War Of Nerves

For years, we watched the reruns of M*A*S*H on network television. When I was in high school, I built a sound card for my Apple IIe computer and programmed it to play “Suicide is Painless”, the theme song from both the movie and the TV series. M*A*S*H originally ran for 11 seasons and had 256 episodes from 1972 to 1982.

In the fourth episode of the sixth season, the army psychologist Maj. Sidney Freedman is wounded while at the front checking on a soldier, Tom, he had previously sent back into battle. As the episode unfolds, we see Tom communicating his anger toward Sidney for sending him back to the front and Sidney confronting the reality of his position and the consequences when he makes the wrong decision.

Meanwhile, the whole camp is on edge, and Sidney slowly, one-by-one, helps each person work through their angst, enabling Sidney to focus on the success he continues to have in treating soldiers. The episode ends with the whole camp throwing things that irritate them into a fire originally intended to burn contaminated clothing. The release of tension allows everyone to return a little refreshed to the daily stress they face serving in a forward position.

Three things stand out to me about this story that have application in my life as a leader.

Leaders make mistakes. Unfortunately, we are making decisions that impact people’s lives, so when we fail, it can have a significant impact on the people around us. We do not have the luxury of not deciding. We must make choices and determine the path the organization will take. Often the choices we make, even if they are correct, will result in people having to do hard things. Like Sidney, sometimes we have to send people to the front.

Our failures don’t define us. How we respond to both success and failure is what determines the legacy of our leadership. Failure is an opportunity for growth, self-reflection (personal and organizational), and renewed focus. Success is nice but can be blinding and self-limiting. Remaining optimistic and curious in failure and humble and grateful in success leads to a culture that eschews the “gotcha” and instead sticks together to rise as a team.

Sometimes the team needs a release. Every pressure vessel I have ever worked on in the oil & gas field has a safety relief valve. This device releases pressure above the working pressure of the vessel but below the pressure that could rupture the vessel (rupture is bad). Our organizations need safety relief valves too. Sometimes, that will look like an event, a break, or a reset. Sometimes it will be more about tolerance, care, and understanding for each person when they let off steam (even when it is directed at us).

A healthy community understands that while we are all equally valuable, we are not all the same. Each person will reflect the current pressure and situation differently, and the team needs to respond to each person according to their need. That’s what it means to care. It doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing. It means everyone gets the experience they need. “That’s not fair,” you may say. I used to tell my kids, “The fair is in September.” My kids meant they were upset because they didn’t get the same thing. We don’t want the same thing; we want the right thing for us.

I am proud to be part of a community that can flex with its team members and meet each person where they are. Sometimes, we will send people back to the front. Sometimes, we will send them home. We will make mistakes. Mistakes that cost us time, money, and frustration. Luckily, ours really is a war of nerves. We may feel like we are losing our minds, but hopefully, no one is in risk of losing their life. When we focus as a team on getting better, we win even when we fail, and we get to live The Bison Way.