Tuesday, June 14, 2011

No Excuse, Sir!

I had many responses to my last posting (Memorial Day Memories). Most were expressions of gratitude for my service which were warmly received. Others complimented the health of my whiskers (also warmly received). But it was the one from a very close friend, Bob Cannan, which really stood out. Bob was a year behind me at the Naval Academy (USNA). It’s fair to say that my posting caused him to remember some of his own lessons from that time.

By way of background, I should recount for those of you who did not attend USNA that our plebe year (like all military training) was a process of breaking down our conditioned responses to stimuli and replacing them with something more suitable to the armed forces. There were only four acceptable responses to any statement or question from upperclassmen: “yes, sir”; “no, sir”; “I’ll find out, sir”; and, “no excuse, sir”. That’s it. Nothing else need be, should be or had better be said. Try on something else and there was a price to pay.

Why? Well I quote, in part, from Bob’s email:

“Here’s the one phrase that impressed itself on me most profoundly in those formative years: “No excuse, sir.”

“And, the few times I was stupid enough to say it, it was always followed in a nanosecond by, “YOU’RE GODDAM RIGHT THERE’S NO EXCUSE!”

“After a whole (plebe) year facing the holy truth of that response I realized, “Hey, there really isn’t any excuse.” It worked. That got through, and it’s been a big one for me.

“Since then, it always amazes me that the same people who step up and say they “take full responsibility” never really do.

“And further, the main point is that an admission of guilt is not what we want. We don’t want excuses, certainly. But we also don’t want admissions of guilt or failure. Who cares? They’re failing or quitting. That’s been done. They want our sympathy? Our admiration for their honesty?

“We want them to do what they were hired to do, and keep at it until they deliver. That’s when they’ll have my admiration. Honesty and candor aren’t as courageous as the media makes them out to be. In fact they’re so common they’re not even very dramatic anymore. Here’s an alternative: how about shutting your mouth and getting the job done? That’s what you promised. That’s all I want.”

Obviously, Bob is a passionate guy. That’s why I love him. Passion aside, let’s examine for a moment the value of the lesson. We have been served up a succession of failures by our so-called leaders who would have benefited from some USNA conditioning. Think of Richard Nixon, Bill CLinton, Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby.

The common element in each of these examples is that these folks were not guilty of the underlying crime of which they were accused. They were guilty of the cover-up, the lie – the excuse. Richard Nixon wasn’t involved in Watergate; he was guilty of the cover-up. Clinton’s failure was not the Whitewater caper but lying about his sex life. Stewart wasn’t found guilty of insider trading but of lying to the FBI about it. Ditto Scooter Libby.

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

In combat, when someone doesn’t admit to a problem, people die. Hopefully that doesn’t happen in our personal and business lives. But, the next time you screw up – and we all do – put it out there to those that matter and simply say, “I have no excuse for this. Let’s talk about it and discuss how we move forward”.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a call for our military heroes to run for President. Schwarzkopf, Powell, Petraeus. What is their appeal? The sentiment transcends party politics. People don’t care about that. Quite simply, they long for true leadership, forthrightness – a “No Excuse” approach to the job. Isn’t that what we grew up with? Eisenhower, JFK, John Glenn?

The Veterans Campaign, a non-profit dedicated to helping military veterans run for office, reports that, in 1969, 75% of members of Congress had served in the military. Today the figure is 22.5%.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have and will produce veterans who will step up and serve. It’s already happening. Indeed my own Congressman is a West Point grad. It will continue to happen because those who serve in the military will want to continue to serve. It will happen because people are tired of partisan politics.

To quote Seth Lynn, the Marine Corps veteran who heads the Veterans Campaign, “Military members have served overseas and seen that the enemy is the guy at the end of the battlefield, not the guy on the other end of the aisle".

Perhaps we will soon have the answer to my favorite question, WHO WILL LEAD?


  1. My father served in the army for 26 years, retired as a CW4. One statement always stood out to me growing up, "The man you want to follow into battle is the officer who admits he doesn’t have all the answers but is willing to find them, correct his mistakes. When something goes wrong he takes responsibility. The officer you fear is the one who is convinced he is right 100% of the time and will keep pushing forward at all costs even when it is apparent to himself and those around him he is wrong."
    “Seek, acknowledge, correct, learn, move forward.” Heard it many times growing up and passed it forward to my child and the kids I have coached.

  2. This blog posting reminds me of why I like you Boat School guys so much.

    Mike C., USNA '73