The Pacific Campaign of World War II was the greatest naval war ever seen. The names of Chester Nimitz, “Bull” Halsey, Arleigh Burke, and nearly countless others will ring through history for generations. These naval leaders were so great in part because they were incredibly aggressive and willing to take the risks necessary to sail directly into harm’s way and face a peer – if not superior – adversary at sea. Since winning WWII, the Navy has not been seriously challenged at sea, so there has been no need to take great risk for the potential of great gain. This has resulted in the aggressive and tenacious culture necessary to confront a peer or near peer adversary gradually dwindling. That void has been filled with the need to continuously mitigate risk, and this culture has expanded far beyond tactical risk taking to include taking risks which could adversely affect someone’s career.

The result has been developing a stagnating case of atychiphobia – the fear of failure. This affliction has been taking hold culturally since the conclusion of WWII and has now spread to virtually uncontrollable levels. The current system does not give any permission to fail. Not even a little. This removes a valuable learning mechanism from the professional development of leaders. The emphasis placed on leadership development from the earliest stages of training focuses on preventing mistakes and risk mitigation. Risk is too often associated with recklessness. While aggressiveness and calculated risk taking can be necessary to win a conflict, recklessness has no place on the battlefield. Reckless leaders may succeed in the short term through sheer chance, but recklessness will ultimately bring failure throughout sustained operations. Properly mitigating risk is essential to good operations, but when it becomes the mantra of an entire career, or worse, that of an entire organization, it quenches virtually any chance of professional invention or innovation.

Learning Instead of Failing
History has many examples of failure being essential to learning. Thomas Edison’s quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” referencing his repeated attempts to invent the light bulb, is quoted much more extensively. But when discussing leadership development, Mark Twain probably described it better when he said that “good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.” So many great minds have proclaimed that they have learned more through failure than success. The most robust professional development does not come through repeated success but through the proper recovery after failure. Organizations and individuals who fear failure to debilitating levels cannot learn or learn at rates so slow that they effectively stagnate and are surpassed by ones who are willing to fail, learn, and adapt.

What does failing even mean? Is it not getting the specific results that were expected? Is it results which have an adverse effect on an individual or an organization? Is it adverse effects which result in the termination of an individual or organization? There are many degrees of what people refer to as failure, but the professional view within the Navy tends toward the extreme that anything which is not perfect must be a failure. A false claim has been made that this impossibly high standard drives everyone to strive for perfection, and as a result moves the organization forward. This is illogical. True perfection is impossible, so the only alternative to avoiding failure and adversely affecting a career is to generate the illusion of perfection. To have the illusion of perfection, one does not have to accomplish great or even good tasks. All they must do is avoid negative marks on their record. This directly drives an apprehension to doing anything and is a perfect recipe for stagnation. This removes all chance of the inventiveness and creativity necessary to move an organization forward.

Sorting Instead of Failing
Failure is viewed as a very strong word with clearly negative connotations. No one wants to be a failure, but is not being selected for the next milestone on a certain career path always truly failing? Can this not simply be finding one of the things that do not work? Hopefully it does not take 10,000 attempts to find the career that someone is best suited for, but failing can be a healthy part of the process. Everyone cannot be good at everything, but virtually everyone is good at something. The only way to know is to try something and see if it works out. If it does not then it is time to try something else. Someone who is not suited for a particular job within the Navy is most likely not a bad person, they have just not found what they excel at. Instead of a failure, it should be viewed as an opportunity to try and find what fits.

If no one takes risks and everyone just shoots for the average, it becomes virtually impossible to determine who is good at what. The sorting function is unable to perform as necessary. Through the selection process bad commanders will slip through and potentially good commanders will not be recognized. There is also the added disadvantage of robbing a potentially good commander of the valuable lessons they may require from some healthy failures in their professional development. These are lessons that they could bring with them to command and as a result make the entire force stronger.

The cultural shift toward atychiphobia was gradual and unintentional. It was not the conscious decision of a few within leadership, but instead the natural tendency of an organization on the top of its field. For over half of a century the United States has had the privilege of possessing the greatest Navy that the world has ever seen, but history has proven time and time again that all glory is fleeting. Aggressive and tenacious leaders wielded a fleet which was fueled by American technological innovation. The present day fleet is full of many technological innovations. One can only hope a lack of aggressive tenacity bred from a fear of failure will not bring a fall from glory.

Posted by LT Jason Chuma in Navy

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  • Zack Howitt

    I very much agree with the majority of your thoughts. A lot of times assuming the right kind of “risk” may be compounded with other pressures, perceived as “failures” and the “wrong” kind of risk.

    Lets take the example of a ship that has been tasked with executing a couple different underway evolutions, one after each other. Lack of sleep and alertness to the crew may pose a real safety problem. The CO is the only one that can assume this risk. But if he doesn’t assume the risk, he has to call the Commodore and try to explain to him why he can’t complete the mission. There’s a counter-pressure here – and many would see calling up the Commodore as a worse thing to face than just doing the evolutions. If the evolutions are called off, the Commodore could think the CO is incompetent, especially if other COs are fine with doing the evolution, and it could ultimately turn into a loss of confidence and a hit on the CO’s FITREP.

    Ultimately, a truly good leader would set a positive command climate and would enable subordinates to assume the right kind of risk. But the bottom line is that this type of leadership does not always produce the greatest tangible results… thus this truly effective and common-sense leader may not be recognized and promoted upwards. These same types of situations occur throughout the entire rank structure. If your E-1 is afraid to speak up because they might get yelled at for saying something dumb, it may indicate a problem several orders up the CoC.