Have you ever noticed the tendency some people have of refusing to try something new because they fear they will fail, or that they might upset someone by it? This malady is especially prevalent in bureaucrats. For want of a better term, I call it preemptive capitulation; giving up before you start to avoid losing; and it drives me nuts.


I believe strongly in the old adage, “You never know what you can do until you try,” and have spent the past 49 years of my working life trying to infect others with the same attitude – with only modest and sporadic success. Happily, I’m not the only bureaucrat willing to push the edge of the envelope to get new things done, or who is willing to sometimes do things other than ‘by the book’ when the situation seems to call for it.


During my first tour in Vietnam, beginning right after the 1968 Tet Offensive, I worked with a young army sergeant who led reconnaissance patrols. He and one other American, along with ten Montagnard tribesmen, lightly armed and a long way from any support, would be dropped by helicopter in the jungle, far behind what passed for Viet Cong or North Vietnamese lines; and would have to try to evade the enemy for sometimes as ten to thirty days while they gathered information on enemy strength, positions, and movement. As luck would have it, on one mission, they were spotted and attacked by a far superior force within an hour of leaving their landing zone. Trapped; their backs against a hill; by a force of over two hundred well-armed fighters, the conventional wisdom was for them to dig in and call for assistance. The young sergeant knew, however, that help was several hours away, and they didn’t have two hours. So, he ignored the ‘book’ response to a situation like this, lined his team up and charged the enemy. Firing and yelling, these twelve lightly armed recon troops dashed headlong at two hundred main force North Vietnamese regulars. What was the outcome? The North Vietnamese, likely thinking there must be more than twelve somewhere in that elephant grass broke and ran, and the team made it to safety without an injury.


If that sergeant had played it safe and ‘followed the rules,’ the team would have been killed or captured.


The opportunity to think and act outside the box, to see what you can do, occurs in situations that are not as fraught with danger as the sergeant faced, and sadly, too many bureaucrats lack the courage or imagination to rise to the occasion.


Some years ago, I was in a job that came with a lot of unspoken limits on what I and my team could do, not because of any laws or regulations, but because a certain high level person had a personal interest, and no one wanted to risk angering him. When I proposed a certain course of action that the bureaucracy believed he might disagree with, I was slapped down. After a couple of futile attempts to convince my regular chain of recommendation of the wisdom of my proposal, I tried a different route; I bypassed the normal mid-level bureaucrats, and went directly to their bosses with the proposal; an act that caused me a few months of headache as the bureaucracy went into ‘retaliation overdrive.’ Bureaucrats don’t like to do new things, or show imagination, but they can be ferocious when their rice bowls are threatened, or their precious procedures are ignored. As luck would have it, the superiors that I approached agreed with me, and furthermore, the individual the bureaucracy thought would oppose my plan, became one of its most ardent supporters. Six years later, I was pleased to see a newspaper headline showing that bureaucracy vigorously defending my plan; the one they’d thought unwise earlier, and had flayed me for proposing.


As you go through life and work, you can take the easy route; do things the way you’ve always done them. You won’t be faulted for following the rules. But, you might also accomplish absolutely nothing. Trying something different doesn’t always work. I have to say honestly, there’s always the chance you’ll end up flat on your face. But, as my grandmother was fond of saying, “It’s not how many times you fall down that counts, but how many times you get back up.”

Published by Charles Ray