Jim Jewell: Never take a duck to a cockfight to win

Several weeks ago, we revisited the original “Pretty Good Management Book” manuscript but not paying enough credit to the co-author of that effort, JD Waits.
Jun 19, 2014
Jim Jewell

Several weeks ago, we revisited the original “Pretty Good Management Book” manuscript but not paying enough credit to the co-author of that effort, JD Waits.

JD is a legend in Navy aviation maintenance. He joined the Navy out of Houston when he was 18, advanced from seaman recruit through all of the ranks up to Chief Warrant Officer. From there, he was appointed a Limited Duty Officer. He went from ensign to lieutenant, then became a restricted line officer and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. JD retired as the maintenance officer of “Strike Group,” the fighter command in Fallon, Nev. He had been in the Navy for 35 years.

JD and I became best friends when I joined the “U.S.S. Okinawa” in 1981. We became roommates in two apartments, and I was the best man at his second wedding to his wife, Mary Lou. Maureen, my fiancée at the time, was the maid of honor. Even though the Waits now live in Bastrop, Tex., we remain close friends.

JD wrote several chapters in that manuscript and provided the title and suggested several ideas for chapters I wrote. My favorite JD chapter is “Never Take a Duck to a Cockfight Expecting to Win.” Part of that chapter follows:

In today’s world of high tech, computer enhanced, scientifically developed, empirically studied, and statistically justified decisions, some things never change. 

No matter how well thought out and studied a situation is, mistakes in judgment will be made, and someone will wind up at a cockfight with a duck. 

How do you get out of the situation? Sometimes you just can’t, and the best course of action is to leave with the duck. Sometimes a bad situation can be turned into an advantage. For example, the duck may be sold as a sparing duck; thus turning the disadvantage of the duck in a cockfight to your advantage. 

One of the best illustrations of taking a bad situation and turning in to a good one involves JD’s Uncle Ernest and a dead elephant. 

In rural Texas, a man with a backhoe is considered most valuable. For some reason, Texans love to dig holes, and Ernest owning the only back hoe in Henderson County made him a busy and well respected man. 

Down the road, a television commercial producer who specialized in animal commercials owned a ranch full of lions, tigers, giraffes, monkeys, and one elephant. Ernest visited this Texas menagerie often. One day, Ernest, a master of the obvious, noticed that the elephant had been still for quite a while. 

“What is wrong with that elephant?” he asked. “It ain’t moved since I got here.” 

“Ernest, it died last night,” the dejected producer responded. 

“That’s too bad” Ernest consoled, then queried, “What are you going to do with it?” 

“Call someone to get rid of it, I guess,” the producer explained.

Uncle Ernest quickly offered his back hoe and his services to solve the producer’s problem. When his offer was accepted, Ernest studied the elephant, took measurements, determined the burial location, and got his back hoe. When the grave was dug, Ernest used chains to hook the elephant to his pickup and drag it a half mile to the grave.

Ernest and the growing crowd of observers used pulleys, poles, and ropes to maneuver the elephant into the hole. Unfortunately, the hole was not deep enough. The only solution was to dig another, larger hole. One of the greatest sins in Texas is to dig a hole that can’t be used. Poor Ernest immediately became the object of elephant, hole, and burial jokes, but not for long.

Ernest’s wife, Billy Fern, was the sheriff’s dispatcher with a lot of inside but mostly useless information, and he called her to tell her about the great elephant burial and his problems. 

But Billy Fern first told him a convenience store operator had just called in to report eleven dead ostriches in a dumpster behind his store. 

Ernest elatedly shouted into the phone, “Billy Fern, call him back and tell him I’ll bury them. I already got the hole dug.

“This will be pure profit!” 

If as a business leader, you wind up with a duck at a cockfight, consider how you might be like JD’s Uncle Ernest and turn the situation to your advantage. You might even end up with “pure profit.”

Jim Jewell is a retired Navy commander living in San Diego and working for Pacific Tugboat Service. He was the director Navy’s West Coast leadership training, has been an executive coach, and a consultant/facilitator in teambuilding and organizational development. You can contact him at jim@jimjewell.com.


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