Dealing with Failure
By Master Sgt. James H. Clifford
*Originally published in the Spring 1997 issue
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Every senior NCO serving today has made his or share of mistakes. We didn’t reach our positions
because we were super sergeants. We got here with a lot of help. Our leaders allowed us to make
our mistakes and learn from them
Have you ever gotten a good tip from an NCO on
an FTX, ARTEP or Command Inspection? I’ve
gotten plenty. Have you ever wondered where
that NCO learned that tip? Ask the Soldier and you’ll
probably find the NCO learned from his or her mistakes.
Most of us don’t remember those things we did right the
first time. Why is that? Of course, it’s because we learn
indelible lessons from our mistakes. Success seldom
provides the important lessons of life.
In today’s drawdown Army, many of us are becoming
“zero defect” NCOs. I see this as a dangerous trend. It’s
not unreasonable that in a downsizing environment we
fear the effect of being
labeled as a failure. We
also fear being labeled
as indulgent of failures.
Not being able to deal
with Soldiers who fail
has a chilling effect
on mission accomplishment.
A leader must strike a balance
between failure and success in every Soldier and every mission.
I offer the following
thoughts to NCOs
to help them cope
with failures in their
Soldiers and themselves.
it. Everyone fails on a
regular basis. By accept, I don’t mean condone, excuse,
or ignore. I do mean expect, understand, and use it as a
development tool. Every senior NCO serving today has
made his or her share of mistakes. We didn’t reach our
positions because we were super sergeants. We got here
with a lot of help. Our leaders allowed us to make our
mistakes and learn from them.
Barber schools used to start students off by having
them shave a balloon. Imagine how many barbers there
would be if they flunked when they popped that first
balloon. You only learn by doing. Allow your Soldiers to
occasionally make a mistake. They will learn from it.
Today, we have new equipment, technology, and
doctrine from when I first enlisted. All of that is the
product of countless mistakes and returns to the drawing
boards. Most ideas are “half-baked” at first. Those who
do not fear making a mistake are the best at innovating
new ways of doing things. Innovation and motivation are
a by-product of a climate where Soldiers feel free to use
initiative. Initiative, I
think we can all agree,
is one quality we want
to encourage. Success in
battle demands Soldiers
be willing to take risks.
A Soldier unwilling to
take risks will not stay
alive to complete the
mission. These risks are
not taken lightly. Soldiers
calculate the risks,
based on knowledge of
the situation, training,
equipment and the
mission. A Soldier must
be aggressive to survive.
Fostering a zero defect
climate destroys this
who are afraid to take a risk in peace will never take a
risk in war. Improper handling of a subordinate who
makes a mistake may just cause that Soldier’s death on a
future battlefield. Our history is full of aggressive combat
leaders who made their share of mistakes in peace.
Understanding and using failure as a development
tool and a willingness to take calculated risks are important leadership traits. The most important, however, is
an understanding that the proper handling of failure is
a character builder for Soldiers. Soldiers who know they
will get fair treatment are less likely to lie about their
actions. If your Soldiers know you to be a fair, understanding
leader, they will be honest with you. Soldiers
who know their leaders are waiting for them to screw up
have nothing to lose when called on the carpet. If they
know there is nothing to gain from being honest, they
will not be. Leaders who have a well-developed strategy
for dealing with the shortcomings of their subordinates
have problems with Soldiers lying to them.
This does not mean failure lacks consequences. On
the contrary, failure in the Army is such a serious matter
we must deal with it in a systematic way.
Failure frequently brings deadly consequences. That’s
why it is so important for us to understand it.
To find the balance I referred to earlier, leaders must
know how to assess failures. We must balance the failure
against the Soldier’s potential to develop into the honest,
motivated, innovative, aggressive Soldier who will survive
on the battlefield.
Leaders must take into account five factors when
assessing failures—the offense, integrity, attitude, the
Soldier’s record, and our investment in the Soldier. The
first step in assessing the failure is to gather information
about the offense. Was the Soldier in question at fault?
If so, why? Did the Soldier have adequate training and
leadership? Is there proper guidance in the form of regulations,
SOPs, etc.? Did injuries occur? Was there property
damage? Will there be some negative impact upon
another’s career, such as missed school quota or late award
recommendation? Can the Soldier correct the mistake or
overcome the failure? What has happened in the past? Is
this a common error? Does it happen on regular basis?
Did you, or someone else, issue previous warnings?
Leaders must ask themselves these and other questions
before they commend or take action. Some mistakes are
serious enough that you have no choice in your reaction
to them. They are regulated either by law or policy. These
matters may be out of your hands. The chain of command
may be responsible for initiating action. But most failures
involve minor matters and are subject to evaluation. You
have the power to judge and take action.
The integrity of the Soldier is an important factor to
consider in assessing failure. Ask yourself these questions.
How did I found out about it? Did the Soldier
bring it to my attention or was he or she caught in the
act? Even if caught in the act, does the Soldier take
responsibility for his or her actions? Did the Soldier try
to cover up the event or blame others? These are questions
of character. The answers play a major concern as
you contemplate your reaction. A Soldier with a strong
character is worthy of your effort. Weak characters are
a drain on military effectiveness and may not deserve
The Soldier’s attitude will either help resolve the situation
or make it worse. Does the Soldier recognize the
error? Is the Soldier taking positive steps toward resolving
the situation? Soldiers who know their weaknesses
and take action to improve are better than those who can
do no wrong. Soldiers must participate in their improvement.
Leaders may be able to lead their horses to water
but cannot make them drink. Soldiers must be willing to
soldier back from failure.
Consider Soldiers individually. Look at their prior
records. All other things being equal, the Soldier’s record
should tell you a lot. Don’t cast a good Soldier adrift
based on one mistake. Consider the record. Is the mistake
likely to be repeated?
Finally, consider the investment you and the Army
have in the Soldier. Beyond the money spent on training,
how much have you invested in the Soldier?
Investments grow when you consistently add to the
principle and allow the interest to compound. Your
efforts will only pay off if you allow Soldiers to grow.
Assessing failure is a complex issue. You can take the
easy way out by creating a zero defect environment, or
you can develop your subordinates. The first approach
creates Soldiers who lack initiative and motivation. The
second imbues Soldiers with motivation to persevere and
succeed against the odds.
“Soldiers who know they will get fair treatment are less
likely to lie about their actions. If your Soldiers know you to be
a fair, understanding leader, they will be honest with you.”
Master Sgt. Clifford is with the 149th Ordinance Detachment,
Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.
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