Most of you reading this essay, I speculate, have a dim regard for failure. To you, failure is like that “friend of a friend” who showed up at your party, brought bad beer, made inappropriate jokes, and vomited in your bathroom. He’s not particularly welcome, but you did not have much choice in letting him in, and the extent of his exasperating conduct was not completely foreseeable.
Your dim regard is not surprising. That, of course, is what the military wants and expects from you. You have learned (or been indoctrinated) to expect success from yourselves. Failure is not listed among the Army’s doctrinally designated attributes or competencies of effective leadership. I will argue, however, in knowing distortion of Clausewitz’s famous theory: failure is the mere continuation of success by other means. Failure, thus respected, should be an open and explicit component to those same doctrinal ideals.
I pause here for a short obiter dictum: nowhere does Army doctrine promote the virtue of failing. We want winners studding the ranks, after all, and certainly we wish for winners among our leaders. In order to follow others dutifully and respectfully, we must to some extent believe in the inherent capability, confidence, and gravitas of those in charge. We must trust them, and our trust is given more comfortably to those we see as “winners.” To advance in rank and to secure esteemed positions of command, you must—in some sense—win out over your peers. We cannot have losers, whiners, defeatists, or pessimists in our force. We must know, and we must do. Always. Successfully.
Now, to be sure, Army doctrine does talk about failures and mistakes. But it does so only for the narrow purpose of giving us affirmative reasons why we should overcome them, if they unfortunately occur: it displays “moral courage” and pushing our subordinates to learn from their mistakes may be part of our duty to “develop others.” But one can display such courage and develop others without ever fully owning one’s mistakes—failure is neither necessary nor sufficient, under Army doctrine, for one’s professional development. This neglect is a problem, and it reveals itself only in the process of failing.
Of course, it is comfortable and fairly benign to admit mistakes made long ago in a place far, far way. I was once a terrified freshman, horribly muddying a cadence call as I tried to lead fellow cadets in marching drills. I nearly fell over when I tried my first “about face.” Later, I often failed in handling the very delicate personal leadership challenges pushed onto young lieutenants. I undervalued the advice of my peers and I tried to appease my commanders too much. I didn’t follow the lead of my NCOs often enough. I chose to find certain indiscretions or personality flaws in those of my subordinates irrelevant in the heat of a combat deployment; I failed to follow up on things I knew to be concerns because—in hindsight I can see—I feared what I would likely uncover. I have been arrogant when I should have been humble; I’ve yelled when I should have listened; I’ve comforted and assured when I should have imposed accountability. But, after many more years of upward mobility, traditional markers of successful professional execution, and positive reinforcement from superiors, this personal history of unquestionable imperfection was showing signs of memory re-engineering. I would think to myself, How could I be here, in this position with this responsibility, if I wasn’t good enough? And so it is, I trust, with most of us.
After fifteen years in the Army, reflecting on a recent failure of mine leads me to think that this common attitude toward our professional obligations and standards as military officers—that is, to continually strive to be the best at [fill in the blank] and to cultivate an aura of unbridled, sparkling execution—is, ironically, keeping us from actually coming close to a true accomplishment. Why? First, it is unrealistic. Plato himself would have smiled in appreciation, for it is Spartan in its reverence for a warrior-caste above and beyond reproach. Eventually, we all will come to a decision-point, or a see an effect we caused, or be shown some objective fact about our performance, and realize that we have failed. If we are not prepared for that moment of psychological distress and unbalancing, the emotional explosion we cause may unhinge us. Second, we all will certainly come to a point where one or more of our subordinates have failed to meet one of our expectations or demands. What then? To paraphrase Shakespeare, this unrealistic expectation hoists you with your own petard. Unreasonable expectation of continual success is a false idol, an imaginary ideal.
A particular solution to preventing this way of looking at your performance, competence, and sense of self-worth as a professional officer is, though rather obvious, one that will likely never be taught deliberately or overtly. It goes against the grain of leadership pedagogy. The solution is this: at some point, at some time, at some place, you will fail, and you must accept it. You don’t need to go looking for such opportunities—they will thump you on your head sooner or later. Acceptance of this comes with its own subtle and consequential choices that you must make, but in sum it means that, rather than aim for a Platonic ideal, the choice should be to pragmatically self-examine. Or as philosopher/psychologist/artist William James wrote: we should contemplate difficult subjects always maintaining “the richest intimacy with facts.”
I stress this obvious note because there are three ways in which we mortal humans can deal with our inevitable failures. Some of us ignore them. We scuttle them beneath the surface of a calm sea of bravado and confidence, hiding them as myths beneath the sea like Scylla or Atlantis. We market to ourselves the false tale that the task at which we failed was so insubstantial as to be beyond mentioning. It is a choice to believe that acceptance of failure is irrelevant to you.
In a second, related, way, instead of ignoring our failures, we consciously lie about them. We foster or adopt an alternative version of reality in which the failure was not really a failure, but a success in disguise, a success in vitro. We just need to look through our longer telescope, and see the bigger picture, and then we see that we weren’t wrong—that we didn’t fail; rather, we were on the right track, even if we were heading blindly backwards. This course of action carries additional risk: it reinvents truth invidiously. It flips the fault so that those labeling us as flawed, or as failures, or as wrong are themselves the failures. “It wasn’t me, it was the test.” “Don’t worry, it wasn’t our fault, it was those that ordered us to do this thing.” “It wasn’t you that failed, it was those that trained you.”
The third way in which we could deal with our failure is the opposite of the first two, and this is the choice that officers should strenuously and consciously seek to adopt. Instead of ignoring a failure, you must acknowledge it happened; instead of ignoring failure, or shifting its meaning (to that of quasi-success) or source (it wasn’t me, per se, that failed), you must accept it as your own. In other words, we must digest our failures. I chose the eating metaphor deliberately. You might not like the taste of the food on your palate, but it was on your fork, and now it is in your belly. Food, no matter how distasteful, is a necessary human requirement because it fuels you.
Likewise, digesting your failures fuels your growth as an officer and as a leader. It is a necessary evil, an essential sin, an indispensable disappointment. Imagine an officer who never experienced true failure, or never internalized mistakes for which he or she was directly responsible. That kind of officer, shying away from guilt and accountability, is one that we all know and abhor. These officers demand too much, they reward too little, they blame others, and they cannot empathize. Not only are they leaders in name only, and reeking of toxicity throughout their command, organization, or unit, but they also—to use the technical term—suck at their jobs. This may not be obvious at first, because it is easy to cover an event with a veneer of victory. But their success is ephemeral, glittery and shiny on the superficial surface, and without true substance beneath it. Any errors uncovered during an After Action Review are likely brushed off as being beyond what they believe to be their scope of responsibility.
That substance they lack is the long slow build-up of ugly failures, mistakes, errors, and miscalculations that turned out poorly, now scabbed and scarred over by a healthy healing process. The skin becomes tougher, coarser, more resilient as a result. Broken bones heal stronger at the site of fracture. But in refusing to acknowledge their failures, these officers are guilty of two thought crimes: (a) the crime of assuming infallibility, and (b) the crime of removing oneself from the possibility of learning (of “healing,” to continue the metaphor) from their choices or studying the forces that overwhelmed their reactions, plans, decisions, and good intentions. These leaders deny empirical facts (the fact of failure) because it is physically and emotionally uncomfortable; it does not jive with their pre-conceived image of their ability, work ethic, and talents. These leaders ignore the cuts until they bleed out, and therefore have no sense of coming to the aid of others who get cut too. As I have described elsewhere, they are failures to adapt to their own mistakes, and can never help those below, next to, or above them in adapting to theirs.
In sum, digesting your failures is key to improving your leadership for three reasons. First, it reorients you in the way Copernicus reoriented the solar system—just as the Earth was no longer the centerpiece around which all things orbited, you realize your inherent fallibility in a way that erodes any cracked notion that you, alone and in the center of your own solar system, hold the meaning of “right” or “correct.” As one philosopher recently put it, “Failure could be a medicine against such arrogance and hubris, as it often brings humility.” This will, inevitably, secure your reputation for sensibility and approachability, for you become just as imperfect as the rest of us. Second, having what James called a rich intimacy with facts (including the fact of your failure) will open your brain to the possibility of innovating and improving. It is certainly no guarantee, for some failures are just failures to adequately study; nevertheless, a rich literature is available suggesting the link between errors and quantum leaps ahead. In short, to be satisfied is to be stagnant. Finally, choosing to accept your failures trains and conditions you so that when you are forced to face failure at a time not of your own choosing, the experience will not break you.
So here I sit, digesting my failure. It cannot define me or what I am capable of doing in spite of and because of the failure. What I cannot do is wish it away, or dim its implications. The most important implication is this: to err is human; but to err, accept it, learn from the error, and make yourself empathize with your subordinates’ mistakes, is a true measure of leadership. To emphasize the point, I will repeat it: failure is the mere continuation of success by other means. Our doctrine, rich as it is, is poorer without this basic recognition of human nature.
Image credit: Spec. Gavriel Bar-Tzur, US Army