How about when you have three vehicles worth millions of dollars and thirty Marines hopelessly stuck on a treacherous mountain in the blazing heat of the Yakima Desert? That’s when I called for help.
It was a training exercise and I was going to surprise another unit by coming over the hill instead of going around it. Up we went and the vehicles made great progress until the fuel filters, empty of fuel because of the steep slope, burned out and were no longer able to push gas to the engines. One by one the engines sputtered to a stop and the 18,000 pound vehicles became giant metal rocks on the side of a mountain. You might be thinking, just roll them back down the hill. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. That much weight requires air brakes which only work if the engines are running.
Having no idea I had burned out the fuel filters, I tried and tried to fix the problem. Finally, I threw in the towel and called for help.
Soon my boss arrived and made the trek up the hill. When he reached the top, I tried to explain but he raised a hand to tell me to wait until he caught his breath. Bent over with his hands resting on his knees, he surveyed the mess.
When he looked up, he found my eyes and said, “That was boneheaded.”
I tried to explain, but once again he cut me off.
“Is anyone hurt?”
“Would you do this in combat?”
He righted himself and said, “Okay, let’s fix it.”
Most leaders would have fixated on the problem. They would have screamed and shouted, cussed and made threats of punishment. Instead, he fixated on the person—me—and from it I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that the person is more important than the mistake.
Some things are difficult to work through and can require a lot of clean up. Sometimes your hands are tied and you feel you have little choice. But if no one gets hurt, and you have the ability to make a choice—always choose the person over the mistake.
Trust me, they will never forget it.