Working Wounded Blog: Surviving a Screw-Up

What do you think of when you hear the name Michael Brown? (aka "Brownie," the former director of FEMA). Yes, that guy -- the guy who was "in charge" of the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

There is certainly more than enough blame to go around among state and national officials for the poor response to Katrina. But Brown's lack of preparation, his habit of getting news about the crisis in New Orleans from news anchors and his overall cavalier attitude have reserved for him a special spot in infamy based on the thrashing he takes from Leno and Letterman and in casual conversations that I've overheard recently.

If you agree, the news I'm about to tell you will leave you slack-jawed: Michael Brown is opening his own consulting business focusing on disaster preparedness. Yep, he's trying to turn his incompetence into insight, and, according to an article in The Washington Post, corporations are lining up for his services. Well, at least according to Brownie they are. Sometimes the news is weirder than any columnist could possibly make up.

Whoever said that there were no "second acts" in America and that you can't go home again? As a society we seem to have an infinite ability to embrace some of the people who've screwed up. Kobe Bryant, Paris Hilton, Richard Nixon -- the list of people who've risen above past problems just keeps growing and growing.

I'm actually not against Brown launching his new venture. He is entitled to hang whatever shingle he wants. (I do have major concerns about any corporation that would waste money paying for his advice, but that's another story altogether.) You go guy, and best of luck to you.

But I do think that there is something we all can learn from Brown. Sometimes we run from our pasts, but more often than not, we need to look past problems right in the eye and accept them. Heck, if Brownie can sell his ignorance as some kind of strategic tool, maybe your ignorance is marketable, too.

My e-mail inbox is chock full of messages from people who have been laid off or fired -- many of them wondering if they'll ever be able to rise above their misfortune. I think that Brownie could be the inspiration so many of us need to just come clean about past problems, show 'em what we've learned from the experience and how we're now the perfect "pre-disastered" employee (that is one of my favorite descriptions from the movie "The World According to Garp" -- it describes someone who has dealt with disasters successfully in the past.).

I've been fired and laid off, and so have most of the people that I know. These days careers are seldom rockets that take off and just keep going. No, today's metaphor for careers is like trying to get between floors in a high rise that has multiple banks of elevators. Sometimes you have to go back down to the lobby to get to your ultimate destination.

Given the frantic nature of work today, I think it can be an asset to prove that you've been knocked down, dusted yourself off and gone back into battle all the wiser for the experience. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Ironically, Brownie's brazen move to form his own company could actually turn his legacy into something positive.

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