Don’t Be Defined By Failure
When a few mouse clicks on Amazon returns over 100,000 titles on leadership it is clear to see that leadership writing is big business. The articles published on forums such as the Wavell Room, the Military Leader and the Cove all feed a hungry market of professionals desperate to learn the next magic trick for success. But I think that in doing so they have missed a vital, untapped leadership resource source. So I’ll happily add to the body of leadership noise by introducing a new guru for the military professional: Dr Seuss.
Oh The Places You’ll Go!
Imagine the scene. I had finished the day of staff work and rushed home to help my long suffering wife wrestle our children to bed (work life integration, people). There I am, sat in a darkened room reading Dr Seuss’s seminal 1990 publication Oh The Places You’ll Go to a 2 year-old who was more interested in making his bed a trampoline than listening to me. Then it hit me – the idea, not the toddler. The good Dr is talking about me. In fact, not just me but pretty much everybody I’ve known in the military.
Oh, The Places You’ll Go! isn’t just a bedtime story. It is a colourful and weird tale about mindfulness and the importance of learning from, but not being consumed by, failure. Now, writing on failure and its importance in driving innovation is not hard to find, but what is all to often neglected is the affect of failure on the individual. As a people, not platform, focussed organisation we airbrush such detail at our peril.
‘Wherever you go, you will top all the rest….
except when you don’t..
because, sometimes, you wont’
Some years ago I hit failure hard. During a dismounted attack on a soggy Welsh live fire range I had been in a baseline providing fire support to an assault element some 200 metres away. At the end of the range, the section was gruffly summoned together by the Range Conducting Officer (RCO). Somebody’s rounds had been striking low, landing only metres away from the lead soldier of the assault element. Those rounds were mine. I felt embarrassed, shocked and ashamed. I was a failure and the guilty feeling of what might have been gnawed at me.
Initially, hubris did not let me accept my failure; after all it was others who were meant to fail. I was a professional and, above that, I had pushed this far in my career by being bloody good at what I did. I had deployed on operations and conducted exercises on this same ground dozen of times before. This was a rookie mistake. I was no rookie. I was not the kind of guy who let events control of them, I was, in Dr Seuss’s words, ‘the guy who’ll decide where to go’. However, the RCO’s tone and the looks on the faces of my colleagues ensured I identified a lesson there and then. But what did I learn from it? And what did my organisation?
In Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed writes about the importance of culture and immediate feedback when it comes to learning lessons from failure. But, does the culture of our organisation discourage us from truly learning from our mistakes? Instead all to often we focus on the observable tip of the ice berg rather than underlying causes. In my case, rather than confronting the incident I instead internalised my error. I went from denying it, to accepting it, to letting it define me.
When you’re in a slump…
Overly dwelling on the event, I treated the symptoms, throwing myself at every range opportunity to develop and improve that one facet of skill. However, the events in Wales left unseen scars, with the underlying causes neither recognised nor treated. This may sound melodramatically snowflake-like. The incident had after all not been that serious; a near miss not a crisis. But its impact upon me was disproportionate. This holds a key lesson; failure and subsequent learning is based upon perspective, not just the perspective of the organisational culture but of the individual. It is unique to that them and requires empathy to discern from outside. What may appear minor to one may break another. Without such nuance an opportunity for learning may be wasted, papered over as just a failure or a bad apple whilst ignoring longer term impact.
In my case I hid the shame of my ‘failure’ until I entered a Slump. And, as Dr Seuss say, ‘when you’re in a Slump… you’re not in for much fun’. My previous self-confidence and my faith in my abilities was wounded. With it was my mental resilience and my ability to act as the leader I wanted to be. Though this feels grandiose it was perhaps a classic example of ‘fragile perfect’ syndrome, in which perceived high performance had prevented my learning how to handle failure. My fear of failure led me to wear a mask and as a result I wasn’t the authentic leader I wished to be.
‘But, sadly, it’s true
That bang ups
And hang ups
Can happen to you’
Healthily dealing with errors
So reading Oh, The Places You’ll Go! was a bit of a moment for me. I wasn’t just telling the totally un-sleepy child about life. I was admitting it to myself. I realised that I had to accept I was only human. On that day on the range I had let external and self-induced pressure build up. I failed to establish situational awareness and in had crept the tunnel vision of cognitive overload that Dave Grossman describes so well in On Combat. Worse yet, whilst the lesson was identified to me I did not fully hoist it on board.
In doing so I hamstrung myself for years – I entered the limbo of what Oh, The Places You’ll Go! calls ‘The Waiting Place’, where I waited, perhaps even expected, to cock it up again at any second. However, I wasn’t solely at fault; did the training encourage me to identify and learn from my mistakes, does our culture except that failure is natural or do we only value those on flawless streaks?
Is not easily done’
‘Games you can’t win
‘Cause you’ll play against you’
So what do you do to escape ‘The Waiting Place’? Mindfulness and acceptance is key and resources abound online and in print. The recent drive within militaries worldwide over the importance of mental resilience and health is well founded. We must change our culture one person at a time to accept that if our people are our winning edge we must actively seek to develop their mental, as well as physical, abilities.
You will make mistakes. When you do you have a choice; own them or let them own you. Failure to do so means that we are defined by our demons and failures. We may focus upon the symptoms whilst appearing wilfully blind to deeper impacts and their effects. Such incidents are opportunities, failing mindfully as a way to continually strengthen a growth mindset. Development of this skill, with its associated curiosity about the world around us, may be a vital operational edge as the pace technological and cultural change around us increases exponentially.
It sounds simple, but it isn’t and we all know that. Just as we spend hours in the gym improving our physical ability we must spend time on our ability to mentally deal with mistakes or else we will never be all that we can be. This is not solely the preserve of bleeding hearts or psychologists. This is our responsibility as leaders.
Failure in training
We also need to consider our training. When resources are tight we craft short iterations where we must achieve all training objectives in order to achieve the vital training validation. We make it so that failure is not an option. As a result mistakes may go unreported – to both ourselves and others – in order to avoid reputational damage. Even when mistakes are reported all too often it is only ‘slips, trips and falls’ or the need for a new shiny piece of kit that we report. The vital human lessons derived from failed experimentation is lost to the herd.
Lessons Identification and learning processes that are an afterthought will never capture the things we really need them too. I’m not saying that all mistakes are excusable. Mine was not. But if we take Nik Gowing’s view from Thinking The Unthinkable to be correct then in an ever accelerating world we will not find the ‘maverick saviour’ by simply practicing the same steps over and over perfectly. This concept isn’t new, in his article in The Wavell Room Dan learnt it at a stage in his career, a stage when I was busy failing to admit mistakes and letting them define me if I did. However, the concept is not one that I do not believe has fully entered our organisational DNA to date.
Dr Seuss teaches us to push to the edges of failure in barracks, to design training to get the most from learning. This is not just to drive continuous improvement of our TTPs but also to improve our own resilience to setback. Own your failures, absolutely. But make sure you see them as important stepping stones, not career-defining moments. Think about your people and how to develop their ownership of failure without letting it define them.
Your Mountain Is Waiting…
This isn’t just soft fluffiness. Five years on and that day on the range is still painful to me. But I’ve learnt from it and I’ll continue to do so. I’ve learnt that I’m only human and that it’s not just by failing fast that we get better, but by failing mindfully . I now actively seek feedback and put time aside every day to reflect on what I have done and where I can improve even more. Because even though I own my failures, I know they do not define me.
‘And I know you’ll hike far
And face up to your problems whatever they are.
…And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
Kid, you’ll move mountains!
Today is your day,
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!
If you want to hear a senior NCO and former MC recipient talk about his own failures, then check out Richard Clarke’s A Veteran’s Perspective on Training and Development. In it explains how he passed his Platoon sergeant’s Battle Course even though he led one of the worst platoon attacks on the course.