Failure: a practitioner’s view


Lt Col Fernando Garetto is a Chilean Army Officer. He is a big fan of creativity and currently a student of the Advance Command and Staff Course in the Defence Academy, which includes completing a King’s College London Master by Research (MRes) in Defence Studies. However, the most important experience is that he has failed a lot…

Some authors say that failure is a key element across learning. Others suggest that leaders should share their failures in order to make their people feel more comfortable with their own mistakes, contributing to the generation of a creative culture. Ed Catmul dedicated a whole chapter of his book Creativity Incto describe the phenomenon of failure within the creative process and how an aversion to fail is harmful for those organisations who seek to develop creative practices.

However it seems that admitting to or acknowledging failure can be more difficult than it looks – arguably even more so when it comes to defence. Justin Brady’s post “Don’t be a failure hypocrite” on Harvard Business Review describes how common knowledge over failure’s importance is not underpinned by real examples. He reasons that “Every leader knows failure is important and necessary to succeed. Every leader is comfortable citing epic examples from other people (…) But almost no one will openly discuss their own failures…”

Failing in the Armed Forces.

This tendency to espouse the importance of learning from failure, whilst failing to do so in practice, is particularly evident within armed forces. This is so for two main reasons: the command culture and the relation between failure and the loss human life. Firstly, it is possible to say that military organisational culture is defined by tradition, discipline, formalities and a marked hierarchical system. Famed military leaders and thinkers are known because of their successes not their failures. Moreover, they normally leave ideas that stretch the importance of discipline and integrity, so failure is definitely something to be avoided.

For instance, Montgomery once said “discipline strengthens the mind so that it becomes impervious to the corroding influence of fear”; on the other hand, Eisenhower stated that “the supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible…” So, if commanders are supposed to be role models in several dimensions, (physically, morally and intellectually) sharing a failure with pairs or subordinates could be interpreted as a flaw in at least one of those dimensions, therefore people might believe that integrity, leadership and discipline are jeopardised by sharing those kinds of experiences. However, I believe that this assumption is potentially flawed.

Think how you would feel or what you would think if your commander shared an unsuccessful story where a large part of the responsibility for failure lay with him/her. It is true that someone could take that as a step down in their estimation of the commander’s abilities, but there are good chances that the story will prompt others to think positively of that commander given the humbleness and courage that it is needed to recognise errors. Additionally, the example of a senior whose career has not suffered despite setbacks and failings may be an important impetus to creativity in junior leaders. Sharing failures could thus encourage risk taking and creativity given that there is no creativity without failure.

Secondly, the relationship between failing and the loss of human lives during training or operations is obviously a necessary and powerful impetus to avoid unnecessary risks in certain situations (although ‘playing it safe’ could be seen as a barrier to adopting alternative approaches which may, in fact, reduce operational risk). However, there are other environments within the Armed Forces that are safe enough to embrace failure and risk taking with practically no negative consequences. The military educational process, for instance, offer numerous opportunities to teach the importance of failure across learning and the creative process, and therefore they must be seized upon in order to develop and increase creativity in the Armed Forces.

Sharing failures.

Even though I am currently not leading anyone but myself, I want to share my failures to show just how difficult this can be. So here goes… When I was twenty-five and probably due to my ego, I decided to publish a post in the printed version of the most important newspaper in my country. In that space, public personalities as well as the general public write comments about contingency or any other relevant topic. The format normally runs from 120 to 300 words and, daily, El Mercurio publishes only seven or eight entries of the over one hundred in receives each day. Given that the goal was seeing my name in that paper, in two months I wrote over thirty comments about different topics, trying to put my opinion through the editing process, but every morning my excitement was sadly crushed against the back of the front page.

My ego was not ready to give up so I started to think how to achieve the same target but in a different way. Not long after I decided to find a new strategy, I noticed that every day, the newspaper’s editor published one or two very short comment (no more than twenty words). I also noticed that those comment were either ironic or funny and normally, had a bigger meaning than the one described by those few words. So I decided to do so and chose a discussion that it was held about pros and cons of speed humps. The following morning my post shined in the newspaper: “Dear Editor: Speed humps are inside out holes.” I had made it!

But wait… Was that sharing a failure or a success story? There is no risk to sharing failure stories when they have successful endings. In fact, after re-reading Brady’s post, I noticed that his personal example of failure also ended up with a success story – a widely praised conference which set “an attendance record that still stands to this day.” I found myself with a false sense of humbleness. Basically, by bringing up my newspaper story, I became an undercover failure hypocrite.

So, let me try this again. As a platoon commander in 2008, I led my unit across different training as well as combined exercises. We achieved everything we were asked to do and we did it with high standards of efficiency. I was very pleased especially given that, the year before, most of the high profile exercises were a complete disaster. By the end of the year, elements of my platoon and I were sent to support 1st Army Division’s final training exercise which took place in the middle of the Atacama Desert. We did our very best again, receiving positive feedback almost on daily basis.

One day I received the notice that I would become a father for the second time. An incredible feeling of happiness overwhelmed me. I could not believe how all good things could happen at the same time. Rapidly, I gathered my team (the one that I had been leading in that very successful year) and told them my good new, expecting lots of greetings, hugs and eventually one or two improvised speeches. That never happened; instead, there were faces of uncertainty and I saw how everyone looked at the platoon sergeant, seeking a response that they could follow.

I could not understand what was happening immediately, but within weeks I discovered that my team always saw me as a very distant personality. I may have been an effective enough commander, but I was never a real leader for them. I learned how elements such as the way I talk, the lack of emotional engagement as well as low involvement in social activities built an invisible wall between my unit and me. There is a good chance that that episode was the first time my team watched me sharing a personal issue. At the end of 2008, I was sent to Cyprus and when I returned, I was assigned to another unit losing any possibility to change my former platoon’s impression about me – a bittersweet conclusion to a conflicting episode.

It feels completely different when you share stories that end unsuccessfully. However this is exactly the point of sharing your failures; the intent is to make your people feel less uncomfortable with their own failings. As such, one might argue that the bigger the failure you share, the better it is for your organisation. Perversely, if the story of failure finishes with a big success, it is likely you might encourage the opposite effect, that is, making people less comfortable with their mistakes and therefore, less willing to take risks or to think out of the box.

In general terms, all people experience success as well as failure and it is very unlikely this would change. JK Rowling once said “some failure in life is inevitable, it is impossible to live without failing at something; unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all; in which case you fail by default.” If that is the case let’s view failure for what it is: a normal part of learning and therefore a part of the creative process. So let’s share real personal failures, especially those without a happy end.

Image: U.S. Air Force Col. J. Scot Heathman, 92nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander, holds up a logo idea for the new ‘Inland Spark’ thinker space being built at the Red Morgan Center at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, March 19, 2019. The space is an investment to empower Airmen to cultivate innovative ideas, giving them space to collaborate with others and model products. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Lackey)

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