Forgotten: the most valuable lesson of my life

We were bouncing around the Atlantic along the coast near Charleston, SC. It was a bright sunny day and the minesweeping exercise that we were conducting was going well. At 23 years old, I had been appointed Chief Engineer of the USS Alacrity, a Navy minesweeper. I had little to do that day other than watch the deck hands deal with the wind, the currents and the equipment we used to detect and remotely detonate underwater mines.

The last major effort of the afternoon was to retrieve all the minesweeping equipment that trailed in our wake. And, that’s when it happened. A bearing supporting the 16-foot reel that retrieved the minesweeping cable blew out, leaving the crew to retrieve thousands of pounds of equipment by other means.

With a few quick turns of a wrench, it became clear that the maintenance of this mission critical equipment hadn’t been done in quite some time.

While climbing the stairs to the captain’s cabin, I forgot my lesson. By the time I rapped on the Old Man’s door, I had all my excuses lined up.

“The equipment wasn’t the responsibility of my department,” I protested.

And, that’s when the Old Man uttered the words that brought it all home. “You’re the Chief Engineer,” he said. “Anything on this ship with more than two moving parts is your responsibility.”

The lesson I had forgotten?

Well, it had nothing to do with the captain’s recasting of my job description. It had to do with what I had learned as a plebe at the US Naval Academy. If someone asks you why you screwed up, there is only one acceptable response…do-something-320x320

“NO EXCUSE!”

I often tell people that the personal attribute I value most is “forthrightness”. Think about that for a moment. Forthrightness is more than just honesty. You can be silent and still be honest. Forthrightness is about putting your failures on the table and saying, “There’s no excuse for this but everyone needs to know”.

Can you be that vulnerable?

Can you admit your failures without being drawn out? To your colleagues? To your family? To your children? To your spouse?