Veterans Day Lessons: Leadership, Learning, and Failure From a Soldier’s Perspective

There are few organizations in the world that better understand the importance of learning from our failures than the United States Armed Forces.  In fact, every branch of the US military uses an After Action Review (AAR) process to analyze the successes or failures of their missions by examining what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better next time.  The AAR is focused on creating a clear comparison of what were the intended results vs. the actual results.

On Veterans Day, I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn from one of the wisest soldiers that I know, Lt. Col Mark Weber.  Weber, a former Cretin-Derham Hall classmate and Humphrey School Policy Fellow has spent 23 years in the United States Army, including five years as a soldier and 18 as a commissioned officer.  During a recent visit to Minnesota the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey (@Martin_Dempsey), praised Mark for his leadership in many distinguished roles, most notably citing his work in Iraq with Gen. David Petraeus.  In Iraq, Weber was the senior advisor to Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, the commander and chief of staff of the Iraqi Armed Forces.

While we were working together a few years ago Mark had introduced me Murphy’s Laws of Combat.  Being passionate about how to lead through failure I thought the Military Planning section of the laws were particularly interesting when it came to our notions of military success and failure.

Military Planning (from Murphy’s Laws of Combat):

  1. The important things are simple,
  2. The simple things are easier said than done,
  3. Prefect plans aren’t, and
  4. No plan survives the first contact intact.

So if military leaders know that their plans will be imperfect, difficult to execute, and that they won’t survive contact with the enemy intact how do they move forward?  What follows is from a recent Q&A session with Mark on his thoughts on Leadership, Learning, and Failure from a soldier’s perspective.

Q1.  In general, the media portrays the military as an intensely “mission” driven organization where the mission is often to destroy the enemy, take a strategic objective, or rescue a threatened group.  The “successful” completion of the mission is recognized as the top priority in every military operation with the welfare of the soldier coming second.  How would you characterize the Army’s philosophy around failure?

Weber: The military places an extraordinary amount of emphasis on the After Action Review and the learning power of failure.  But our profession struggles like any other, because our members are no less human than anyone else.  Ego and pride do not discriminate amongst professions, particularly at the younger ages.  Ideally, military personnel are exposed to the self-evident virtues of failure and become wise “graybeards” as they pass the fifteen year mark and enter senior command.  Unfortunately, in my experience, at least half the population of senior leaders never quite “matures” with the concept.  Insecurity and destructive selfish behavior follows their failures, and they create a generation of young officers and soldiers who “learn” that there is no excuse for failure.  And on this point I find myself going easy on my brothers and sisters, because the cost for failure is higher in our profession than in any other – people’s lives.  The paradox with failure in our profession is that death is often, understandably, viewed as failure.  But this line of thinking is dangerous, because even the best laid plans result in death.  So failure, like success, is often left to be defined by the leader.  Sometimes this is the military leader, but as we often see in the news it is frequently defined by our civilian leaders.

Q2.  As a student and now teacher of military history, do you have any “go-to” examples of military failure that you have used as a lesson for your students?

Weber: I wouldn’t say I have a “go to” example.  The variables are so complex, that I prefer to use contemporary examples (i.e. a training exercise involving a student leader, in which case multiple students rotate through a role as the leader.)  A couple of “gold standard” examples of these experiential opportunities for young men and women would include the military Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) and the civilian outdoor leadership program, Outward Bound.

Unless someone is willing to take a solid few hours to discuss a military figure/leader, there are simply too many variables involved.  The instruction becomes time prohibitive and leaders become more myth than real; students then end up taking the wrong lesson.  Too often we see “Oh, his success revolves around the fact that he was so tough and ruthless” when in fact, the leader’s greatest strength was diplomacy behind the scenes.

Q3.  In business we build “strategic plans” that try to lay out the steps necessary in a path for an organization for the next 3 to 5 years with the understanding that planning for an unknown future will often time be riddled with errors or mistakes.  With the obvious importance on preparedness the military must also prioritize strategic planning.  In your observation how does the military deal with the level of uncertainty involved in strategic planning and the potential for the resulting errors and mistakes?

Weber: Some leaders do great.  They’re secure in themselves.  They intrinsically know the truth of what your question presumes: plans will be riddled with errors and, I would add, numerous evolutions, and maybe even a revolution.  Other leaders are horrible, ghastly horrible.  For fear of making a mistake, they never complete a plan, nor do they ever put their weight behind what little planning they have, even though they know the same truth.  The difference, of course, is that whereas one leader sees strength in the errors they KNOW will come; another leader sees weakness in the errors they KNOW will come.  That is the irony.  Again, what makes the Armed Services different is the fact that human lives are on the line.  It’s one thing to get a policy wrong and play “what if” games that cannot be proven or disproven.  It is quite another to see dead soldiers and do the same thing.  It can be torture for the insecure leader and sometimes even the secure leader.  I think the question is best answered by reviewing just how much effort – or, more precisely, how much critical thinking – went into the 3-5 year plans.  Some leaders mistake “time spent on the effort” with “critical thinking spent on the effort.”

Q4.  It has been noted that all branches of the US military use an After Action Review (AAR) process to analyze their performance after a mission.  The topics discussed encompass what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better next time.  The AAR is focused on creating a clear comparison of what were the intended results versus the actual results.  What are your general thoughts about the AAR?  Where/when have you seen it used well?  Have you witnessed times where it didn’t work?

Weber: I would dare say that AT LEAST half of the hundreds and hundreds of AAR’s I’ve seen in my career are conducted poorly – even with an “observer controller” present to help referee.  Incidentally, you made one of the most common errors in asking the question above: you left out “What was your plan?”  During the AAR, participants often FLY past the plan, as if it’s irrelevant now that it’s been executed.  If it’s not part of your AAR process, beg the question: if the planning and the plan aren’t important in the AAR, then why should we even do it in the first place and where would the “intended results” come from?  Personally, I think too many leaders short change the plan/planning phase by waving the flag of “there will be errors anyway” as they proceed into execution without the critical thinking mentioned earlier.

I think the AAR is a beautiful tool, when used properly.  I think they are used best when an “observer controller” (OC) can be used to referee the four points of the AAR.  Ideally the OC is someone who was not involved in planning or execution.  In some settings it’s best to have OC’s rotate into such a role from a previous role as follower or leader.  This rotation not only builds empathy for each of the positions, it provides an incentive amongst all participants to be as even handed as possible in their critique and their questions.  Senior mentors also help to ensure that when everyone appears to be going too easy on each other, the honest or divisive questions actually get asked.

What are the attributes needed for a good OC?  Martha Raddatz (@MarthaRaddatz) was a great example during the VP debate!  She wasn’t there just to ask questions (or vague ones at that).  She was there to press specific answers, and to guide participants back to the subject matter if they strayed off topic which is another one of the most common mistakes in AAR.  Why do leaders do this?  Ego!  Forget politics now.  No one wants to be wrong; excuses and blame will always slip into the conversation!  That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, per se, but it is bad when you’re trying to get to the heart of what is ailing your team’s efforts!

Food For Thought:

  • Are your organization’s leaders mature in their understanding of the importance of learning from failure?
  • How many Fortune 500 companies go through the same rigor of an AAR in examining their failure?  How many of them are outside of manufacturing industry?
  • How is success/failure defined in your organization’s strategic planning?
  • Does your organization examine failures?  Do you use the role of the Observer Controller (OC) in facilitating the discussion?

LINK – Lt Col. Mark Weber has published a new book Tell My Sons that is available now for pre-orders and will begin shipping December 10, 2012.

VIDEO – Gen. Martin E. Dempsey awards Army Lt. Col. Mark Weber the Legion of Merit medal at his an End of Service ceremony on August 16th, 2012.


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