Recently I read a book about a Scottish veteran of the first Anglo-Afghan war. I was struck by the description of a moment of stupidity in his early military career. I recognized the moment immediately as one I, too, encountered on my first deployment to South Asia. He was also political-military officer in Kabul, a position I understood well, so I felt a kinship to him – especially for doing something so equally stupid. I thought I would relate our similar stories and also the reaction to our mistakes by the general officers we worked for; to help others avoid our mistake and to teach senior leaders how to best handle them.

My big take away: It is easy to crush a subordinate’s soul. It is harder, and better in the long-run, to gently educate them like a kind grandfather. If your grandfathers were like mine, I am sure the last thing you ever wanted to do was disappoint them.

A Story of the First Anglo-Afghan War

Young Cadet Colin Mackenzie arrived at his India posting in Madras six months after departing Gravesend. His no-nonsense father’s parting words were likely still in his head. He told him, ‘I have no doubt you will work hard to earn fame and fortune, but do not discredit our Scottish name and family.’ He was excited about his mission and had met some amazing military officers on his journey. Colin was anxious to get started on a grand adventure.

The adjutant, upon Mackenzie’s arrival, described young Colin, aged 19, as the most beautiful boy in the regiment. But the author also noted “he was quite ignorant in the ways of the world and as bold as a young hawk.” Colin was ushered in to a room with other arriving officers to await his office call with the Commander in Chief Sir George Walker. Colin grew bored and asked the general’s aide de camp when he would be meeting with the commander of the Madras Army. He added that as a cadet, he wasn’t accustomed to kicking his heels in an antechamber.

Cadet Mackenzie may have been oblivious that the commander-in-chief of the Army had been serving since 1782 and was once the commander of the 50th Regiment of Foot, or that he cut his teeth leading men fighting in the Napoleonic era from the Flanders Campaign of 1792 through the Peninsular War in 1812. Colin was certainly unaware of his place in the grand scheme, and had surely forgotten his father’s warning about soiling his family name.

As fate would have it, the ADC found the statement amusing and relayed it directly to General George.

Commander-in-Chief Sir George Walker took the audacious request in stride, and sided on being amused instead of annoyed. He even went so far as kindly inviting the young ensign to have dinner with his family at their residence that evening. There could be no finer dinner invite in India in 1826, for sure.

Colin Mackenzie again saw a chance to shoot himself in the foot and the face at the same time, and took it. He told the general that he already had dinner plans and would have to decline the offer. Some might refer to this as being a special kind of stupid.

A friend alerted Mackenzie of his disrespect, advising him that when the governor or commander-in-chief offers a dinner invitation that it supersedes all other dinner plans for soldiers. Colin finally showed some promise for leadership by pleading ignorance of proper etiquette and apologizing for his slight of Sir and Lady Walker.

Here is where the lesson for senior leaders is most apparent. Sir George sent a reply to the ensign simply saying, “I invited you to give you pleasure, and not to interfere with any other engagement, and I shall always be glad to see you at any time.”

Can you imagine a senior leader today handling a disrespectful and cocky young officer this way? What a brilliant way to teach a youngster a lesson without crushing his spirit. Using humility and direct engagement with a very low-ranking subordinate, he changed young Colin’s life. I know this because I read about the rest of his career. I luckily got the same treatment.

I can imagine a senior leader and a lieutenant’s conversation ending this way because my boss was a major general in Afghanistan in 2002 when I made a very public mistake by showing my lack of judgment. I won’t repeat the exact words here but there was a moment before a long-scheduled briefing when the twenty field-grade officers in the room were introducing themselves to my boss. Before my boss spoke, he turned to me at his side and asked me to quickly introduce myself to the various new colonels.

I had no remarks planned, clearly, and started talking like a cocky paratrooper about how I was loaned to my boss by the 82nd to keep and eye on the general in Kabul…that’s not all of it but you get the gist of my stupidity. I had been a paratrooper sergeant before becoming an officer and I wasn’t very good at talking to senior officers yet. Not exactly sure I ever got that right; but his response set me on a better path.

As you can imagine the room was silent after I stopped awkwardly talking. All the senior officers were either staring at me or looking down at the table; some even shook their heads. I knew instantly that I was really going to pay for that and might need to look for a new job, as my aide de camp gig was probably over. I had seen this 2-star make colonels come to tears when he was correcting them for a failure.

As I prepared for impact, my face now red with embarrassment, he just looked at me for a moment and made a light-hearted comment about my lack of tact and moved on. About half-way through the briefing he told me I could grab him a fresh coffee and that I was free to go take care of other issues for him. I am not sure what was discussed when I left the room, but as I watched the officers later passing my desk, they all gave me interesting looks.

Then the general popped his head into his outer office and invited me into his much larger space. He didn’t raise his voice, and pointed out that I must not have had any remarks prepared for introducing myself. I apologized and he simply said, “it’s done, just think before you speak next time so you don’t embarrass yourself.” I wasn’t sent back to the 82nd headquarters and we ended up traveling the world on our mission for a year where he let me speak to generals, ambassadors, and cabinet-level ministers for the rest of our tour. He could have easily crushed me and sent me packing for immaturity; he was authorized a senior captain for an aide. Instead he personally mentored me, taught me how to act among diplomats and policy-makers, and ensured one day I became a FAO like him.

As it turns out, Colin would become a solo guest at the General’s quarters for family meals quite often in India. Lady Walker and her daughters loved his company and found him a breath of fresh air. He learned to harness his Scottish charm and avoid staining his father’s name. He would use those lessons in diplomacy and courtly manner to try to avoid calamity in Kabul decades later, performing duties as what we would call a military Foreign Area Officer (FAO) today.

I would also repair and sustain friendly relations with my general and get to know his family; which became important as he and I years later returned to Kabul while the U.S. was handling some sensitive negotiations with Afghans. We are still in touch by personal correspondence today, and his kindness in the face of my stupidity changed my career in a positive way.

If you are interested in learning more of Colin Mackenzie’s life the book is in the free archive system. Titled: Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life, Lt. General Colin Mackenzie, CB, 1825-1881 Volume 1. Published in 1884 Edinburgh, David Douglas.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He serves on the Board of Directors for 2 non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.