Failure is not an option…or is it?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Lovet
  • 426 ABS
Thomas Edison was one of America’s most successful, and quotable, inventors. When once questioned about a lack of results on a project he was working, he reportedly said “I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.” This is a wonderfully positive viewpoint; but the sentiment is striking, and particularly pertinent as our society has become more averse to any real or perceived failure.

A cursory search of Amazon® for the phrase “How to Succeed” yields nearly 5,000 books on the topic. Evidently, there is ample reading material to learn about success. However, anyone who has been through a high school or college class knows there is a big leap from theoretical learning to practical application.

Though I have personally read only a handful of those 5,000 books, I have realized a factor often overlooked in success is the role of failure. Many people view failure as bad, as an embarrassment, as something that must be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, failure is often punished. Rather than teach people how not to fail, this negative reinforcement teaches them to fear failure.

People who experience this fear become hyper focused on anything that might cause failure, rather than looking for ways to succeed. They are less likely to take risk or look for innovative solutions. The end result may not be failure, but neither is it success. It’s just mediocrity…the minimum needed to avoid failure.

So what does failure mean to us as leaders?

First, I’ll acknowledge that there are some true no-fail missions out there, but in reality those are few and far between compared to the bulk of work that we do day-in and day-out. As a leader (in this commentary, the term encompasses front line supervisors on up) we need to give Airmen opportunities and allow them both to succeed and fail. But time has become the enemy that stands in our way. After years of doing more with less, the general consensus is that we don’t have enough time to do everything. Allowing someone to fail and try again takes twice as long, and who has time for that?

As leaders, we all need to have time for that! Leaders who do not accept failure lose trust in their subordinates. Rather than build them up and let them try again, they bypass them. Subordinates are left disempowered, unenthusiastic and unmotivated which causes organizational culture to quickly decline.

These leaders often fall into the trap of working as action officers. They skip over empowering their employees and utilize their own experience and expertise to ‘get the job done right the first time’, thus saving precious man-hours for other tasks. But because the leader has not trusted their subordinates, more and more of their time is consumed as even minor decision-making consolidates on the leader’s shoulders. Ultimately, instead of avoiding failure, it results in failure. The leader fails to keep up with the ever increasing workload, they fail to train their subordinates, and they fail to build a positive organizational culture.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Leaders who give their subordinates the opportunity to succeed, but allow them to fail put them in a prime position to learn. There are many lessons to be learned from failure. People who fail must evaluate the reasons for failure, the incorrect assumptions, and where it all went wrong; leading to improved critical thinking skills. People who fail and try again, learn perseverance. People who overcome failure, learn resiliency and gain confidence.

Ultimately, Thomas Edison’s best advice came from a 1921 interview in American Magazine: “We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.”

It’s clear…failure is a key component of success, and to building confident and resilient Airmen and leaders to lead our future Air Force.