Failing Well Enhances Character Development

Guest post from CDR Scott D. Waddle, USN (Ret.), originally posted on the TSSBP Facebook page, reposted here with his permission:

Life isn’t fair. There will always be someone who is smarter, stronger and better than you. Your best effort will sometimes fall short and never be good enough no matter how hard you try. It seems the only equalizer in life is death. Even in death the path some follow to get there doesn’t seem fair. So why even try if failure is certain? The resilience of the human spirit is what makes us unique and separates us from the rest of the creatures on earth. When faced with failure we basically have three choices: withdraw and quit, waffle and do nothing, or try and figure out what went wrong, learn from it and try again until we succeed. Learning to fail well provides an opportunity to push beyond barriers once thought to be impenetrable and a chance to develop ones character.
I envy toddlers (children ages one to four) and ankle biters (think pre K). When kids play and begin to socialize with their peers, they have an uncanny ability to embrace setbacks, cast them aside and try again with greater vigor and determination until they achieve success. They are fearless and know no boundaries or limits. The fear of failing does not register with them.
 Playing is a vital part of a child’s life and an opportunity for them to socialize experiment and try new things. As children mature and they become more self aware, the consequences of their failures and how they deal with setbacks shapes their behavior and character.
 When I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1981 I was unable follow in the footsteps of my dad, an Air Force pilot, because I didn’t have 20/20 uncorrected vision. I chose the submarine service instead and embarked on what would be an incredible twenty year journey. Getting to command was not easy. Competition was fierce and opportunity for failure was high. Success was primarily achieved by balancing risk versus the gain. If you were too cavalier or risk averse the chances of getting to command became more difficult.
 Early in my command of the GREENEVILLE, during one of my weekly meetings with my squadron commander, I learned some of my fellow commanding officers were experiencing high turnover and attrition. The same problem existed on my boat which I attributed to command climate. In my boat’s case it was a matter of stopping the verbal abuse and hostility that existed on board. As the Captain when I demonstrated that I cared for the professional development of my crew, their personal and family well being I won their confidence and trust. The hostility ceased and the crew worked as a team. In the end my crew would be the best recruiters, pulling talent from across the globe.
 Some of my crew members were disenchanted and simply hated their job. My challenge was to help them understand the importance of their contribution to the boat’s operations, the team and mission success. Often it wasn’t easy trying to convince an 18 year old, who was scrubbing out urinals and toilets, doing some other crewmember’s laundry or peeling potatoes how their efforts were contributing to protecting our nation from the bad guys. I worked hard at it and in the end was successful.
 Other captains were giving up on sailors and kicking them out of the Navy at an alarming rate. When I shared with them my success stories they responded, “Too much effort. It’s easier to give them the boot.” Disappointed with the response I asked my squadron commander and his boss Rear Admiral Al Konetzni the Commander Submarine Pacific to transfer the hard case sailors from other boats to my command. Over a two year period 29 careers were salvaged. Those that had suffered defeat and chronic failure blossomed and succeeded on the GREENEVILLE. My crew and I embraced these sailors and found the right fit for them onboard. We knew each person was of value but they needed encouragement and guidance to succeed. Once they learned how to fail well, success for them just took a little more effort on their part. While working with these sailors I would learn that for a sailor to respect their leaders they had to first respect themselves.
 Leadership success aside; in command, the rules were simple. Don’t run your ship aground. Don’t hit anything. Don’t kill anybody (unless it is the enemy) and keep the core covered (think reactor safety). I violated two of the rules on 9 February 2001 and on 1 October 2001 was invited to leave the Navy.
 At age 41 on February 9th 2001 while in command of the submarine USS GREENEVILLE (SSN 772), an improved LOS ANGELES Class Fast Attack Submarine operating off the coast of my home port Pearl Harbor, I experienced a life changing event. That Friday afternoon with civilian visitors on board I ordered an emergency surface maneuver that caused my submarine to collide with a Japanese fisheries training vessel the Ehime Maru killing nine civilians. The accident took the lives of four seventeen year old students, two instructors and three crew members.
 After two years in command I was comfortable and confident in my ability to lead my crew. We had achieved unprecedented success up until the day of our collision. After the accident, the two week long Court of Inquiry would document the details that contributed to the cause of the accident. I was found guilty of dereliction of duty and intentionally hazarding my vessel. The actions I took that day I thought at the time were prudent. I was wrong. That’s usually the case with hindsight being 20/20.
 The accident had a dramatic impact on my life, my crew and the family members who lost loved ones. My personal failure caused significant emotional and physical stress. Despite the strong desire to preserve my personal and professional reputation, by trying to place blame elsewhere, I chose to keep my integrity and character intact. I took responsibility for my actions and the actions of my crew.
 I ended up losing the job I loved the most because of arrogance and the belief that accidents happened to other ships and not to us. My crew was extremely talented. We backed each other up. I thought we were better than those that had bitten the big bullet. Unfortunately that arrogance exists today in commands across the military and in board rooms around the globe. The challenge is to recognize the flaw and ferret it out. Nothing in my training provided me with a formal procedure or instruction as to what to do if I “fell on my sword”. All I had to go by were leadership classes at the Academy. In the operational fleet there were incident and mishap reports as well as case studies that documented collisions, groundings, equipment damage, personnel injury and loss of life. In the fleet most of the resources were part of a continuing training program that required periodic review. Learning how to balance the risk was a skill acquired through personal failure and observing others fail. I learned early in my career that it was less painful to learn from someone else’s mistakes. One of my old captains used to say, “If the heat’s on you it ain’t on me. Remember Waddle to keep the spot light off you and on the other guy.”
 Had I not learned to “fail well” early in life the choices I made following the incident most likely would have been different. Thoughts of placing blame elsewhere and trying to dodge the bullet were instinctive but I pushed the thoughts aside. The reason I chose to take the moral high ground was simple. It was the right thing to do. In command accountability and responsibility is absolute. The same holds true in the corporate arena. It is sad that most leaders that experience failure of this magnitude do not fail well. They spend their efforts covering their rear end.
 Some of the role models I had growing up were my parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, bosses and scout masters. Each offered encouragement when I failed and sometimes provided a reality check when my goals were too lofty or unrealistic. As I matured success was measured in small incremental steps. The failures served to humble me and teach me humility as well as perseverance. Over time I would learn what my strengths and weaknesses were. Dealing with weakness is tough but a necessity. I learned to shore up areas that warranted work and supplement my weakness by recruiting those who were strong in areas where I was not and openly acknowledging my weakness. The process built trust and respect with those I worked with. Eleven years later I still reflect on what could have happened or would have happened if only the accident not occurred. Most of us have had our “There by the grace of GOD go I moments.” You might call them something else. In my post Navy career I am a public speaker, executive coach and consultant. The audiences I speak before and customers are leaders who have experienced success in the past but for the first time in their lives are facing failure. The challenge for most of them is they have not learned how to fail well. My job is to help people get back on track and move forward.
 I challenge you to look in the mirror and candidly determine if you fail well. If you do not fail well find a mentor and learn how to. If you do fail well help others learn the skill. Your character development will only suffer if you chose the easy path by waffling, doing nothing or giving up.
 Many successful leaders have learned to fail well. A few of them are Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Bill Gates, Sir James Dyson and Steve Jobs. Take a few minutes and search for Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech. You won’t be disappointed. At some point, you will fail. Don’t give up. Fail well!