I became the co-editor of my school’s yearbook when I was a sophomore. At the end of the school year, the other editor graduated and I became editor. With the start of my junior year things started off well. Then we lost our yearbook advisor. So I was left to organize the layouts, make sure we met deadlines and pick up anything else that fell through the cracks. Then came the day to take club and team photos.

The details are fuzzy but either the photos didn’t turn out or were lost. Regardless, all the pages we had planned to send to the printer couldn’t go. Instead of telling the new advisor what happened, I tried to fix it on my own. Then we missed deadlines. I still tried to do it on my own. I began lying to the printers. The end of the school year came and we didn’t have yearbooks. Students would stop me on campus and ask for updates. I lied. I lied to the administration. I couldn’t show my weakness. I couldn’t tell them I failed. I stressed throughout the summer. We returned to school the next year and started working on the yearbook for my senior year. We still hadn’t made any progress on the previous year’s book.

Then my tightly crafted lie to protect my reputation fell apart. The principal called me into his office. He had spoken with the printers and had learned how far behind and over budget we were. I came clean. I told him what happened. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I guess I have blocked it from my memory. His response, however, is etched into my mind. He was a former Navy officer and exuded an exacting, gruff military exterior. But that day in his office, I didn’t receive a tongue-lashing from a drill sergeant. I didn’t receive any condemnation. He didn’t dwell on the past. I’d probably punished myself more than he ever could. In a direct and compassionate way he said, “What do we do to fix it?”

We cut 20-30 pages from my senior book to make up for the budget overrun from the previous year. I had to tell the rest of the staff what happened. I had to deal with the fallout from my yearlong deception.  Finally, sometime in April of my senior year we got the books for the year before. Then about a month later, we got the books for my senior year.

Most of my friends from high school probably forgot about that episode a few months after graduation.  I on the other hand still remember.  It doesn’t haunt me but reminds me of how a leader should respond when things fall apart.

Specifically I learned:

  • You are not Superman/Super Woman. You have blind spots and need others to help.

  • Be honest. If I had come forward at the beginning I could have saved myself a year of stress and heartache.

  • When you screw up, stop focusing on the past and look to how to fix the problem. This goes for you and well as how you treat those under your leadership.

What are the leadership lessons you learned during a stressful time?  How did things turn out in the end?