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Acts of leadership humanity – mistakes are not always failures

Posted by  Mark Schenk —October 14, 2014
Filed in Anecdotes, Leadership Posts

Shawn’s post last week got us sharing some of the great examples of small acts of leadership that demonstrate humanity and which make a difference. We will share some of these in the coming weeks. This is an example I heard last week while running a business storytelling session in Queensland.

Back in the 1990s, Peter was a junior Naval officer. Part of his qualification involved navigation skills. He was navigating the ship at night during a high-speed transit of the Great Barrier Reef. This is a very dangerous area where losing your bearings for only a few minutes can put the ship at risk of hitting a reef. Peter did lose his bearings and after trying to re-establish his position briefly he realised he needed to act. He ordered the ship to stop and called the Captain who was asleep in his cabin. The Captain came to the bridge, coached Peter through getting underway again and went back to bed. When Peter’s shift finished a little while later he reflected on what had happened. He knew this failure would set back his career by at least 6-12 months. The next day, the Captain called him to his cabin. To Peter’s amazement, the Captain handed him his qualification. Peter said “But I failed.” The Captain responded saying “You did exactly the right thing. You recognised you’d lost your bearings, stopped the ship and called me. The only reason I sleep at night is knowing my officers make good decisions. I can’t sleep if they think they are perfect and never make a mistake.”

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

2 Responses to “Acts of leadership humanity – mistakes are not always failures”

  1. Tom Ware Says:

    Everyone has there own style, but I’d reword this little story with a little dialogue. Also, bring it into the present tense to add that little bit of urgency.

    It’s the 1990s. Peter,a junior Naval officer, is on watch on a patrol boat. Part of Peter’s qualification involves navigation skills. He’s navigating the ship at night during a high-speed transit of the Great Barrier Reef – a very dangerous area. Losing his bearings for only a few minutes can put the ship a reef.

    A dreadful feeling hits Peter. “I’m lost. Where the hell are we?” I’ve got to do something – and do it now!”

    “Stop engines.”
    “Engines stopped, sir.”

    Peter calls the Captain who was asleep in his cabin.

    “Yes, Sub?”

    Peter explains the situation, feeling a terrible embarrassment at having to do so. This will set his career back at least six to twelve months, a goof like this.

    It’s the next day. The captain calls him to his cabin. To Peter’s amazement, the Captain hands him his qualification.

    “But I failed.”

    “No you didn’t. You did exactly the right thing. You recognised you’d lost your bearings You stopped the ship. You called me.

    “Sub, -the only reason I sleep at night is knowing my officers make good decisions. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I thought they considered they are perfect and could never make a mistake.”

  2. Mark Schenk Says:

    Thanks Tom,
    Your changes bring out a lot more of the tension and emotion. I’ll be telling this one differently from now on.

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