Is this the best you can do?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Andrew Meadows
  • 42nd Aeromedical-Dental Operations Squadron commander
At work this week, did you give each and every task your best effort, or did you prioritize a heavy workload by cutting a few corners here and there? Would all of your work this week have passed the Kissinger test?

In the field of U.S. foreign policy, arguably the most significant single person over the past four decades is Dr. Henry Kissinger. Whether it was opening relations with China, standing toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War, or even advising current U.S. policy in the Middle East, Dr. Kissinger is consistently an integral advisor to presidents and heads of state around the world.

In the late 1960's, he served as Secretary of State and later assumed the post of National Security Advisor, where he reinvented this position into what we are familiar with today. Someone with a biography this impressive clearly possesses amazing natural talent which was honed to a razor's edge over years of education and experience. That said, I believe it was his remarkable commitment to excellence, applied equally to himself and his staff, that helped make his actions worthy of the international acclaim and respect he enjoys to this day.

A great illustration of his commitment to excellence was how he dealt with one of his new staff members in crafting an important speech. The young staffer presented a draft speech to Dr. Kissinger and then waited for feedback. The next day, the staffer went to see the boss and was asked, "Is this the best you can do?" to which he replied, "Well, I thought so, but I'll try again."

Following another few days of revising the draft, he again presented the speech to Dr. Kissinger. Again he was summoned to Kissinger's office and was asked the same question, "Is this the best you can do?" Again, he responded "Well, I really thought so. I'll try one more time."

This revise-submit-reject cycle repeated itself a few more times until he was again asked if the work was truly his best and he countered, "I know it's the best I can do. I can't possibly improve one more word." At that point Dr. Kissinger looked up from his work, staring directly into the young man's eyes and said, "In that case, now I'll actually read it."

While we all may not win a Nobel Peace Prize like Dr. Kissinger, or even work directly for someone of his amazing stature, we can learn a valuable lesson from this story. Next time we're crafting a memo or writing a young Airman's EPR, don't just give it a half-hearted attempt then push it on to the next level for someone else to fix the shortcomings. Instead, before you pass on your work to the next person, ask yourself if it would pass the Dr. Kissinger test.

Work performance and effort that might be described as "good enough" is toxic to a unit or individual if their goal is to be great.

Furthermore, performing our duties to a level that would not pass the Kissinger test is a direct violation of our third Air Force Core Value, "Excellence In All We Do." The cynics among us may reply that a young Airman's EPR is not as important as one of the Secretary of State's speeches and thus does not demand the same level of effort, but that is simply a matter of perspective.

To prove my point, just ask the young Airman how important the EPR is to them, and I bet they will think it is much more important than anything the Secretary of State has to say.

So, I'll ask the question again, is this the best you can do?