Military leaders have incredible responsibility for their subordinates, but they do not owe them success. Leaders are not singularly responsible for that success, because they simply cannot guarantee it for every kid with a dream. Instead, leaders owe each sailor, Marine, and guardian the opportunities, tools, mentoring, and example to help them achieve their own success. Not providing these essentials makes the leader potentially responsible for their subordinates’ failure.
We also must remember that even the kids who make mistakes still have a dream, and if they learn from those mistakes they can, and often do, come back stronger. It is for this reason that a zero-defect mentality, whether in policy or practice, is counterproductive. Everyone fails at some point, you and me included. It is not in failure that one’s character is determined; it is in the response to and recovery from it.
As Marine General James L. Jones Jr. told the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officer Course class of 2001, “Pervasive zero-defect mentality; it is a cancer that is eating us all.” That mentality creates a culture of risk-avoidance and fear, and leaders who cannot see beyond tomorrow’s headlines.
Consider for a moment the ensign who ran the USS Decatur (DD-5) aground entering a harbor in the Philippines on 7 July 1908. He deservedly went before a court-martial, was found guilty, and publically reprimanded. The same should occur today, but would a commanding officer now be treated as this officer was in 1908, allowed to continue in service and be promoted two grades?
No one could have imagined the ensign would become a fleet admiral. Nobody could have foreseen all that Chester Nimitz would accomplish. Fortunately for us, the early 20th-century Navy allowed a 22-year-old kid with a dream to continue serving, and he became a man with a legacy of epic proportions.
Not everyone has the potential of Nimitz, but behind every military professional is someone’s son or daughter entrusted to a leader by parents with high hopes that their child will realize their full potential and reach their dream. Vince Patton was one of those kids in 1972. Somehow I doubt becoming the senior enlisted member of the Coast Guard was part of his dream then, and it’s hard to believe anyone could have imagined 40 years ago all he would accomplish.
Although he achieved more than most, Vince is a reflection of what is possible in service to our nation. He experienced something that Chief Browning put so gracefully into words, something anyone could accomplish.
With hard work and dedication, and the inspiration and mentorship of strong leaders, today’s servicemen and women have unlimited opportunities. Every kid with a dream will become a man or woman with a legacy. It is up to them to ensure their legacy is rich and proud, but the outcome, good or bad, may very well rest with the example set by a leader.
Leaders, help those kids with a dream build a proud legacy. It is their success or failure on which your own legacy relies.