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The 50% Rule

By Chuck Violand

October 22, 2018

Shortly after The Violand Executive Summit in June, one of the Summit instructors, Jim Bagnola, stopped by our office to visit. While here, Jim relayed a story told to him by his friend—a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander and F-15 Fighter pilot.

The incident began with the pilots being given orders to scramble their jets off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier. The rules are that you have only two tries to get your canopy to latch and lock before you take off. If your canopy doesn’t lock by the second try, then you’re not allowed to take off and you’re towed over to the side.

The Lieutenant Commander’s canopy failed to lock after two attempts, so he was towed to the side. Obviously upset, he investigated and discovered that a screwdriver, misplaced by the aircraft mechanic, had been left in the way.

The mechanic was invited to join the Lieutenant Commander in his office below deck. Fearing the worst, the mechanic was surprised when the pilot thanked him for the valuable lesson he’d been taught that day. He called it his 50% rule: we all own at least 50% of our conflicts, mistakes, and shortcomings. In this case, the pilot stated that while the misplaced screwdriver was the mechanic’s 50%, the pilot should have left himself enough time to make sure his canopy would lock before attempting to take off.

A recent conversation with a business owner caused me to think about the Lieutenant Commander’s 50% rule. The owner I was talking with was upset because he and his top employee had serious disagreements and weren’t getting along.

I didn’t find this particularly unusual. It’s common for people in leadership roles who have strong personalities to occasionally clash. In my opinion, this is one of the ways to know we have the right people in leadership roles.

What I did find unusual was the fact that the owner wasn’t accepting any responsibility for the disagreements or the problems.
Sometimes it seems like there is an inverse relationship between being a business owner and accepting ownership of the business’ problems. Too often we default to finger pointing, blaming, and finding scapegoats when things aren’t going smoothly.

While nobody is expected to fall on their sword every time something goes wrong, image how much better things would be if we all accepted at least 50% ownership for the causes of our problems.

By the end of our conversation it became clear that the business owner has some legitimate beefs about the performance of his employee. And in my follow-up conversation with the employee, it was clear that he had some legitimate beefs about the owner. But until each of them accepts responsibility for their part in the disagreements, the relationship will continue to head downhill and so will the performance of the business. Rather than impacting just their two lives, they’re also impacting the lives of everyone else who works for the company.

It takes a special kind of humility for a highly-trained Navy officer, who’s launching and landing $100M aircraft, to own 50% of a mistake that could have been avoided. Maybe it’s an important lesson for those of us in business to learn.