Honest Mistakes and Better Soldiers
By Lance Corporal David Griffiths
My Company Commander once briefed my company on how to make honest mistakes into positive experiences. He explained how they were, in retrospect, good if not essential things. We can all read about leadership and talk about being better soldiers until the sun goes down but we will all make mistakes, as humans do, and it is these honest mistakes, ones that were never intended, that are so essential to our continual development.
In the course of their career no man can be the perfect soldier. George Washington was not perfect. When he lost at New York and was forced to retreat from Long Island he carried on and crossed the Delaware towards another victory. Churchill, certainly, was not a perfect man but through a series of errors, and learning from those errors, became perhaps one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.
There is a small culture prevalent within the Army whereby people are afraid of fronting up when they mess up. That is not to say that I can go out and sink twelve pints then drive home, because I cannot. My point is that making honest mistakes is something we should not be afraid to own up to and deal with; something accidental that you can look at and say, “I did that wrong, let me learn from it and not do it again.” It is vital that we teach our youngest and most junior soldiers how to go about dealing with honest mistakes and errors, and how to learn from them. When you are an inexperienced soldier it is too easy to mess up and then mess up again, but by using a simple three-point method we can encourage soldiers to front up to their honest mistakes and learn from them in a constructive manner.
To illustrate this three-point method, let us imagine you are a Junior Non-Commissioned Officer and the following events happen. There is a young soldier, a Private or Guardsman, who turns up late to parade in the morning. Everyone is stood waiting for the roll to be called and there he is, running around the corner red-faced and, worst of all, late. After all what do we expect from our soldiers? Right Place, Right Time, Right Kit. The soldier appears, panting.
“Sorry I am late”
“But why are you late?”
“My alarm did not go off”
Make them own their mistakes
What, at this point, has the young soldier done wrong? First, he is late. If we accept excuses for being late to work, we start to accept excuses for being for late to battle. But far worse he has shrugged off a mistake.
It is the easiest thing in the world to make a mistake, blame something outside your control and then be done with it. What we need to start doing, and encouraging in our youngest soldiers, is owning mistakes. Next time a soldier shows up late let us not accept shrugging it off but aim to better him by ensuring they owns their mistake.
If he is late we could beast him. Make him do burpees till his eyes bleed, perhaps? But then he will not be as effective and alert for the day’s lessons and activities. What we should do is explain his mistake to him and explain how small mistakes like this could eventually affect our capability. We do not need our people to be permanently afraid of making honest mistakes but we do need to implement a culture of acceptance and ownership of mistakes by the individuals who make them – because we all make mistakes. I was late, it was my fault and I will not let it happen again.
It is vital, whatever the mistake, that the person owns it as their own, takes responsibility, and takes steps to rectify it. What, then, is the next step?
Make them analyse their mistakes
The next step after owning the mistake is to go away and think about it. Why was I late?
Maybe the soldier in question did not set his alarm or maybe he is one of those lucky souls who can sleep through anything. The best way to become a better person, and by extension a better soldier, is to analyse and question ourselves. Take notes when you are being critiqued after that section attack. Think about what the instructor on your drill course says about your halt or your about turn. It is so easy to listen to criticism and walk away and never think about it again, much the same as it is easy to take in a lesson on Rules of Engagement or CBRN and then walk out the door forgetting everything, from Proportionality to the Chemical Safety Rule.
If we self-analyse, think about why we do things, we become better on the whole. Your job as a leader is to help the soldier in question analyse their mistake. Do not just punish them; help them analyse.
Why was I late? Because I never set my alarm, or just snored my way through it. How then can I rectify it?
Make them rectify their mistakes
So our soldier has made a mistake. He has owned it and analysed it. He knows why he was late and he is thinking about the next step going forward, I hope. It is now time to rectify it. He could set a series of alarms five minutes apart or he can ask a mate to knock his door, give him a shake at daybreak. Anything works. What matters is that he has personally put steps in place to ensure that the following day he is one of the first on parade.
If he has owned the mistake, and owned the analysis, then he should own the solution too. But not all of our soldiers think like this. Some look for excuses. As a leader, your job is to help them own the mistake, the analysis and the solution. This is, after all, the whole point of the AGAI system. It is not there just to punish, as is so often thought.
This sort of action – these three steps – will make a person better soldier. It achieves nothing if someone is late and we just AGAI him without explaining why we do it. Obviously if he keeps making mistakes then they are not honest, accidental ones. It is just laziness and then disciplinary actions would have to take place. But the importance is in engendering ownership. The AGAI system can help you do this.
And remember that you, too make mistakes
Also remember that sometimes it is you making the mistakes, even as a leader. Nobody is perfect. I followed this three-step plan just a couple of weeks before I wrote these words. The whole point of this three-step plan is to better not only your soldiers, but you as well.
The next time you AGAI someone remember to think about these three steps and how they, as part of an AGAI, can serve to better our people. Rectifying their one mistake is not to say they will never make a mistake again. But mistakes are part of learning. After all, if corrected, they teach us how not to act, what not to do, what not to say.
And therein, making, owning, analysing and rectifying mistakes makes us better soldiers, sailors and airmen.