#98 Failure is an Option...Kind of

Last week I received an email from a friend of mine who posed an interesting question, one that lies at the heart of many of the ideas being floated around regarding leadership, risk and adaptability. He asked me the following:

"When is it OK to accept failure for the sake of learning? More importantly, is failure acceptable in the Army or in any institution? How does the Army leadership view failure?"

He then went on to state the following:

“If you are allowed to fail, then you learn from your mistakes…hopefully. We need to experience failure somewhere so that when it comes we, as leaders, don’t get to far away from our overall objective. We also as leaders need to understand that we will not be crucified for failure. Everything in the Army is success oriented. Army mentality…If you don’t succeed, then you are an ineffective leader and no one listens to you anymore.”

His thoughts are a very important consideration for our leader development programs and one the Army should spend significant time thinking about. In order to gain experiential knowledge, three things must occur. First, we must be given the latitude to experience something new. While it might not be new to our superiors, it is new for us. Second, there must be a recognition that simply because it does not have the intended outcome does not mean that failure has occurred, and finally, there must be a mechanism to learn from the experience. To figure out where, when, how and (most importantly) why the outcome was not the one that was intended. Without this experience we do not gain another important leadership trait called judgment.

I came of age in the 'Zero Defect' Army of the 1990's. Although I didn't realize it at the time, the idea that there were "No accidents, only failures of leadership" would play a large role in many of the behavioral and institutional struggles we are experiencing today. 'Zero Defect' gave rise to the idea that every Soldier action was completely controllable. That by putting enough mandated control measures in place, we could literally protect people from themselves and their lack of judgment. Like an over-protective parent, the Army was determined to wipe out any act that might endanger a Soldier. What was never considered was the effect of removing responsibility for mistakes in judgment from the individual. We wouldn't have to worry about developing that critical skillset because there would always be Uncle Sam to tell us what to do. If we didn't follow his edicts, we were punished not for the act of misjudgment itself, but for failure to follow his instructions.

Sadly, that mentality is still extremely prevalent in many places throughout the Army and has put an undue burden on all levels of leadership to ensure a successful outcome for each and every action. It is an ingrained cultural problem. It makes risk something to be avoided, and does not enhance decentralized operations. In fact, it works in the opposite manner. It makes passing the buck - and therefore avoiding responsibility for the outcome - a norm, and further centralizes all decision making at higher and higher levels within the organization. Without a cultural change that accepts that combat and leadership happen in an extremely dynamic environment where thousands of decisions must be stacked one upon the other in quick succession and then adapted and changed in the face of decisions made by the enemy, we will never be able to gain the critical experiential knowledge at the ground level that will allow people to take advantage of new and unfolding opportunities. We have unwittingly enhanced bureaucracy and degraded the capacity for critical judgment just at the time we need it most.

The central problem with risk-taking and experiencing failure in military leadership is that the price is so very high. Unlike the corporate world where the only real loss is money, when one fails in combat, there is a great possibility that a Soldier will die or be severely injured. The central question then becomes, is that Soldier's death worth the learning that occurred because of the decision made by the leader?

If you sit back for a moment and look at how the Army is manned it is simply amazing to me that we have succeeded as often as we have. Take an infantry platoon for instance. We take a 24 year old Lieutenant and place him in charge of 38 people and send him off to war. He has no experience in this realm, has very little self-awareness, and his grasp of the tools and requirements of the profession is almost completely theoretical. He has never taken a class in human behavior, let alone the behavioral dynamics of high stress situations. Then we place him in incredibly complex situations which demand quick judgments that can have life or death consequences for people on both sides of the equation. If you had to draw it up on paper, that wouldn't be the way you would do it. In fact, you would likely do it in the completely opposite manner. We would take the most senior amongst us and place them where the most critical decisions would have to be made. Lieutenant Colonels would lead companies, Colonels would lead battalions and Generals would lead brigades. That way we would have the greatest levels of experience and judgment at the place where it is needed the most - that piece of ground between success and failure, between risk and reward, between life and death. It would be on the battlefield.

Since we are not aligned that way, how do we answer the three questions posed above? How do we provide our youngest leaders the opportunity to fail and learn from their mistakes? First, I think that just as we must paint a picture of what success looks like for our missions, it is equally as important that there is a common picture of what failure looks like. When a leader gives only the intended outcome (success) and does not address it's opposite, then the 'operating box' for the subordinate becomes too large. If I am the subordinate and I lack the experiential knowledge that alerts me to when a decision might lead to failure, then how do I learn to recognize those signs of impending doom? Who will provide me those warning signs to look out for? I also think that by adopting this 'mission command' style we would begin to eliminate a lot of the worries and concerns subordinate leaders have about whether or not they will be held accountable for deaths, injuries or outcomes based upon the decisions they make. This alone will allow them to focus more clearly on the mission and not worry as much about the personal impact of failure. For example: If I am the senior leader and I assign a mission to a subordinate and I give him/her my intent - the expected outcome - that helps clarify the tasks and purposes of the mission. This is what I want to happen, this is why I want it to happen, and this is the outcome I expect to achieve when it happens. Just as critical though, will be my understanding that things rarely go as planned. Therefore, the subordinate and I would then have to address what might go wrong. We would have to look at those things that could cause the mission to fail. As part of that we would inevitably have to address casualties and losses. I might say to him/her, "Look, this is enemy held territory. You must expect to take casualties. I think you can still accomplish the mission and achieve my intent as long as you lose no more than X% of your unit, or Y% of your leadership." By simply stating this, I have done a lot for the subordinate. He/she recognizes that I have a tacit awareness of the potential for things to go badly. They also recognize my judgment that the mission can survive a percentage of casualties and still be successful. It also pays credence to and acknowledges the old saying that, "No plan survives first contact." Now I share some of the burden of execution with my subordinate. They aren't out there on their own wondering if every decision they make will get them relieved or worse.

My friends second question above, "Is failure acceptable in the Army?", is actually more important than the first. As long as there is a belief throughout the force that failure of any type will have a detrimental effect on careers etc, then we can never change. Although there is a lot of evidence that in reality, the Army is pretty forgiving in its' judgment of failure, there is still the widely held belief that one failure leads to career suicide. This is especially true in the officer corps. Too many young leaders buy into the "I'm responsible for everything my Soldiers do or fail to do" mentality, while at the same time recognizing that they cannot actually control these behaviors 24 hours a day. That puts the leader in a perpetual bind. They end up spending as much time worrying about their subordinates as they do about the enemy. I have brought this idea up in earlier posts, referencing concerns by both General Dempsey and Lieutenant General Caslen regarding risk and candor. And it is exactly the point that General (Ret) Campbell brought up in his report on the battle of COP Wanat. Institutionally, we need to move away from the notion that one young leader is collectively responsible for every action of their subordinates and emphasize individual accountability from the first moment a Soldier enters the profession.

Failures are individual acts of willful disobedience to expected norms and behaviors and standards. One cannot 'fail' at a task they do not know how to accomplish, nor can they 'fail' by making a decision for which they have no frame of reference. Failure only occurs when one is faced with a situation that they do know how to accomplish, or have a frame of reference for, and willfully choose to abdicate their best judgment.

Finally, I think that, collectively, the Army has to practice a little more candor with the American public and our elected leaders. The language of the Army is an active one. We state "We will" or "We can". We don't speak in a passive voice. Sometimes that very choice of words can have an effect. "The Army will drive the Taliban from it's strongholds in Afghanistan" is an unequivocal statement. It guarantees something that in truth cannot be guaranteed. What we are really saying is, "The Army will do everything it can, with the resources it is given, in the time allotted to it, to hopefully kill or capture as many insurgents as possible in order to create space for a legitimate government to be able to defend its' borders."

My friends questions raise a lot of interrelated ideas concerning learning, experience, risk, trust, candor and culture. The first step will be to view failure differently than we currently do. The second will be to change the method of discussion between commander and subordinate to include the possibility of unforeseen outcomes to an assigned mission. The third will be to begin to drive home individual accountability to each and every Soldier that will, over time, break down the need for institutional cover-your-ass policies. Finally, there must be a better method than persecution and prosecution to learn from events that have unintended outcomes.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. your friend asked a great, appropriate, and timely question...."failure"...before answering the question you have to get the context....training or real mission?....failure in a mission set is more clear...failure in training must be defined again....what are we training? developing leaders and using an attack or ambush as the context to develop and teach the leader? what is the purpose of the trng event?...to teach compatence? character? leadership skills? traits? etc

    this is a great topic which our Army does NOT do a good job of addresses...


  2. From an email I received last evening:

    "Jeff—My response was in regards to my opinion that the zero defect mentality greatly retards both individual and organizational growth by impairing the following: tactical decision making, strategic planning and unfiltered analysis of the second and third order effects of the outcomes of the decision making process. It does this through forcing leaders (in particular, junior leaders) to have heightened sense of awareness and fear of the ramifications of minor day to day failures on their careers. Besides, in my own experience, true growth and learning comes through the small failures and stumbles. I’ve always used Mike Tyson as the example of why the zero defect mentality is recipe for disaster. Yes that Mike Tyson. When Mike was coming up as the youngest Heavyweight Champion he walked through guys—knocking many out in the first round. He never experienced failure in the ring and when this is coupled with the fact that he surrounded himself with trainers and advisors who only sung his praises; there was no room for true growth as a professional fighter. That is why Mike Tyson was a different fighter after James Douglas knocked him out in Tokyo. Buster Douglas was the better man that day—but certainly not the better fighter overall. However, Mike never had to deal with failure in the ring—perhaps the only place in the world where he did not in his life prior to that night. Once he had been shown that he could be knocked out—Mike was never able to fully recover—all, in my opinion, because he ha had never had to learn from small failures in the ring or analyze the weaknesses in his game that those failures would have highlighted.