Horseshoes and Hand Grenades: When “Close Enough" Isn’t Good Enough

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

Image by oliver-cole @ unsplash

Sometimes doing something “close” to right isn’t good enough.

As a father of four I find myself increasingly making use of dad-sayings that I learned from my own father, when discussing life’s most important matters with my children and others.

Mind you, when these pearls of wisdom were dispensed to me as a young man I rolled my eyes, scoffed, or otherwise convinced myself that my father’s sage advice somehow didn’t apply to me. We all think our own ethical dilemmas are special; especially when we are teenagers.

Current events have put one saying at the forefront of my mind over the last year.

If my dad asked me how I did with some critical task, especially those involving doing the right thing where other people are concerned, I frequently hedged by saying that I did the task mostly right or “close” to expectations.

The response to this was invariably, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

My father was teaching me that there are some tasks and responsibilities that we have a responsibility to do completely, and to best of our ability, correctly and with precision.

My professional work revolves around interpersonal relationships; building, optimizing, maintaining, and repairing them. It’s very rewarding and demanding work. It’s also very flexible. There are often multiple right ways to solve an interpersonal problem, and sometimes it can be good enough to get a solution to a relational problem mostly right.

In interpersonal work, the downside consequences resulting from a lack of perfect practice is usually fairly low. Except when it’s not.

For example, the #MeToo crisis, clergy abuse reports rocking the Catholic Church, and the constant drumbeat of teacher/student sex scandals in the K12 public education world all have one thing in common. In most individual cases, someone knew.

People, often powerful people, knew what was happening and either looked the other way, helped to hide what happened, or in the worst cases abetted the behavior in order to protect their own careers or ingratiate themselves with the perpetrators.

Leadership is an inherently interpersonal endeavor. It can be a very nuanced and creative art. However, some leadership challenges demand precision and completeness.

When it comes to protecting the vulnerable and upholding core ethical and moral principles, close to right isn't good enough.

Everyone enjoys a great office, flashy title, and the leather chair at the end of the big table. However, to whom much is given, much is required. If you stay in a position of leadership long enough, the bill for these privileges will come due. You will be confronted with the choice of whether to do the hard and precise thing, or the easy and obfuscating thing.

A top banking executive from Mexico once told me why corruption in the financial system was so difficult to uproot. He said that the problem wasn’t knowing what was happening. Many people in his system know at least some of the who and how of the rot.

The real problem, he said, is that everyone feels a little dirty. Everyone feels a little dirty because even