After searching the sea services and finding a unit that is loyal to its junior-officer (JO) leadership, ask the members to describe their ensign, lieutenant, or captain. More than likely the words perfect, flawless, and impeccable will not be used. In fact, many enlisted personnel will enjoy a hearty laugh at such notions. Indeed, for JOs the measurement of leadership is not how many things they do absolutely right, but instead how to recover from everything they do horribly wrong. Among those who are led, it is the ability to acknowledge, the commitment to correct, and the perseverance to recover from mistakes that leads to the trust officers aim to earn. This characterizes one of the two kinds of leaders: those who have garnered trust and confidence from their subordinates, superiors, and colleagues. Others lead only through their title, rank, and position. The subject of this article is the former category, those who gain authority in the first way.
The essence of leadership is the confidence of those observing the young officer. They know that while failing is possible, the officer will not be a failure. Those below, above, and next to the JO recognize that “failing” is a temporary setback, proof that he is willing to push the limit in pursuit of success. On the other hand, “failure” is a permanent mindset that signals the end of growth and, ultimately, the mission. Those close to the JO can accept the first but must reject the second.
History Favors the Bold
To be successful in leading the world’s best sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, a JO must have the spirit to explore, experiment, fail, recover, “rinse and repeat” until attaining the objective. At some early point in each officer’s career, he will have to make a decision to take the initiative or wait to be told what to do. This moment is inevitable regardless of occupational specialty, service or mission. The time will come when the JO will have to either step up and take the risk or simply stand by. The risk might not always pay dividends, and the decision might not always be correct—but the act of making the decision, taking the chance, and accepting the reality that he might fail is far more valuable than the safety in waiting for the perfect answer, direction, or guidance. Even though it is a cliché, history does favor the bold.
At the 2014 spring graduation ceremony of the University of Texas, then-Admiral William McRaven spoke to this point when he told the graduates: “Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.” The admiral encouraged graduates to not give up, but to push forward and lead. His point has been proven through the great icons of the sea services, with their stories of mistakes and failings before achieving success and their ultimate high standing. Even among today’s leaders, we are hard-pressed to find a general/flag-grade rank officer in any branch of service who would not admit that failing and making mistakes significantly shaped his style and approach to leadership.
Unfortunately, acceptance of making mistakes does not always translate to policy in how the JO is evaluated, promoted, and retained. The sea-service culture has developed and fostered a zero-defect mentality that encourages a generation of young officers to be wary of making mistakes instead of embracing, learning, and growing from ventures risked. By instilling the fear of command investigations, inspector-general complaints, congressional inquiries, and angry visits from the command staff judge advocate, the youngest among the officer corps have been metaphorically spayed and neutered.
Failing Is the Foundation of Leadership
The “one mistake and you’re out” mentality is inconsistent with our sea service heritage. A famous example of this occurred in 1908, when an ensign ran aground one of the Navy’s first destroyers, the USS Decatur (DD-5). He was court-martialed and convicted, but pushed through to be later promoted and widely respected as the Chief of Operations during World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Another JO, with only five years’ experience and two sea tours under his belt, was assigned as captain of a gasoline tanker. After colliding with a buoy and subsequently damaging the ship, he received an adverse fitness report that today would have signaled the end of his career. However this JO was not immediately dismissed, but rather was allowed to fight his way back to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. On the13 June 2011 Late Show with David Letterman, Admiral Mullen explained that the blunders had taught him the most: “It was a measure of getting up after those mistakes and actually having mentors who saw something in me that might bode well for the future and let me continue.”
Leadership and success through failing are also grounded in doctrine. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, states: “The Marine Corps’ style of warfare requires intelligent leaders with a penchant for boldness and initiative down to the lowest levels. . . . We must realize that errors by junior leaders stemming from over-boldness are a necessary part of learning. We should deal with such errors leniently; there must be no ‘zero defects’ mentality. . . . Not only must we not stifle boldness or initiative, but we must continue to encourage both traits in spite of mistakes.”
In order for true leaders to be discovered and nurtured, those who mentor must be willing to accept that the young motivator will fail; he will mess up repeatedly and often. However, after every washout, a lesson is learned and another step is taken toward achievement. Even if the step is backward, it is still taken, therefore the journey continues and the opportunity remains to learn, grow, and succeed. As exemplified by the stories here, failing does not equate to a failure.
The commitment to recover is just as essential as the boldness that led to blunder the in the first place. While every young officer may strive to be a strong courageous leader, only after taking a chance, being tested, and coming up short does he have the opportunity to define the type of leader he will become. As one anonymous writer put it: “Courage is not defined by those who fought and did not fall, but by those who fought, fell and rose again.” When an officer does not succeed, everyone below, above, and beside him watches to see what he will choose to do next: Does he resign his commission, give up command, hide in the shadows of his own embarrassment? Or does he stand up, dust off, and get back to it?
The fact that this choice exists is an indication that leadership cannot be taught but must be learned. After the young officer has chosen to seize the initiative and take the risk, he has to be prepared for everything to blow up in his face and be left standing in a pile of rubble. In that heap also the officer will again have a choice: whether to walk away or to pick up the pieces and start over. Leaders do the latter. However, the fortitude to do this is not something that can be taught; it has to come from within.
In turn, this indicates that true leadership is often born through necessity. Its potential is shown when the officer’s only options are between turning away—thus giving up the trust and authority associated with his title—and pushing forward to meet the expectations of his subordinates, superiors, and colleagues. This characteristic is the key marker in recognizing a true leader.
Once acknowledged, that young officer will need not only remediation but additional opportunities to be tested, nose-dive, retested, crash again, and once more be tested. The officer’s confidence increases through repeated chances to try and fail. His motivation is sustained through the fact that he is being entrusted with another chance.
Obviously, such opportunities should not be given without instruction, correction, and supervision. While the officer benefits from trying again, if he does not learn anything he is destined to repeat the error. However, with patient and forgiving mentorship, the glimmers of leadership that result from the necessity to keep moving can be developed into something great.
From Boots to Suits
Fortunately, though they vary in degree, most young officers in the sea services have within them the seedlings of true leadership. When their mettle is challenged, they often rise to the occasion and discover that they are capable of accomplishing more than they believed. Some go on to become captains, colonels, admirals, or generals, while others leave early and enter public service, private business, or government. The latter, having been through the testing and retrying process, will also be successful. The confidence to try something new, think outside the box, and be creative in solving a problem or meeting a new requirement is essential to every occupation and profession.
Behavior such as this must always be carefully considered and weighed. The mistakes advocated for forgiveness are not those of misconduct, carelessness, or indifference. At issue here is not recklessness, but rather the courage to dare to try something new, which inevitably will not always lead to success. But maturity and confidence will grow with the officer in and out of uniform, while he is on active duty and when he again becomes a civilian.
The private sector has recognized the importance of facilitating leadership growth through the encouragement of failing and trying again. In 2006, the BloombergBusinessweek Magazine article “How Failure Breeds Success” covered IBM’s corporate practices. A “one and three” evaluation system was designed to account for research failings and setbacks in the evaluation of technology developers, with a single year determining the bonus while three years decide the rank and salary. As explained by Armando Garcia, then vice-president for technical strategy and worldwide operations at IBM Research, “A three-year evaluation cycle sends an important message to our researchers, demonstrating our commitment to investing in the early, risky stages of innovation.” Executives recognized that mistakes and temporary setbacks can place an otherwise talented and valuable individual behind a power curve for several months. But one or two setbacks should not define or determine the worth or the potential of either an innovator or, in the case of the sea services, a junior officer.
With men and women trusting his judgment enough to place their lives on the line, the JO’s decision-making process leads to a greater appreciation for the leadership role. When he understands that the American people look to the him to be a good steward of their tax dollars, that the President has placed “special trust and confidence” in his abilities, and that the service members around him regularly wager their lives, careers, and credibility on his decisions, all this brings into perspective the significance of what it means to be an officer. The sense of responsibility transcends all aspects of his life and can be applied even after he has left the active-duty ranks.
You Weren’t Always Perfect
Leadership is a cycle that does not end with the officer’s culminating accomplishment. The true leader inspires, mentors, and develops others. Indeed, successful leadership can be measured in terms of how many followers develop under the officer’s tenure. What good would it do if, after all his failed trials and tribulations, his lessons learned and accumulated experience were not passed on? Additionally, after reaching a certain status and rank, a leader must be mindful not to judge or look down on those who are still in the process of navigating through their own mistakes.
Claiming that you would never have done whatever someone else did wrong, or giving voice to another quick reaction—“things must have really changed with this generation” or “they just don’t make officers like they used to”—does not encourage subordinates. A true leader never looks down on others unless he is helping them up. As Senator John McCain expressed all this at the 2011 Centennial of Naval Aviation:
Learn to inspire the men and women who work for you. Learn to lift them up, to give them meaningful responsibility, to allow them room to grow, and yes, even to make mistakes. Be slow to judge, and remember that many of our most gifted leaders would never have survived in a ‘one strike’ or ‘zero defect’ environment. If instead your style is to be quick to criticize, slow to praise, and you are unwilling to forgive, I urge you to seek a different profession. And if you have not yet learned the power of redemption, I encourage you to read the biographies of Nimitz, Halsey, Boyington, Henderson, McClusky, and Waldron—just to name a few.
For the officer, leadership requires the willingness to take a risk, allow those who work for him to take risk, and, regardless of the outcome, to learn from the result. He will not be afraid of failing, but a true leader will refuse to be a failure. Just as the world is not static but ever-changing, so too must the minds that lead the nation’s sea warriors be ever-innovative. The ability to grow and be open to new ideas, some of which will undoubtedly fail, is essential if the service aspires to continue to develop the world’s premier officers. The JO’s role is simple: Try, fail, learn, try again—and repeat until successful. This practice will lead to growth, confidence, determination, and eventually the development of a true leader.