That’s Not Your Job!

Unique Benefit Axiom: Doing your job trusts the organization to self correct. Result: you advance in a stronger organization.

In 1958 I was a lieutenant at Edwards Air Force Base as a flight test engineer. I had been out to a repair hangar to get data for a computer model. As I was walking back to my office I saw a sergeant chewing out a very young airman.

I hammered the sergeant. I made it very clear that he didn’t know his job. You don’t improve performance by abusing your people.

As I walked away a major came out of the repair office and said “good morning Lieutenant.” I saluted and said “Good morning Major.” He asked “What’s the problem?” I explained. He checked my name tag and security badge. Having all he needed to identify me, the major said “thank you” and walked away.

Back at my office 12 minutes later I found a note to call the general’s staff duty officer. Puzzled, I called and found out that I was ordered to report to the general’s office at 0-dark-30 the next morning.

I was there looking my military best. Mirror polished shoes. Freshly starched 505 summer uniform; perfect haircut; and the closest shave I had ever had up to that time. In the next three hours I was to have a much closer shave of a very different type.

I was sitting when the general came in. I jumped to my feet and saluted. The general saluted on the way to his office. I started to sit down but the general’s sergeant said “I wouldn’t sit down Lieutenant; the general might pop out at any moment, he didn’t give you leave to do anything but stand at attention”

I stood stiff as a board for nearly 40 minutes. When the general sent for me I could hardly walk. In his office I managed a military salute. I got out “Lieutenant Cummings reporting as ordered Sir.”

The general said nothing while returning my salute. He worked on papers at his desk. At last he said ” Lieutenant what do you have to say about your actions in the repair hangar yesterday?” I had just started to answer, when the general said “Wrong Answer!” And went back to work on his papers. That little cycle was repeated time after time.

Finally, the general used his intercom to have the sergeant from the incident yesterday sent in. After the usual military greeting the general said “Sergeant, what have you to say about your actions in the repair hangar yesterday?” Immediately the sergeant said “Sir, no excuses sir!” The general replied “You may return to your duties sergeant”.

I felt three things: enraged, humiliated and stupid. The general waited quite a while before speaking again and, as you would expect asked “Lieutenant, what have you to say about your actions in the repair hangar yesterday?” Red-faced and pissed off, my survival instinct finally kicked in and I said “Sir, no excuses sir!” You guessed it! The general sent me back to my regular duties.

Back at the office, the secretary told me to see my boss, Major Nelson. Having had a painful lesson in military courtesy I marched in smartly and saluted. “You wanted to see me sir?” The major said “let’s go have lunch at the officers club.” It was pretty early to start lunch but it turned out to be a very long lunch. The menu was Crow, the major was serving and I was eating!

I don’t recall his exact words. But I got a complete history of military management and organization. Complete histories are built on fundamentals:

* Military organizations cannot survive with hidden defects.

* Military defects always stem from small failures of functional focus.

 Notice that I said small.

* Therefore, the military must be organized to detect small failures.

* How? By requiring everybody to follow orders. If the orders are wrong then following them leads to a failure.

* And failure leads to a change in orders, i. e. removing the defect.

The fundamental learning tool of the military organization is

* Discipline in following orders,

* Detection of even very small failures. and

* Taking action by correcting orders.

So what does this have to do with my behavior in the repair hanger? I had crossed chains of command to give verbal orders to the sergeant. That Was Not My Job. It Was beyond My Authority. It was a small failure of focus in which I was doing someone else’s job. If I corrected the error without the maintenance major knowing it, the defect in the sergeant’s behavior would have persisted. Because the major caught me, two defects were detected, mine and sergeant’s.


All learning occurs from failure. Survival depends upon the sum of lessons learned from many small failures. Whether you are doing your job or are someone else’s job you individually learn from your failures. But when you’re doing somebody else’s job the chain of command doesn’t learn from your small failures.


I don’t know why I was doing somebody else’s job. Maybe it was ego. Maybe I was being kind. Maybe it was in the spirit of comradery. But whatever it was, it was a mistake. I know, I know it looks like a small mistake. It Was Folly!

Since only the chain of command can adapt itself for survival, the ultimate result of doing somebody else’s job is to increase the likelihood that the organization will fail.

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