The inimitable Coach John Wooden said, “Worry about your character, not your reputation.” Your character includes the moral, ethical, behavioral and mental qualities that are unique to you. I believe it must involve integrity and honesty. One of the most important lessons I learned during my time in the Air Force is the importance of credibility. Specifically, I learned to never miss an opportunity to correct the record.
When I became a Thunderbird pilot in 2005, there was a lot of media interest, hundreds of interviews, articles, blogs, sound bites, etc. In the vast majority of cases, folks wrote very positive and glowing things about me…often, too glowing. Here are a few of the glowing inaccuracies written about me (and sometimes still falsely perpetuated to this day): graduated first in my class from the Air Force Academy (nope, not even close!), graduated first in her pilot training class (nope, I was 4th), was a Weapons School Graduate (nope, not that good of a fighter pilot), I was the first woman Thunderbird (nope, women had been on the team in numerous roles for decades), etc. Reading these inaccuracies about me was super frustrating. First, none of it was true. I was worried I’d be perceived as a liar, when in fact, I’d had nothing to do with the things that were written. Second, I felt terrible, because I felt it was taking away the accolades of whomever did attain those amazing qualifications. I didn’t own those distinctions, someone else had earned them. I’d literally lose sleep at night every time I saw a mistake, and there were countless. I felt I had to find a way to go out and fix all of them, lest I be called a liar. Arguably, being a liar is the worst accusation ever in my view. But the sheer magnitude of it all made it impossible.
Then a wise NCO from Air Force Public Affairs talked me off the ledge. She reminded me I was not responsible for poor journalism, nor was I responsible for things written that hadn’t involved my participation. She noted I’d never be able to attain the level of accuracy I was searching for in others’ work. But she did remind me that I had control of my own actions. With a few words, she gave me back power over my reputation and credibility. She whispered closely, “Never miss an opportunity to correct the record.” In that moment, I realized I did have control over the things I touched and was a part of. When an interviewer would state, “What’s it like being the first woman Thunderbird?”, I’d correct it by answering “the first woman Thunderbird was Sarah Johnson in 1974, I’m the first woman Thunderbird pilot.” When I was asked, “How hard was it to graduate first in your pilot training class.”, I’d remind them that I graduated fourth, and that I had no idea what it was like to graduate first in any class I’d ever been a part of (then we’d laugh). When I’d see things written about me online, that I had access to reach out and fix, I’d do it.
An example of this actually happens in my current speaking profession where some bureaus and clients have marketed me as “the first woman fighter pilot”. While I know it’s an innocent mistake, once I know it is out there, I feel it is my responsibility to take the simple step of sending an e-mail to correct it. I would never want to misrepresent myself to anyone and I don’t want others misrepresenting me, innocently or otherwise. I don’t want inaccuracies out there, especially if people are hiring me based on my background. How horrible it would be if they hired me based on a misrepresentation, or based on a falsehood? So, I send the email (since I work in this industry) and correct the record, and I am sure to give full credit to Jeannie Leavitt who was the trailblazer who earned that significant accolade. It’s not about trying to control the uncontrollable, but when the opportunity presents itself, I fix it. I have a moral and ethical obligation to correct. It’s about professionalism, credibility, integrity, and character. Don’t allow folks to believe something about you that you’re not, no matter how fleetingly good it might feel, no matter what marketing idea it might serve. It’s just not worth it. Never miss an opportunity to correct the record.
Have you ever had to correct the record?