Keeping Your Powder Dry

by Wiz

in Lessons,Podcasts

The first flag officer I ever had any real contact with was Vice Admiral McKee – he was the Superintendent of the Naval Academy during most of my years there.  An accomplished naval officer, he commanded nuclear submarines during the Cold War (some of those missions are only now being declassified). 

Now by “contact” I don’t mean I had dinner with him at his house.  During my years at the Academy he addressed my class several times.  He had that wonderful ability to speak to a group and yet come across as though he was talking only to me (one of the reasons I remember his talks 30 years later!).  The main thrust of his message was always the same: conducting yourself as a professional, whether in the military or working at “Amalgamated Bottlecap” (his term for the civilian world).  He impressed upon us that the professional reputations we established today would follow us the rest of our lives and, once damaged, are extraordinarily difficult to repair.

One of his phrases was “keep your powder dry.”  In the days of sail “when ships were made of wood and men were made of iron,” naval battles were fought with cannon and musket.  The critical component was gunpowder – if it was damp it would either not function, or could cause the weapon to explode.  It was absolutely imperative that it be kept dry – no small task in the salt water environment of the open ocean!  Today the phrase is an admonition to conduct yourself professionally; to stay above pettiness, squabbling and deceit; to develop a professional reputation of honor and integrity.  It’s also a reminder to only engage in “big battles” and not waste your “powder” on the small ones.

Successful leaders, especially in the military, tend to be principled, disciplined and very passionate.  These strengths serve them well, inspiring those they lead and arousing an esprit de corps unmatched in other professions. 

And yet there are times when too much of a good thing . . . is not a good thing.  As my friend Dr. Rohm says, “A weakness is often a strength – that’s taken to an extreme.”  I’ve seen situations where an obsession with personal honor means even a small disagreement is interpreted as a personal attack.  “I disagree with you” is seen as “you’re wrong”.  Add in unbridled passion, and you pour gasoline on a fire – small sparks become a mass conflagration.  “I’m right, and I’ll prove I’m right!  And I don’t care what it takes!”  A small skirmish escalates into all-out war.

In today’s podcast I outline essentially a case study in not keeping one’s powder dry – engaging in an unnecessary battle (in my opinion, anyway).  Unfortunately in this case, “being right” has now become the issue – “doing the right thing” has been subverted by “a matter of principle.”  I ask a key question at the end – and I look forward to reading your answers!  (5:20)

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