Archive for the ‘freedom to fail’ Category

Freedom to Fail

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Pete Dawkins (West Point class of 1959, Heisman Trophy winner, First Captain of the Corps of Cadets, in the top of his class in academics, with a distinguished military career) as a Captain wrote a seminal article entitled “Freedom to Fail” which was published in Infantry Magazine.

In this article Dawkins said that the Army’s Officer Efficiency Report (OER) system that demanded perfection of officers who wished to advance their careers, was actually damaging the effectiveness of the officer corps.  Any officer who did not repeatedly score either 98 or 99 out of 100 on his OER could not expect choice assignments or rapid promotion.  This commonly known fact, he argued, ran the danger of creating a system that favored the advancement of timid officers whose fear of failure kept them from bold, innovative actions and decisions – just the opposite of what the Army would want in combat leaders.

As Dawkins aptly pointed out, failure can be the greatest teacher we have.  It fosters critical review of the actions leading to the failure, while success breeds complacency and acceptance of the status quo.

Another military example:  in July 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet watched two of his divisions severely repulsed in the disastrous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.  Longstreet had opposed Lee’s plan for a multi-division assault on a broad front, but was overruled by his superior.

Several months later, Longstreet used the lesson learned from that defeat to launch a successful attack against Union lines at Chickamauga.  This time he formed his attacking force into columns of divisions to deal a sharp and irresistible blow that shattered the Union line and routed nearly a third of Rosecran’s Army of the Cumberland.

So what does this lesson from military history have to do with hospitality management?  Plenty!  Leadership is leadership no matter what the enterprise or situation.  Any leader who creates an organization where leaders are not given the freedom to fail, risks the larger failure of mediocrity.

Leaders should give their subordinates plenty of latitude to figure out how to solve problems or plan projects without being micro-managed by their bosses.  Subordinates should be encouraged to formulate and execute bold and innovative ideas.  Certainly failure will occur, but rather than blaming those responsible, encourage subordinates to conduct rigorous in-depth reviews of what went wrong and how things might have been done differently.  The critical review process is the opportunity to learn and grow.  Serious and sincere soul-searching for answers will inevitably lead to understandings that will improve future performance.

Having extolled the upside of mistakes let me also add that some errors are so egregious and obviously foolish that they call into question the subordinate’s judgment.  While no leader can ensure that all his subordinates have basic common sense and good judgment, he can monitor their work to avoid the worst mistakes.

Such monitoring is made much easier when there is good, open communication between the leader and subordinates.  Conversely, an uncommunicative leader helps create the environment where subordinates acting on their own are afraid to approach the leader to seek advice and guidance.  In this situation the failure is the leader’s.

Things every leader/manager should do:

  • Do not micro-manage. Give subordinates broad directions and desired outcomes, but allow them to formulate and execute the details.
  • Foster good two-way communications so that subordinates keep you informed of progress and are unafraid to seek advice.
  • When giving guidance, explain the why’s as well as the how’s so that subordinates gain a broader understanding of your thought processes.
  • When mistakes are inevitably made, do not get angry. Instead, be supportive and require subordinates to conduct a rigorous post mortem to determine what went wrong and what might have been done differently.
  • Don’t be afraid to give the failing subordinate new opportunities to prove his or her abilities. In other words, when he gets thrown from his horse, make sure he gets back up on it again.

Failing is an inherent and useful part of human growth.  Make sure your subordinates have the “freedom to fail.”

Thanks and have a great day!

Ed Rehkopf

This weekly blog comments on and discusses the club industry and its challenges. From time to time, we will feature guest bloggers — those managers and industry experts who have something of interest to say to all of us. We also welcome feedback and comment upon the blog, hoping that it will become a useful sounding board for what’s on the minds of hardworking club managers throughout the country and around the world.

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