Society today values being perfect.
We seek perfect professionals.
We seek perfect companions.
We seek perfectness in anything we do.
HR ‘lets go’ of people who are not perfect.
The mottos of companies promote excellence and perfectness.
Why seek anything else?
Would anyone pay for failures?
Not the perfect ones!
I am sure all the above do ring a bell in one way or the other. Perhaps not in their absolute form, perhaps not in the sense mentioned above but in another very similar one. Yet, this idea of ‘perfectness’ penetrates and transcends out culture and our thought and it is very hard to find a company or a person not pressing themselves to strive for the perfect.
Sure, mistakes are for humans. We learn by our mistakes. But these kind of words are limited to our parents and our loved ones, or – at best – to a sympathizing HR manager scolding a low-level employee on their first mistake at the work. If you want to be in the big league, big mistakes are unforgivable. See for example two incidents in the US Navy here (Navy Removes USS Philippine Sea CO After Fuel Spill) and here (2 Top Officers of Navy Ship John S. McCain Are Removed) and here (Carrier Roosevelt CO Relieved Over ‘Extremely Poor Judgment’ in Creating ‘Firestorm’ Over COVID-19 Outbreak).
Let me tell you a story…
Meet Chester Nimitz.
You might know the name Nimitz to-day. Because it is the name of a whole class of nuclear powered aircraft carriers [source].
Impressive aren’t they?
The honor of naming a whole class of ships after you is not an easy feat, especially when we talk about aircraft carriers which are at the cornerstone of the US power projection capabilities as we speak.
But it was a natural thing for Nimitz.
You see Chester William Nimitz, Sr. was a fleet admiral of the United States Navy. He played a major role in the naval history of World War II as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, commanding Allied air, land, and sea forces during World War II.
On September 2, 1945, Nimitz signed as representative of the United States when Japan formally surrendered on board USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. On October 5, 1945, which had been officially designated as “Nimitz Day” in Washington, D.C., Nimitz was personally presented a second Gold Star for the third award of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal by President Harry S. Truman “for exceptionally meritorious service as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, from June 1944 to August 1945.” [source]
Amazing story isn’t it?
Well this is the end.
Oh, did I tell you how the story started?
In 1908, Ensign Chester Nimitz ran the destroyer USS Decatur (DD-5) aground in the Philippines. He was court-martialed, found guilty of neglect of duty, and issued a letter of reprimand. [source] It was a different era so he still able to make admiral despite this career setback [source].
Would Nimitz be able to get to be an admiral (let alone Fleet Admiral) if he had such an accident to-day?
Short answer: NO.
He would be relieved of command and would be lucky to have a desk job until the end of this pathetic thing he would dare to call carreer.
To-day we are too perfect to allow specks of imperfection stain the perfect image we have been trying to build for us, our company, our customers, our Navy. And yet, are we getting any better? Are we improving the way we treat people? How many Nimitz admirals have we forced to drop out of the Navy because we cannot tolerate the obvious?
Experience is our teacher.
Yes, mistakes are human nature.
My mom told me that.
And I am sure Fleet Admiral Nimitz would say that too.
Note: Later in his career as a commander of a submarine squadron he may have remembered this initial incident when he cut some slack for a sub commander who bent a prop pulling away from the pier [source: The Admirals].
Because at the end…
What do you get when you fire someone who has run a ship aground?
Someone who has never had the experience of running a ship aground…