Academic journal article Military Review

Epic Fail: Why Leaders Must Fail to Ultimately Succeed

Academic journal article Military Review

Epic Fail: Why Leaders Must Fail to Ultimately Succeed

Article excerpt

When a reporter asked him how it felt to fail a thousand times, Thomas Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." (1) For Edison, failure was not just an option but a requirement for eventual success. Without the many setbacks he faced during the invention process, Edison would not have learned from his mistakes and ultimately bring a commercially viable light bulb to mankind. Unfortunately, modern society tends to downplay failure, deny its occurrence, or experience shame when others recognize it first. In adolescent sports, for example, league organizers hand out participation trophies to all the participants rather than embracing the fact that some people win and others lose. Even some of the most prestigious universities in the United States are reluctant to give underperforming students failing grades. (2) Upon graduation from these institutions, these students are unprepared for the cruel, unforgiving realities of the world.

Those in control of these adolescent sports leagues and universities are impeding the development of these young people due to their distortion of the line between success and failure. Simply put, today's society is coddling the Nation's future leaders and setting them up for later, more significant, failure by not letting them experience failure early in life.

The modern trend of failure aversion is also prevalent in the military. Commanders and mentors are not allowing junior leaders to fail early on in their careers. This phenomenon is likely due to several factors. First, the military is a difficult and unforgiving business that involves death and destruction, so an aversion to risk and failure is an expected byproduct. Second, senior leaders experience an enormous amount of scrutiny by the Department of Defense, Congress, and public opinion, causing them to micromanage junior officers more than ever before to preclude failures that they perceive might reflect badly on them. Additionally, military leaders are often "type A" personalities who demand maximum control over operational variables.

Consequently, some of these senior leaders often punish even minor failures with severity, sometimes degrading the potential for future promotion for otherwise promising young leaders. Much like in the civilian world, this zero-tolerance failure policy is hurting the next generation of leaders in the military by stifling initiative and making them risk averse. They either have not been allowed to fail and recover early on in their careers, or they leave the military based on limited promotion opportunities stemming from a previous failure from which they perceive they cannot recover. Moreover, in a world of increased external scrutiny and access to new micromanagement tools through new technologies, the institutional trend toward failure avoidance and fear of admonishment for failure is only becoming more pronounced.

This is extremely unfortunate, however, because leader development requires some failure. Failure that occurs in the proper context allows individuals to learn from mistakes, promotes resiliency and moral courage, and builds the capacity to balance risk and reward in future decision making under the more serious conditions of actual operations, including combat.

Fail and Learn Early or Fail Big Later

In September 2013, the commandant of the Marine Corps fired two general officers for failure to "exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank" after fifteen insurgents breached security at a base in Afghanistan and destroyed numerous aircraft. (3) The validity of the decision to relieve these commanders and the character and experience of the officers in question is beyond the scope of this essay, but avoiding this type of failure at senior levels should be a primary goal as the military develops its leaders.

Unfortunately, this example likely will not be the last major failure by a senior American officer. …

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