Failure: A Practioner’s View
By Lt Col Fernando Garetto,
Some authors say that failure is a key element of learning. Others suggest that leaders should share their failures in order to make their people feel more comfortable with their own mistakes, contributing to the generation of a creative culture. Ed Catmul dedicated a whole chapter of his book, Creativity Inc, to describe the phenomenon of failure within the creative process and how an aversion to failure is harmful for those organisations who seek to develop creative practices.
However, it seems that admitting to or acknowledging failure can be more difficult than it looks – arguably even more so when it comes to the military. As Justin Brady explains in his Harvard Business Review article Don’t Be a Hypocrite About Failure, although failure’s importance is common knowledge, this knowledge is not matched by real examples of leaders publicly valuing failure, especially their own. He explains that
“Every leader knows failure is important and necessary to succeed. Every leader is comfortable citing epic examples from other people… But almost no one will openly discuss their own failures…”
This tendency to espouse the importance of learning from failure, whilst failing to do so in practice, is particularly evident within armed forces. This is for two main reasons: the command culture and the relationship between failure and the loss human life.
Command Culture and Failing in the Armed Forces
Firstly, our military organisational culture is defined by tradition, discipline, formality and a marked hierarchical system. As part of that tradition, famed military leaders and thinkers are known because of their successes not their failures. Moreover, they normally leave a legacy that stresses the importance of discipline and integrity. Failure is definitely something to be avoided.
For instance, Montgomery said “discipline strengthens the mind so that it becomes impervious to the corroding influence of fear”; Eisenhower stated that “the supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible”.
Commanders are supposed to be role models in several dimensions: physically, morally and intellectually. If a leader shares a failure with their peers or subordinates it could be interpreted as acknowledging they have a flaw in at least one of those dimensions. A leader might believe that their integrity, leadership and discipline would be jeopardised if they were to share their experiences of failure.
However, I believe that this assumption is potentially flawed.
Think how you would feel or what you would think if your commander shared an unsuccessful story where a large part of the responsibility for failure lay with him or her. It is true that your estimation of the commander’s abilities could be reduced but there is also a good chances that the story will prompt you to think positively of that commander, given the humbleness and courage that it is needed to recognise and acknowledge one’s errors. Additionally, the example of a senior whose career has not suffered despite setbacks and failings may be an important impetus to creativity in junior leaders. Given that there is no creativity without failure, sharing failures could thus encourage risk taking and creativity.
Loss of Life and Failing in the Armed Forces
Secondly, the relationship between failing and the loss of human lives during training or operations is obviously a necessary and powerful impetus to avoid unnecessary risks.
However, ‘playing it safe’ can equally be a barrier to adopting alternative approaches which may, in fact, reduce operational risk. Equally, there are plenty of environments within the Armed Forces that are safe areas to embrace failure and take risk with practically no negative consequences. Military education, for instance, offer numerous opportunities to teach the importance of failure across learning and the creative process. All these other, safe-to-fail areas must be seized upon in order to develop and increase creativity in the Armed Forces. Let me use an example and, in doing so, highlight an important feature of how we sometimes go wrong when we share our failures.
When I was twenty-five I decided I wanted to have a letter published in the printed version of the most important newspaper in Chile, El Mercurio. In the letter space public personalities as well as the general public wrote comments about recent events or other relevant topics. The format normally ran from 120 to 300 words and each day the paper published only seven or eight entries of the over one hundred it received each day. Given that my goal was seeing my name in print in the paper, over a period of two months I wrote over thirty comments about different topics, trying to put my opinion through the editing process. Every morning my excitement was sadly crushed, my bubble burst by the time I had reached the back of the front page.
But my ego was not ready to give up. I started to think about how to achieve the same target in a different way. Not long after I decided I needed a new strategy I noticed that every day the newspaper’s editor published one or two very short commentaries, each no more than twenty words. I also noticed that those comment were either ironic or funny and (normally) had a greater meaning than the one described by those few words. So I decided to attempt this equally difficult task instead. I chose a discussion that was being repeatedly held in the paper at that time, about the pros and cons of speed humps. The following morning my words shone out in the newspaper. “Dear Editor: speed humps are inside out holes.” I had made it!
But wait a moment… did I just share a failure or a success story?
Sharing failure stories with successful endings is not really sharing failure and it is not really demonstrating fallibility. If you read Brady’s HBR article you will notice that he does the same as me. His personal example of failure also ended up with a success story: as a result of the failure he organised a widely praised conference which set “an attendance record that still stands to this day.” After recounting my story, I find myself with a false sense of humbleness. Basically, by bringing up my newspaper story, I became an undercover failure hypocrite.
Genuinely Sharing Failure
So, let me try this again.
As a platoon commander in 2008, I led my platoon across a variety of different training exercises. We achieved everything we were asked to do and we did it with the highest standards. I was very pleased especially given that, the year before, most of our high-profile exercises were a complete disaster. By the end of the year, elements of my platoon and I were sent to support 1st Army Division’s final training exercise which took place in the middle of the Atacama Desert. We did our very best again, receiving positive feedback almost on daily basis.
One day I found out that I would become a father for the second time. An incredible feeling of happiness overwhelmed me. I could not believe how all good things could happen at the same time. Rapidly, I gathered my team (the one that I had been leading in that very successful year) and told them my good news. I was expecting lots of greetings, hugs and perhaps one or two improvised speeches.
But these things never happened; instead, there were faces of uncertainty and I saw how everyone looked at the platoon sergeant, seeking a response that they could follow.
I could not understand what was happening immediately, but I soon discovered that my team always saw me as a very distant personality. I may have been an effective enough commander, but I was never a real leader for them. I learned how elements of my behaviour, such as the way I talked, my lack of emotional engagement as well as my low level of involvement in social activities had built an invisible wall between my platoon and me. There is a good chance that that episode was the first time my team saw me sharing a personal moment with them. At the end of 2008, I was sent to Cyprus and when I returned, I was assigned to another unit, losing any possibility to change my former platoon’s impression about me – a bittersweet conclusion to a conflicting episode.
The Point of Sharing
Can you see the difference? It feels completely different when you share stories that end unsuccessfully. However this is exactly the point of sharing your failures; the intent is to make your people feel more comfortable with their own failings. One might argue that the bigger the failure you share, the better it is for your organisation. Perversely, if the story of failure finishes with a big success, it is likely you might encourage the opposite effect. That is, you might make people less comfortable with their mistakes and, therefore, less willing to take risks or to think out of the box.
In general terms, all people experience success as well as failure and it is very unlikely this will change. JK Rowling once said “some failure in life is inevitable, it is impossible to live without failing at something; unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all; in which case you fail by default.”
If that is the case let us view failure for what it is: a normal part of learning and therefore a part of the creative process. So let’s share real personal failures, especially those without a happy end.
Failure can still be tough. But you should not let it define you. For advice on dealing with failure, and how to dust yourself off and move forward, read Don’t Be Defined By Failure.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Defence in Depth in June 2019.