#118 Failure and Redemption

This post will be different from any other I've written in the last two years. There will be no links to news stories, nor quotes to draw from nor manuals to reference. This one has been building for awhile now. It will be hard to write and parts will be painful. But it is mine and it will be true. It will be as close as I ever come to diary writing. Its' point though is not to bare my soul to elicit any emotion from you. Its' point is to put down some things and show you how easily I got seduced by my successes and limited by my failings and trapped by my own baggage. It is important to think about. It is a very real feeling for me and one I have struggled to understand for a long time. Hopefully, my journey will give you some insight into your own. Make you reflect on what is real and true for you. Those are the parts of you that people will follow. Where will you stand your ground? What is your bedrock?

To lead people you have to have a purity of purpose. You need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt why you are making the decisions and choices you make. There cannot be any artifice or falseness to your narrative. It must be your truth, as you know it, as clear and concise and authentic as you can be. You have to have examined yourself and understood what you serve for. Not just the institutional things, but the very personal things. What need is filled by your service? What hole does your service fill in your life? Why are you making the choices you make? Are they really yours, or are they an attempt to cover yourself up to the outside world? Are you seeing yourself clearly, or defrauding yourself with a carefully constructed picture of perfection and control? A beautifully painted mask that hides any faults. A picture of something that isn't really there?

Failure is hard to take. It is hard to hear someone label you a failure. It is hard to see the failure honestly. We mostly spend time trying to prevent failure rather than ensure success. And when we do fail, most of us - certainly me - run around telling anyone who will listen why we didn't fail. How it wasn't our fault. How we got screwed somehow along the way. How others are to blame. And we tell that story over and over and over until it becomes as true as anything we know. As true as the color of our eyes or swirls in our fingerprints. As true as our DNA.

22 months and 117 blog posts have led me to this point:

I failed to lead my platoon correctly in 2006.

There. It is on the page and when I hit send, I will not be able to take it back. It will be there forever.

It deserves to be seen. Not for you, but more for me. But it is a hard reality to face. And I want to be clear. This is not a mea culpa designed to elicit anything from you. I am not falling on my sword here for redemption or absolution or sympathy or empathy or anything. I am not and will not accept it. I am telling my truth because I want to show others what happened and why. This is the manner by which my personal absolution is made real. Today is not for you. Today is for me.

I failed to lead my platoon because I was not, and could not at the time, be authentic. I didn't know how to be. I had not done the hard work of staring at myself and seeing me accurately. I was not self-aware. I had not staked out my own territory and defined myself only for myself. I was only a reflection of what I thought others wanted me to be. I had created a person who could cover up my fears and weaknesses and inadequacies and for many years, he held up well. He garnered me success and accolades and awards and respect and admiration. But, in a crucible moment he failed. I played a role using a set script that did not meet the requirements I faced. And when he failed, I failed as well. I relied on something that was not what was needed at the moment and I was not clear enough to recognize that.

As Winston Churchill once said, "Sometimes it is not enough to do your best. You must do what is necessary."

I managed that platoon expertly. I took the very best care of those Soldiers I knew how. I did everything I could to ensure their well-being. I gave every ounce of myself to getting them back to the States in a way that would allow them to carry on with their lives. I used every bit of my resources to protect and defend them and to help them navigate something that none of us had any experience with. I did all that extremely well. I know that. I am sure of that. I believe in that. I will stand my ground on that. I could not have done any more and I believe that many of them are better off today because of my efforts.

I did not create and could not have stopped what happened to 1st platoon. Soldiers made choices long before my arrival. In their hearts and souls they lost their way. Got sucked into a vortex of fear and evil and darkness. A pit so deep that you cannot see the bottom. I do not know why. But, I could not have known that. I could feel it, but not see it's depth. I did not then, and do not now, have the capacity to look into another man's soul and read his intention. No one does. That is the sole purview of whatever higher power you believe in. I am not responsible for those crimes and I never have been. Those souls who committed those crimes are responsible for them. Only they know why and how they slid into that dark place. I know that to be true and will stand my ground on that firmly. It is possible that the greatest leader ever could not have stopped that chain of events. The rest of us were along for the ride. For too many years I bought into someone else's narrative I had to carry this burden forever and suffer it's weight. I had to wrap myself up in it and wear it like my own scarlet letter. The truth is, it was never mine to bear in the first place.

And yet I did fail. What they needed was a leader. An authentic voice. Someone they could place their faith in. Someone who could pull them back from the edge. Someone in whom they could trust. And I did not provide those things. I could not provide those things in the measure that they required. Not because I didn't possess them, I did. But because I had already split myself in two and didn't give them all of me. The true measure of leadership they required. I wasn't listening to my true voice. I was playing a role. I was playing a part. I was not authentically me. A portion of me - and not a small one - was looking out and trying to make sure that they didn't see any cracks. Working from a position of fear. Trying to hide a weakness. And they knew it. They could sense it. And in running around doing all of that, I didn't provide the one thing they needed. A true leader to guide them. I had the title, but the straw man was stuffed. I had the accolades and badges and honorifics but they didn't mean much in that crucible moment.

Again, I am not saying this to fall on my sword, I promise you. As I look at my life I am becoming aware of places where I have not been true to myself. Some are in the Army and some very important ones are outside of it. I am seeing things now that I could not have seen then. And that is the true meaning becoming self-aware. That you always keep looking. Keep staring. Keep trying to understand who and what you are. And why. To learn to listen only to the voice inside you and believe completely in that voice. That narrative. That person. And what I know today is this: The man I am today is infinitely stronger than the man I was then. And the man I am today is infinitely more aware than the man I was then. And the man I am today is much more complete than the man I was then. I am finding my authenticity. And that search will allow me to be a far better leader than I ever could have been then. When I gain that measure of self-awareness and can balance it with a fair measure of self-scrutiny then I will be able to lead Soldiers again without fear. Each day brings me one step closer.

Today is a cause for me to celebrate. I can put down the mantel of sufferer. I know where I succeeded and can identify where I failed. I can say that I failed and face it head on. I no longer have to fear judgment from others. I know what I did and I know what I didn't do. I am longer prey to anyone else. And that makes me already a better leader than before. I have faced a fear, seen it's potential, and know that I can step past it. And that is self-awareness. The hard part that we all have to do.

We will all face a crucible moment sometime in our lives. In that moment, all that you will have to rely on is yourself. That is not the moment to figure out that you don't know who you really are.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Jeff,

    You write these words as if they were a testament to yourself, when in essence, you're forcing all of your readers to look into themselves.

    Even in these words, you're still mentoring, inspiring, motivating, and leading.

    I have a new found respect for you, as I'm sure your readers have to...I'm honored to know you, thank you.



  2. ".....could not at the time, be authentic. I didn't know how to be. I had not done the hard work of staring at myself and seeing me accurately. I was not self-aware"

    that is one of the best quotes I have ever seen or heard.....I would guess that at least 95% of our leaders are in the same category....

    it is hard to do especially if you do not know how or have the moral courage to do so...accurately...


  3. I think Churchill's quote was spot on and you integrated it well with your personal experiences. Few people are truly self aware of their failings and how these fit in to how they view themselves and how others see them. It takes courage and wisdom to be genuine. Most people will not take the time to be self-critical and cast themselves in an image that suits their goals and dreams. Anything that may derail your goals and self image becomes taboo.

    I an epiphany regarding my career in my 40's. I had been chasing a professional goal and cultivated a self-image to support that objective only to find out that it was a mirage. Others could see through my façade and knew where my true strengths were. Only when I took stock of past events and where I really effectively lead my teams did I find a place where I could be genuine, enjoy my work and have those around me value and accept who I really am.

    I now work in a field where my efforts actually help people, leverage what I am good at and leave both my coworkers, customers and me with a good feeling at the end of most days. Am I perfect? The answer is clearly no; everyone is a work in progress. Am I a better, more fulfilled person and of value to those around me, I like to think the answer is yes.

    It's really hard to be something you're not and to be open, frank and honest in personal and professional dealings. It takes effort and is draining. If you can find something you are passionate about, being genuine becomes easier. That said, even the best person is risk averse in some respects. Fear of failing will always prevent us from totally letting go.