… or, what to do when a plan doesn’t come together.

I can honestly say I’ve learned more from my mistakes than my successes. I doubt I’m alone in that. What’s that old saying? “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Obviously, none of my mistakes were fatal and none ended my career… yet.

Some of my biggest mistakes I considered colossal failures at the time, only to learn later that there are actually some things I can’t control. Like the time I lost $1.1B in multi-year resourcing. Or the time I started an international incident in the skies over Younameastan. Or the time I invested in a gold mine (seriously!).

I was fortunate to work for a number of leaders that knew mistakes are rarely intentional, and almost all can be important learning opportunities. I always tried to pass that on to the men and women who worked for me afterwards. Yes, mistakes can be frustrating and costly, but in a corporate setting, they’re rarely life threatening.

One of my favorite mistakes happened during my last fun assignment in the Air Force when I was leading a rapidly deployable group trained to respond to a wide variety of contingency operations. We were deployed to a bare base for a self-imposed training exercise to test our readiness to operate in chemical protective gear – an old-time Cold War, NATO-type exercise. By bare base, I mean a runway and a patch of dirt with zero support infrastructure.

It was only for a few days, but both the days and nights were long and filled with hard physical and mental exertion. The night before the exercise ended, I reviewed the re-deployment plan put together by our logistics planner. My one rule was that we were not going to bring the tents down in the dark. Something always gets broken when we do that.

It was a good plan, but it was clear that he had forgotten about the one-hour time differential between GMT and local, so his assumption about when it would be light was wrong. I asked probing questions about the plan but couldn’t get him to see his error. After all, he’d checked with the weatherman specifically to see when nautical dawn was.

The next morning was busy, and we completed all the assigned tasks by the scheduled tent breakdown time. But it was still pitch-black. I asked that the planner come see me, and when he reported in, I asked his where the sun was.

He stood tall and replied, “Sir, it’s scheduled to arrive any minute.”

I let him know that it wouldn’t be arriving for another hour and that under no circumstances would we break tents down in the dark. And then I let him continue to be in charge of the pack up. Fortunately, that young captain was resourceful and flexible. He assigned some other activities that were scheduled for later and managed to scrounge a light cart from somewhere else on the airfield. Within a half hour, we were breaking down tents and had completed palletizing the entire camp by the time the aircraft arrived for our re-deployment to home base.

He turned a failure into a complete success and learned a couple of lasting lessons:

  • Learn to critically examine your plans and listen for understanding when someone asks questions. Maybe the question behind the question is what really needs to be considered.
  • Always have a Plan B (and maybe C). Think about it, how often does everything go exactly as planned? Ever?
  • Give subordinates every opportunity to try tasks that stretch them without fear that failure will result in humiliation or professional suicide. During the debrief, I publicly praised his original plan (with the notable exception of the failure of the sun to appear on time) and his resourcefulness that resulted in mission success.

Kevin Berchelmann’s Law of Leadership #4: Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job. In other words, let your people take risks without fearing the occasional failure. They need to know you have their back, and you’re not going to fire them if something goes awry.

That was ten years ago. That young captain has been promoted a few times since and is a commander himself now. We still keep in touch (I’ll save the value of mentoring for another piece), and his last note to me read, “Regardless of when/how you learned your leadership style it was appreciated and is part of your legacy. You inspired me to be a better Airman, Officer, and father.”

Doesn’t get much better than that.

What have you taught your employees about making mistakes? The last thing you want is for the mistakes to be hidden behind the fear of your reaction. Just because you’ve stopped hearing about mistakes doesn’t mean they’ve stopped happening.

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