would intensify exponentially but the job was still theirs to do by dawn.
He’s not sure how it happened— how the rhythm and details of the flow got interrupted in such a way that would have led to a breakdown in the system. But it did.
One forgotten check and double-check.
One non-secure transmission of highly sensitive information flowing to a wide array of open media outlets would leave his team facing a security breach of catastrophic proportions. There it was in black and white:
Not in the sense of putting lives directly at risk but in the compromise of trusted information channels and relationships. Years of carefully maintained partnerships built on trust and mutual respect were now damaged undeniably with the hasty click of a button.
Of course there were other people involved in the mess. Everyone knew the protocol— there were others who could justifiably bear the blame and shame seemingly with far less to lose in these matters. Power, position and rank could have shifted the cosmos just enough so that the stars to fall that night could have been far less bright. Blame shifting, finger pointing and diversion of details for the sake of self preservation.
It happens all the time.
On this particular evening, in front of this group of cadets, this man wanted them to know the truth about good leadership; the truth about being an excellent leader from start to finish. Standing handsome and tall in his smart uniform bedecked with ribbons and displaying an ease you wouldn’t expect— this man owned it all.
He explained that as the leader of his team, it was not only his responsibility to bear the burden and take the heat for that devastating error, but in the wake and fallout to follow, it was his privilege as leader to lead them beyond that moment— to do the hard work of repair and restoration, to rebuild morale, faith and trust while the job was still his to do.
He stood there, every eye fixed on him in rapt attention and confessed:
“I screwed up. It was my fault and I was going to lead my team to make it right.”
The room was silent as we processed what he had said.
What a leader.
What a Godly man.
There are many fine leadership qualities exalted in our world today with many strong and capable people willing to stand tall when the lights of glory and success are shining brightly upon their accomplishments. Then there are the fewer in number, like this Airman, who with the utmost candor and humility testify to what it takes to lead during, through and beyond failure.
To rise from the ashes of disaster and own their position as the one in charge of the box of matches.
I don’t know exactly what anyone else saw that night but in the conversations that followed, you could sense that much like me, everyone was grateful to be in the presence of a man of honor and integrity— a well-trained soldier, a truly great leader setting an example these cadets could follow.
I’m glad our son was there.
I had no idea then that his own young son was present looking to join this group of cadets. Somehow, this doubled the weight of his speech in my eyes because, no doubt— this man was intent on leaving a lasting impression and legacy in all the right ways. I hope this boy was proud of his dad.
I know I was because as far as I can see, his father is one brave dude.