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Failure is humbling but provides valuable lessons for future success

Perry M. Smith, Jr. is a teacher, speaker, TV, and radio commentator and best-selling author, and executive producer of four videos.

Hundreds of millions of television viewers worldwide came to know him during the 1991 Persian Gulf War for his more than 100 appearances as a military analyst on network television. 

Smith served for 30 years in the U. S. Air Force. He commanded the F-15 fighter wing at Bitburg, Germany where he provided leadership to 4000 personnel. Later, he served as the top Air Force planner and as the commandant of the National War College. He flew 180 combat missions in the F-4D aircraft over North Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam War. 

In 2016, The General Perry Smith Parkway near the Augusta Regional Airport was opened. In 2021 in Atlanta, Smith was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. 

I have found that the greatest learning opportunities come during failure. My seven major setbacks were not happy experiences. However, with each setback, I discovered a great deal about myself and others. Also, bouncing back from failures was an uplifting experience for me and my colleagues.

Let me share a story of when I was fired from a high-level job where I learned two powerful lessons.

In the late 1970’s, I was working in the Pentagon for the Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Clements. Clements held the second-most important job in the Department of Defense. Clements, a wealthy businessman, would later serve two terms as governor of Texas.

Nine months after assuming a two-year assignment as a military assistant to Clements, I got a phone call from a friend, Colonel Sam McClure. Sam was serving in the personnel office of the Air Staff. Sam told me to pack my bags – I was being assigned to Germany. This was quite unexpected news.

Sam was very frank: “Perry, you have been fired.”

Although I worked directly for Clements, he did not fire me personally. Clements handed off that responsibility to an Air Force colonel he did not even know.

The next day, I asked Clements, “Sir, I understand I am headed to Europe?” He replied, “Oh, Perry, I forgot to tell you, the Air Force wants you back flying airplanes and I am willing to let you go.”

The real story has two parts. First, Clements did not have the guts to fire me himself. Second, when I asked him the key question, he lied to me.

Being fired by the Deputy Secretary of Defense was a big-time failure. My “golden” career came crashing down. Incidentally, Clements never told me why he gave me the ax.

There were some important lessons learned from this setback. First, it was a lesson in humility. Clearly, I had failed in my job. Second, I learned how not to fire people – a valuable lesson.

This event led to a blessing in disguise. I was getting back to the operational Air Force. Within two years, I was commanding an Air Force Wing (4,000 professionals) and flying the world’s best fighter aircraft, the F-15.

The lessons learned from this failure helped me in the years following. As I moved into leadership positions, I had to “drop the hammer” on several people. If that person worked directly for me, I gave him or her the news directly. I felt it was wrong to ask a personnel officer, an assistant, or anyone else to give the person the bad news. I told each person why they had to move on.

In the book Rules and Tools for Leaders, I include a chapter (and a checklist) on how to fire folks. There are also chapters and checklists on planning, hiring, decision making, dealing with your bosses, crisis action, handling the media, managing the electronic workplace, and leading non-profits.

Major General Perry Smith U.S. Air Force (ret.) lives in Augusta. His books can be ordered from amazon.com. He can be contacted at his email address: [email protected].

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