If I was going to fire you, you'd be gone already. You're never going to let anything like that happen again, are you?
Sometimes, an intelligent boss will determine that the best candidate for an important job is the one who has just caused a disaster.
We have the Boss. He is in the position of authority and decides who comes and who goes. He may be a feudal lord, a military officer, a businessman, a politician, whatever, but he will usually turn out to be more insightful a leader than most (and definitely not incompetent). He's got to make a decision about who to keep or promote, and is watching his subordinates carefully. Variants could include judges analyzing contestants to a competition or teachers selecting their students.
A subordinate screws up. Badly. Someone dies, or someone close to them gets hurt, or lots of time and money is lost. He thinks he's screwed. But the Boss decides instead to keep or even promote them on the basis of this failure, reasoning that the subordinate will forever more be motivated by that mistake.
In short, this trope refers to any situation where someone with authority to select chooses a candidate who has failed terribly because they feel the memory of that failure will push them to excel in the future, rather than be predictive of their performance overall. Superiors who follow this trope may have a similar failure in their own past.
The employee might become a Failure Knight, dovetailing with this trope: someone with empathic, almost embarrassing levels of devotion stemming from their past failure.
See also Secret Test of Character, Training Accident, You Did Everything You Could. Compare with You Have Failed Me..., when a subordinate gets harshly (and, often, terminally) punished for even trivial mistakes.
Anime and Manga
- In Soul Eater Arachne gives this as a reason for averting You Have Failed Me....
- In Legend of the Galactic Heroes, this is one of Reinhard von Lohengramm's most admirable traits: when a subordinate fails him, he just tells him that he knows the subordinate learned his lesson and will do better next time. He is universally right in his judgement.
- In Starship Troopers, Rico is leading the squad when one of his team is shot during a live-fire training exercise. Rico expects to be drummed out, but shows such responsibility that Zim, his sergeant, recommends administrative punishment instead, allowing Rico to stay. Rico, however, declines the invitation, due to his sense of shame, and opts to leave the infantry in disgrace. However, after the Bugs destroy Buenos Aires, his home city, he requests to be reinstated and finished his training.
- In Lee Lightner's Warhammer 40,000 Space Wolf novel Sons of Fenris, when Tor has unwisely led his forces into an ambush, Ragnar chooses him to lead to the attack on a warp portal, because Tor
Needs an opportunity to redeem himself, Ranulf. Redemption requires two things, desire and opportunity. I know this better than most.
- The Thrawn Trilogy
- Grand Admiral Thrawn promotes a subordinate who failed to capture Luke's ship with a Tractor Beam. The subordinate received high praise because he went above and beyond his duty in his efforts, creating new strategies on the fly that, even though they failed, still bespoke top-notch problem-solving skills. (Bonus points for actually taking responsibility for his failure.) The tractor beam operator was then told to work out a way to counter Luke's trick. And he did.
- Contrast with a similar situation in a previous book; the tractor beam operator in that case exhibited both incompetence and insubordination—he had failed to capture the right target, and then tried to pass the buck on to his superior. Once Thrawn got a grasp of the situation, that tractor beam operator got executed.
- This trope is also how Wedge Antilles manages the formation of Wraith Squadron; previously-trained pilots who screwed up in various ways, many of them not really their fault, get one last chance. Wedge is scrupulous about the pilots he accepts, though; of the ~40 pilots that try out, only ten make it in.
- This happened, in a rather unusual way, to Bevel Lemelisk, one of the designers of the original Death Star. He had been responsible for the exhaust port flaw on the original Death Star. The Emperor had him executed for that blunder...and then used a Sith technique to transfer his consciousness to a clone body. Lemelisk was then placed in charge of redesigning the Death Star. And every time he made another mistake, the Emperor would execute him in some new gruesome manner, then transfer his consciousness to a clone body again.
- Piankhy, the title character of The Black Pharaoh by Christian Jacq, does this to a village leader who betrayed him, not before scaring him a bit by shaking a knife.
- Artemis Fowl: Julius Root is hard on Holly for several reasons, one of them being that she failed once and failed bad, and she must thus be the best to have that one failure be minimal compared to the rest of her actions.
- For Sherlock Holmes, it was 'The Adventure of the Yellow Face.' He was way off the mark, and arrived at the wrong conclusion. Fortunately, the case resolved itself before he could make too big a fool of himself.
"Watson, if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper 'Norbury' in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you."
Live Action TV
- In Season 4 Thirteen fatally confounded a diagnosis by accident. Dr. House reasoned that Thirteen would be incredibly attentive to detail after that case.
- Thirteen helps an astronaut further her career in spite of medical considerations that could have made NASA wary. House simply concluded that his patient would be the safest astronaut NASA could possibly hire, given how informed she was about her condition and how desperate she was to do her job well. Plus, it meant she had to get breast implants in order to secretly save her lungs. Yay!
- In season two's "The Mistake": After Chase kills a patient by neglecting to ask some routine questions and gets massively sued by her brother, House decides not to fire him, not because he figured that Chase would learn from his mistake, but because he'd figured that since the news of the death of Chase's father had led to his screw-up, it wouldn't happen again because now both his parents were dead.
- When Foreman kills a patient in season three's "House-Training" by misdiagnosing a simple staph infection, House doesn't even consider firing him because he knows that Foreman will "do it again." House figures, in his very own way, that since they're Super Extraordinary Doctors who specialize in Televisually-Transmitted Disease and save buttloads more patients than regular ones, that this translates to them missing the really basic stuff sometimes.
- Happy Days: Chachi accidentally burns down Arnold's. Al (the owner) is upset about the fire but doesn't blame Chachi because it was an accident. Fonzie chews Chachi out about it; then appoints Chachi as his representative at the new Arnold's (in which Fonzie's partner with Al), because Fonz knows Chachi will make sure not to screw up again.
- The Sandbaggers: The Director of Operations uses something like this to select his titular spies; his secretary observes that all his agents are superhumanly dedicated to make up for a self-perceived defect or inadequacy.
- The West Wing
- CSI: Grissom is told to fire Warrick because Warrick left a scene and, as a result, rookie CSI Holly Gribbs is killed. Grissom tells Warrick that he's already lost one CSI, and that he doesn't want to lose another. Warrick then becomes one of the most reliable members of the team.
- To be precise, Grissom's stated reason for not letting Warrick go is that if he fired Warrick for making a mistake, he'd also have to fire himself and the rest of the team, because they've all made mistakes at one time or another.
- Hells Kitchen: Gordon Ramsey has the best member of the losing team reason why his teammates should either leave or stay. He then calls both of these men out and has them defend themselves, and then finally picks for who would have been the elimination the actual worst player, someone on the other team, who was feeling smug and relieved.
- Life On Mars: Sam's modern policing style allows a criminal to go free who subsequently puts a woman working in CID in a coma. After a hilarious fight with Gene in the woman's hospital room, Sam assumes Gene will want to kick him off the team. Gene fires back with "Are you joking? You've got to put this right. She's not giving up and nor should you."
- Ashes to Ashes pulls this one when Chris turns out to have been corrupt. Gene decides that the shame of still working in CID with everyone knowing what he did will be his punishment.
- In season two of The Wire, Lt. Daniels hires Sgt. Carver as part of his team again despite Carver snitching about their progress to the higher-ups which led to severe meddling in the investigation the previous season, explaining that he knows Carver won't do it again after seeing how wrong it went the first time, and with extra attention on him.
Religion and Mythology
- Napoleon Hill wrote in Think and Grow Rich about this trope happening in real life. An executive had just started working at Andrew Carnegie's company, US Steel. The new guy ruined a million-dollar project and humbly asked the boss if he would be fired. Andrew Carnegie said "Fire you? We just spent a million dollars training you! " Supposedly the new guy was highly motivated to make it up to the company.
- Admiral Nimitz did this a number of times during World War II and got some quite talented commanders out of it. Admiral Nimitz himself had this trope occur when he accidentally ran a destroyer he was conning aground. Normally, this would be a career-ending event in the Navy, but then-Ensign Nimitz was spared.
- When Listeria bacteria were found in the products of an Israeli pizza chain, one professor stated that that pizza chain would from then on be the safest one in the country, as they could be trusted never to let it happen again after the publicity and economic hit they took as a result.
- In the '80s restaurant chain Jack in the Box had cases of e. coli stemming from undercooked meat, causing some deaths. The resulting publicity threatened to close down the chain, but the company put out a lot of effort to ensure their burgers would never be undercooked again, and the publicity from those efforts helped make Jack even bigger than before.
- Christopher Titus says this was his father's primary parenting method, letting him do dangerous things like stick a penny in a wall socket, sometimes even bringing people over to watch, then after he was hurt, saying "You're not gonna do that again, are you?"
- It's a major parenting method for certain lessons, although that's more 'let you screw up under supervision where I can make sure it won't kill you, so you'll know better than to do it when I'm not there to protect you' than 'not firing you as my son for being a moron because you'll learn.'
- Especially, back when houses frequently had fire in them, letting a kid stick its hand in the fire under supervision (or even burning them yourself) was often recommended, so that they would learn from a very early age that fire hurts, and wouldn't go blundering into it and dying while your back was turned.
- He wasn't always like that. The first time Reinhard wanted to punish an officer who caused him to lose a battle, his best friend and living conscience, Kircheis, pleaded to him not to do it. Reinhard listened to his advice and learned the lesson.