Three Letters?

A parable told to many as they assume positions of command may have relevance in the United States today. It is hard to know if this story grew out of a specific incident, or where it originated. Still, anyone having held an appointed or elected position of leadership and command can see the wisdom of the story. It goes like this:

A new commander paid a courtesy call on the outgoing commander shortly before the old commander had to step down. The incoming commander asked his predecessor if the predecessor had any advice for him. The outgoing commander smiled sadly, shaking his head and said, “I do not have any advice, but I am leaving you something.”

The outgoing commander continued, “I left three sealed and numbered letters in the bottom drawer of the desk. They may help you in the future.  Don’t open them until you really need them, and open them in order.”

The new commander was not certain how to take his predecessor’s statement. However, he had ceremonies to attend, staff to review and many hands to shake before moving into his new office. He promptly forgot the letters.

After all the pomp and circumstance was completed, the new commander was finally sitting at his desk alone. As he settled in to start his first day, he remembered his predecessor’s words. He opened the bottom desk drawer, and found three sealed envelopes at the back of the drawer. They were numbered one through three. He thought about opening them, but something made him stop. He laughed to himself and put the letters back in the desk. In a short time he forgot them again.

One day the commander faced a serious issue. It was the kind of issue that could cost him his job. He needed to do something, and he needed to do it soon. Unfortunately, he did not have a clue what he should do. Suddenly, he remembered the three letters. He searched through the bottom drawer and found them, quickly opening the first letter.

The first letter said simply, “Blame it on me.” The commander laughed, thanked his predecessor in absentia and promptly set things in motion to save his backside. He simply blamed his predecessor for leaving him a mess to clean up. It worked, and things went back to normal.

Later, a new crisis arose that might mean the end of his tenure. As he was agonizing over what to do and how to save himself, he remembered the letters. He dug through the accumulated junk in the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out the second letter. It said, “Tell them you have not had enough time to correct my mistakes.” The commander followed the advice in the letter and weathered the storm.

Other crises came and went. They were nothing the now seasoned commander could not handle. However, he finally faced another crisis that might mean the end of his career. He remembered the last letter and pulled it out. He held it in his hand and wondered what kind of advice the old commander left him this time. He opened the letter and read, “Write three letters.”

Dismissing this as simply a cute story to tell newly appointed or elected leaders is possible. It certainly brings out a nervous laugh when told to new top level executives, elected officials and others assuming leadership positions. However, anyone who has ever served in a public service command or leadership position knows there is a kernel of truth in the tale. In the private sector, those who serve at the pleasure of boards, stockholders or owners know it rings true as well.

Leaders, commanders and CEOs come and go for many reasons. Often, changes occur because the leader or commander lost control of a situation or has made mistakes. Sometimes, someone has simply over stayed his or her welcome. For whatever reason, the parable has value to anyone in a leadership position.

The extent of the problems a new leader inherits cannot be used to save his or her job forever. The excuse that the last guy left such a big mess there has not been time to clean it up will only work for so long. Eventually, it is time for most people in leadership roles to leave. It may be after a long and storied career or after a short and stormy one. Either way, sooner or later it is time to write three letters.

A national election is coming up in a little more than a week. If you feel it is time for your representative, senator, president or other elected official to write three letters, express your feelings by exercising your right to vote, for the other guy.  Then send the incumbent a copy of this piece. If you think they deserve another term, vote for them. You can still send this to them. They might get a nervous laugh out of it, and they might remember it in the future.


© S. E. Jackson 2012




About S. Eric Jackson

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