It was my first journalism job after graduate school and, a few years into it, the first time I’d be “closing” the magazine on my own. Some months earlier, I’d been promoted to managing editor, and I was thrilled. Now, my editor-in-chief (Kerry) was heading off on vacation, leaving me the reins and, along with them, responsibility for approving the final page layouts before sending them to the printer.
A week or two later, when the first batch of issues arrived, Kerry (now back from vacation) called me into her office, tossed an issue at me, and told me to take a look at the cover.
I read it over once and didn’t notice anything (though I knew there must be something). Then, I read it again and my heart sank. Typo … on the cover. In the few words I had to create and proof for the cover, I’d let an error slip through and, in doing so, had totally failed at the task to which I’d been appointed.
Kerry was not happy. “John (our publisher),” she said with frustration, “wants to approve every cover now.”
So, I’d accomplished quite a lot. First off, Kerry now thought I was far less responsible than she had before, and probably questioned her judgment of promoting me in the first place. And secondly, John thought less of both of us and thus wanted to insert himself into the editorial process, something journalists dislike very much.
I was really devastated, and felt tremendous guilt at what I’d done and the effects of it. And I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Kerry, in the aftermath, could have really turned my career in a different direction if she’d have handled things differently; if she’d given into her frustration and sent her anger my way; if she’d vented her spleen by breaking me down and destroying whatever confidence I had left.
But she didn’t.
While I don’t remember any big hug or kumbaya moment, I also know I didn’t lose my job or get demoted, or even largely cut out of the managerial loop. I just remember life and work moving on, and everyone seeming to accept that I’d made a mistake, but it didn’t mean I should be discarded with the flawed issues they trashed.
Life turns on such dimes. I thought of this inflection point recently while listening to “1776” by David McCullough, as he covered an incident George Washington had with one of his generals, Nathanael Greene. Green was young and, well, green, but Washington saw his copious talents and made him a major general early in the war. But as with many young folks who get their first big opportunity, he wasn’t perfect. Specifically on Oct. 25, 1776, Greene recommended to Washington that the continental army hold Fort Washington in the face of encroaching British troops.
Washington accepted the advice, but the Fort was overrun shortly thereafter with the loss of many men and materiel. However, in spite of this major disaster and the political flack that came down on Washington because of it, he didn’t scapegoat or sack Greene.
“Washington had failed to override Greene’s judgment and make a clear decision of his own and, as commander in chief, he was, of course, ultimately responsible. Washington never blamed himself for the loss of Fort Washington, but then he never openly blamed Greene, which he could have. He said only that he had acted on the judgment of others. Nor, importantly did he fire Greene or shuffle him off to some out of the way or meaningless command. He undoubtedly thought less of the young general than he had before, still he knew Greene’s strengths …
“Washington needed Greene. He knew that Greene, like (Henry) Knox, would never give up, never walk away any more than he would, or lose sight of what the war was about, any more than he would. Washington would repay loyalty with loyalty and this, after so many bad decisions, was one of his wisest decisions, ever.”
And so keep in mind that when one of your best and brightest falls on his or her face, it won’t mark the first time someone with so much potential has shown so much fallibility. So take deep breath, put things into perspective and, perhaps, forgive. It made all the difference to me.