The following was written over a decade ago. However, the parable of the three letters is much older, and the reality it addresses has likely played out for centuries. I see it playing out today in many venues, locally and nationally.
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 desk’s bottom drawer. 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 completing all the pomp and circumstance, 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 drawer. 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, “Blame it on me.” The commander laughed, thanked his predecessor in absentia, and promptly set things in motion to save his backside. He 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. He was agonizing over what to do and how to save himself, so 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 related 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 also rings true.
Leaders, commanders, and CEOs come and go for many reasons. Changes often occur because the leader or commander loses control of a situation or makes mistakes. Sometimes, someone has overstayed their 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 their 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 a short and stormy one. Either way, the time to write three letters will come sooner or later.
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