Many years ago, I was lieutenant in the Navy, nearing the end of my division officer tour. We had recently returned from a six-month deployment. I had earned my qualifications as Command Duty Officer and Tactical Action Officer and was frankly, enjoying my reputation as one of the best division officers on our small ship. At the time, I was unaware of how much that reputation was due to my outstanding chief petty officer, who kept the division running smoothly and the team motivated, but that is another story.
One Saturday afternoon, as lunch was winding down, the captain asked me to share my thoughts on what made a successful division officer with one of the new ensigns. Gathering up all the experience of my two and a half years at sea, I gave him my observations on leadership. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I do remember telling him that there was no way he could manage all of the details. There was just too much: junior sailors with personal issues, complicated maintenance on high-tech equipment, fast-paced operations, the cleanliness of the ship and mountains of paperwork. “The key,” I said, “is to develop a sense of where the problems are going to be and be there. Anticipate what needs inspecting.”
A few moments later the captain left, while I continued my discourse. I was still talking (was I really that long-winded?!) when the growler in wardroom sounded. On the other end was the captain’s angry voice. “Lieutenant, I am up here on the 02 level deck and it is a disaster! Last I checked your division is responsible. Get someone up here, now! “
Suddenly I was reminded just how much I had to learn and how far I was from anticipating where the problems were going to be. Pride does come before a fall.
For some reason this week took me back to that Saturday nearly thirty years ago. On Monday, someone I respect in the local nonprofit community asked if I would be a mentor. On Tuesday, the director of a foundation where we were seeking a grant told me in very clear terms what weaknesses he saw in one of our programs. And he was right. Much like the 02 level deck, there wasn’t a lot of room to argue. It was there in front of both of us.
Once again I was reminded of how much I have to learn. Another shot of humility. And another reminder of why it is so important that we continue to get better.