Greetings loyal leaders! Capt. Fletch here helping you launch 2024 with another edition of the Leadership Toolbox. Last time in our feature for NGWA Groundwater Week, we examined the importance of using your time efficiently in professional interactions. This month, I explore another common word, and one we often avoid: failure.

As I looked through previous articles, I noticed I tend to write about seemingly deflating topics. For example, in December 2021, I wrote about another common word: adversity. However, I like to think by taking on less cheerful topics this time of year I offer a hopeful approach for leaders to persevere through them.

People in many circles consider failure non-existent — as if we can somehow prevent it from happening by refusing to acknowledge it. The reality? Failure is part of life. I recently decided to rewatch an old series used as a leadership lesson from my cadet days in ROTC, “Band of Brothers.” The number of leadership lessons available from the 101st Airborne is astronomical. One of the episodes in the series covers Operation Market Garden. Movie and history buffs will recognize another film that highlighted this WWII Allied operation in Nazi-occupied Netherlands: “A Bridge Too Far.”

Let me offer an abridged history lesson to catch up folks who need it. Allied forces considered Market Garden a high-risk, high-reward operation. Brass at the time concluded that Market Garden’s success could help end the war by Christmas of 1944. However, despite their wishes, Santa did not bring a victory that year for the bold endeavor. The 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment suffered significant casualties. The British were unable to secure the farthest bridge and lost a staggering 8,000 men. The Allied forces had failed plain and simple. The war goes on and leads to the Battle of the Bulge (which, fun fact, my grandfather fought in).

So, how did the Allied forces handle that tough loss and translate it into an eventual victory in the war? Well, for one, WWII was very much about attrition and the Allied forces had an overwhelming number of troops to work with. But they really just focused on the next plan to achieve the overall objective. They did not run from failure. They learned from it and moved on to the next objective.

I teach my baseball players a similar approach. Once something occurs in the game, you can no longer change it. “It’s in the books,” I tell them. I push players to learn from the past but focus on the present. Baseball is a game where you can fail 7 out of 10 times and find yourself in the hall of fame. Dealing with failure is one of the most difficult skills anyone can learn. But, if mastered, it can prove to be one of the greatest strengths a person can hope to achieve in their lifetime. I have witnessed young men make errors only to turn around, step in the box and knock the ball to the fence. In the span of 10-15 minutes, they have converted a failure into a moment of success in pursuit of victory. Essentially, confronting failure is very much a mental approach. We often have the skills and resources to overcome failure, but the mental aspect may prevent us from doing it.

What does this mean for our teams and how we lead them? We need to learn to embrace failure. This does not mean that we accept it or even lower our standards. Rather, we should consider it an opportunity to strengthen our leadership and our teams, versus condemning and running from it.

  • First, we need to determine the root cause of the failure. Why did it happen?
  • Next, we understand how to prevent it from happening again. Then, we determine where we go from there.
  • Finally, we adjust our game plan and course correct to ensure we are still on track to meet our objectives.

This is a basic framework for overcoming failure. You can find a wealth of resources to expand on those basics. The important thing is that recognizing the existence of failure and the mindset and framework for overcoming it must be part of our culture. As you think back on 2023, take some time to consider your teams. Were there failures in your operations? How did you handle them? Did you chastise the team and dwell on what had occurred? Or did you use it strategically to strengthen the bond of your organization and march forward to victory?

Regardless of your answers, the good news is you can always make a change. This is the perfect time of year for reflection, before things get too hectic in the New Year. Much like the 101st Airborne, we have the opportunity to grow stronger and move toward victory. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and I looking forward to gathering at the Leadership Toolbox throughout 2024!

Until next time, Capt. Fletch over and out.