Commentary: Triumphing over adversity not about labels

Mar 11 2010 - 12:46pm

I've spent quite some time with the 898th Munitions Squadron in the aftermath of its inspection results and subsequent decertification. What follows is my way to think about readiness and to put these events in perspective. They apply to any mission area.

For most of you this is new ground -- the inspections, the root cause analysis, the decertification -- all of it. Some of you have lived this before, and the experience has defined for you what integrity, service and excellence mean in practical terms. It's not fun but it is meaningful and will help us be a healthier enterprise.

We all know how we got here. You can say it's the inspection or another symptom of causes going back decades. Frankly, both are right. I was raised to believe a real measure of a person is how you react to adversity. I'll let you in on a secret; that's only half true. Whenever people focus on bad news, think about the opposite. If you failed an inspection, ask what if you had passed?

There's this famous line from a poem called "If" written by Rudyard Kipling: "If you can meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same." This poem was Kipling's formula for success.

So, how can success and failure be imposters and treated the same? And what has this got to do with the 898th? First, success and failure are labels put on by other people. Personally, I don't like being defined by someone else -- I'll make up my own mind -- and I'm always tougher on myself. When some look at the inspection as a disaster, I see an opportunity to make things better. I also see the courage it took to dig deep and to say we need a pause to get this right. So where others see tragedy, we know better -- we know it's the right thing to do.

Second, failure is never as bad as people fear and success is never as good as people hope. This truth also makes imposters of triumph and disaster. Look at it this way -- what if you had passed the inspection? Would you have kept looking for problems? Those inspections are snapshots in time meaning an outstanding unit may be one where they just didn't find a problem that day.

Third, labels don't change reality. It's not about inspections -- it's about excellence in every single task, every single day. In the nuclear business, it's about perfection in every single task, every single day. We must continually assess ourselves, regardless of the labels, and treat triumph and disaster the same. We do this by staying grounded, focused and determined.

My biggest fear is not a future inspection. It's that I've challenged you to become a model of excellence and perhaps you will misunderstand what that means. I want you to be elite -- not elitist. An elite outfit is always hungry, always questioning, always challenging. Elitists feel they are owed something, that they don't have to earn it every day, and that rules don't apply to them. Every time you see a tragedy of a "special" outfit, company or person you can almost always trace it to becoming elitists. So, treat success and failure the same. Stay true to yourselves and our core values.

The younger folks may feel everyone is watching them. Don't worry about inspectors watching you. Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. Readiness in our business is about performing every task with perfection -- and perfection doesn't care if someone is watching. The only eyes I would worry about are these:

  • The eyes of your team and your families -- are you representing them well?
  • The eyes of those who follow you. The Tech Orders, equipment, culture -- everything about what you do today was created by someone before you. Are you happy with what they gave you? Do you think the next generation will be happy with what you give them?
  • The eyes of millions who never see you. They don't know you, but they trust you -- and you have to earn that trust every task, every day
  • Most importantly -- worry about your own eyes -- worry about the man in the mirror at the end of every task, every day

Last November and in recent weeks someone gave you a label. Assumptions have been made based on that label. But we know the label is an imposter. When I look in your eyes, I don't see despair -- I see determination. I see an elite unit -- the unit that always questions, is always hungry, always striving for perfection. I see a unit where anyone from the newest troop to the crustiest veteran can stand up and say something isn't right. I see a unit I'm proud of because you are doing the hard work -- and not because someone outside made you. I see the 898th Munitions Squadron -- a unit that will never be satisfied.

The 377th Air Base Wing has just emerged from a similar process and while you have our heartiest congratulations I ask all wing members to heed the advice above. You too just received another label. The question is how are you going to react tomorrow and the next day -- and for every task thereafter?

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