A Bad Day: Overcoming A Negative First Impression

Guest Post By: Steve Leonard

Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how

many times I fell down and got back up again

Nelson Mandela

Early on in my career, I had one of those moments that provides an enduring lesson, the kind you’d sooner forget, but that won't go away. In the early fall months of 1989, my platoon was involved in a training exercise that included elements from several organizations on Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Even as a relatively new second lieutenant, I understood that such exercises offered an opportunity for a young leader in demonstrating their competence, or the lack thereof.


Cognizant of this fact and combined with all the confidence a junior lieutenant can muster, I fastidiously prepared my troops for this exercise. Everyone was recently qualified on their assigned weapon. We'd conducted fieldcraft training down to the squad level, and our vehicles and equipment were in prime operating condition. My platoon sergeant beamed with pride, which was saying a lot for a cynical old noncommissioned officer. We were ready for anything. Or so we thought.


Two days into the exercise, the assistant division commander for maneuver, a one-star general who would one day become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited our training site and circulated among the units. As then, Brigadier General Hugh Shelton, walked the perimeter of my platoon area, he stopped to chat with soldiers in their fighting positions, asked about my family, and finally stopped to visit with a young soldier manning an M2 machine gun mounted in one of our vehicles. My platoon sergeant gave me a quick smile – this was one of our best young troopers, fresh from The Air Assault School, and recently qualified on the weapon at his fingertips.


“How are you doing today, son?” General Shelton asked.


“Fine, sir,” the soldier replied.


“Are you pretty good on that weapon?”


“I don’t know, sir. I guess.”


“Where’s your headspace and timing gauge? Have you got this thing ready to go?”


“I don’t have one,” the soldier replied, bluntly.


My platoon sergeant and I exchanged a look. We had personally checked every weapon that morning to ensure all the proper equipment was in place. Everyone was prepared for the day.


“How about your range card? Do you have that?”


“A range card?” Even though we’d personally checked the range cards earlier that morning, the soldier looked at General Shelton like he was speaking Pig Latin.


“You don’t have a range card. You don’t have a headspace and timing gauge. Are you even qualified on that weapon, son?” the General boomed in response.


“No, sir,” the soldier blurted in response.


General Shelton turned and gave me a look. “Look” probably isn’t the right word, though. He looked at my battalion commander, who at that particular moment was staring me down like fresh prey. He looked at my company commander, who was caught somewhere between a deep breath and a heart attack. Then he looked back at me and shook his head like I was a second lieutenant lost on a land navigation course. For a platoon leader, there were few greater sins than assigning a soldier to man a weapon for which they were not qualified. The General stomped away with my battalion commander close on his heels. My company commander gave me a “Why me?” glance and followed after the other two.


My platoon sergeant and I looked at the young soldier as he sheepishly looked down from his vehicle. As only a grizzled old noncommissioned officer can do, my platoon sergeant summed up both our thoughts: "What the f@#$ did you just do?"


“I’m sorry, sergeant. I got scared. I froze. I’ve never seen a general before.”


And, just like that, I knew what it felt like to blow an opportunity. They say you never get a second chance to set a first impression. Like a stand-up comedian who can’t make an audience laugh or an Olympic diver who lands a belly flop, I had what is euphemistically known as a “bad show.” I’d had a chance to demonstrate that I wasn’t just another stupid lieutenant and had failed. Miserably. So? Now what? How do you recover from that?


1. What went wrong? Take a step back and be brutally honest with yourself. Avoid the blame game and own the mess. In this case, it was pretty obvious. Regardless of how well prepared you think you are, you are only as strong as your weakest link. However, our weakest link wasn’t the soldier, it was us. Simply put, we hadn’t taken the time to prepare the youngest soldier in our platoon for a possible face-to-face discussion with one of the most senior leaders in the division.


2. What went right? As counter-intuitive as it might seem, this is an integral part of the assessment process. There are two operative phrases: "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Figure out what worked and leave it alone. We had a sound system in place. We had a good plan. We had good people. That was a strong foundation to build on.


3. Be ready for next time. Now that you’ve had a chance to take a hard look at the situation make the changes necessary and move on. We didn’t need to go back to formula, but we did need to make some minor adjustments. We started to build in more "face-time" opportunities. This is where our soldiers could interact with more senior leaders—all the way from the battalion and brigade commanders to the command sergeants major at every level. As a result, they became more confident with themselves and more comfortable with rank.


4. Let it go. You can’t change what happened, so there’s no use beating yourself up about it. Don’t dwell on the past. Dust yourself off and let the bruises heal. Focus on what’s ahead, not what’s already happened. If all else fails, sing a few bars of “Let it Go” and get over it.

Six months later, we found ourselves back in the field on an exercise and more ready than ever to deal with the "drive-by" visits from senior leadership. What worked well had been improved upon, what hadn’t had been addressed, and leadership took notice. Our earlier experience served as an anecdote that drove our preparation and underpinned our performance. We had a bad day, but we learned from it. And we were better because of it.


Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center's Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.