Ask Forgiveness

I had the amazing opportunity to hear Lt. Gen. Russel Honore speak yesterday at the Northeast Texas Public Health Preparedness Conference. General Honore, you may remember, is well known for his role leading the evacuation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. General Honore spoke a lot about preparedness and about leadership, but one of his key messages was about doing; about how sometimes it was actually harmful to wait for approval to act.

He gave two examples of when this applied. The first was from the Revolutionary War, and described General Washington’s famous Christmas boat ride across the Delaware River. In today’s media climate the mission would’ve been picked apart and lambasted by the media and armchair pundits as ripe for failure; I mean, his men had no boots, no food, no boats! But they believed, and the General knew it was right, so they “borrowed” boats from up and down the riverbank, sailed over and saved the day. The second was during the response to the Shuttle Columbia disaster when National Guard troops began to secure the scenes and identify wreckage without being deployed. It had to get done, and they were qualified, they might as well do it before anyone got hurt.

These stories reminded me of when I got my Department on social media. It was the summer before we started giving out H1N1 vaccine. We were in a planning meeting, going around to each of our Division’s Programs, making sure everyone knew their role in the upcoming vaccine distribution effort. As the meeting was just about to wrap up, I meekly piped up from the back of the room that I wanted to maybe consider using social media, too. My Division Director looked at me, asked if I was having going to break anything, and after I said no, gave her blessing. We started tweeting and Facebooking that week. It was all elementary, though, as well I already had the accounts made, because I knew that if this got as bad as we feared, I was going to do it anyways. It was the right thing to do, and I was prepared to accept the consequences if it failed. It didn’t come to that, thankfully, and the rest is history, and now our Department is one of the leaders of using social media in public health.

I like to think that success stems from my being really good at social media, but the truth is much simpler than that. Because it ended up being the right thing, I think anyone would have succeeded. What I contributed was little more than a (meek) suggestion. The guts to speak up and be willing to live with what I wrought.

And therein lies today’s lesson. Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. When delay is critical and approvals are onerous for onerous sake, sometimes… That, of course, shouldn’t absolve you of responsibility: if things blow up, it’s still your fault, but doing should always be an option.

Now I know this might be an unpopular point of view, but here’s my rationale. It’s not running off the rails, it’s not ignoring protocol, it’s risk taking, and that’s something I think much of government could do a little more of. I found an article on LinkedIn today that describes what I mean, admonishing folks to try to get fired:

Large corporations [ed. note: read: governments] focus on managing risk and minimizing downside… [M]any CEOs define his or her mission as not losing what has already been gained. Taking big swings for the fence is often not worth the risk.

Which is why as an employee, your willingness to get fired is what will set you apart — and if you are truly skilled — elevate your career and your company to the next level.

Every once in a while we, as communicators, find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances. When we’re faced with that situation, should we be protocol-driven and wholly dependant on approvals, or should we have the option to do what’s right and ask for forgiveness afterwards?