Thursday, June 12, 2008

Second Chances

Author Michael Yon (Moment of Truth in Iraq) tells the following story about "Second Chances" involving General David Petraeus, the senior American military leader in Iraq:

During a mission one day that took us from Baqubah to Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Johnson told me a story about General Petraeus. Back when Johnson was a captain, and Petraeus was a colonel, Petraeus was Johnson's new commander. They were conducting a live-fire exercise when a young soldier named Specialist Terrence Jones tripped and accidentally fired his weapon. Jones shot Colonel Petraeus, the bullet slamming through his chest and taking a piece of his back on the way out. Petraeus fell to the ground, bleeding out of his mouth. He nearly died. We nearly lost the man who may proved to be the most important military leader in a generation.

The army is not forgiving of such incidents. The best that Captain Johnson and Specialist Jones could reasonably have hoped for was a painless end to their military service. Johnson looked me in the eye and said, "You know what Petraeus did?"

"What?" I asked.

"He gave me a second chance."

Fred Johnson actually got picked up for promotion early.

"What happened to the soldier?" I asked, thinking surely there had to be a consequence. Conventional wisdom holds that a soldier just can't shoot a commander in the chest and walk away unpunished. There is no such thing as an "accidental discharge." Unplanned bullet launches are called "negligent discharges." As in negligent homicide.

"Mike, you won't believe how Jones was punished," Johnson said. "Petraeus sent him to ranger school."

I couldn't believe my ears. That's a punishment a lot of young soldiers dream about. And that might explain why LTC Johnson sometimes says, "I believe in second chances," and "when someone gives you a second chance, you should pass it along."

Not unlike a previous lesson from General Colin Powell about zero-defect leadership, this story is an awesome example of how we might address honest mistakes. Petreaus was shot and almost died, yet had the ability to underwrite shortcomings and not "fire back." Setbacks like this are certainly opportunities to rise up and demonstrate compassionate leadership. Now...whether you want to reward your people with a ticket to Ranger School (and as a graduate myself, I'm thinking that may have been the young man's punishment!), we can all learn from this approach to building and investing in future leaders and being willing to give second chances. People can be held accountable without destroying lives or exacting revenge.

Petraeus did. And while I may not have ever shot my boss (at least not with real bullets!), I know I'm glad that leaders for whom I have served, whom I am confident that I have disappointed in many, many ways, have been willing to underwrite some of my own mistakes. How about you?

That's Leader Business.

**Michael Yon's book is a terrific read with some great insights on progress in Iraq -- and leadership -- that you might not be hearing elsewhere. Thanks to new friend Pat for sending me a copy. Hooah!
**Photo courtesy of Army Times.


Steve Harper said...

What a great story Tom. Fantastic example of second chances. Thank you so much for sharing it!

Ripple On!!!


Tom Magness said...

And thanks to you Steve for sharing it with your readers! I appreciate the ripple you made in my life! Hooah!