Stories of Failure – “That time I made my FRG Leader cry.”

Know this…the demands of being a leader put you on a path to break someone’s heart. Meetings and phone calls, requirements and taskings, emails and paperwork. They serve as culturally-legitimized distractions that can divert leaders from seeing and doing the right thing. And if you don’t sort through the sea of busywork to identify the glass balls, soldiers and families can get hurt. It took an ugly failure to teach me that lesson.


Tiffany Smiley holds her youngest son while watching her husband Capt. Scott M Smiley salute the colors during the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Unit at West Point change of command ceremony Feb 1. U.S. Army photo by Tommy Gilligan.

Rear Detachment Time

This third post in the failure series is a pretty low moment in my career as a leader. I hesitate to publish the story because it’s personally embarrassing, but I feel the lesson is worth sharing.

In 2003, I was the Battalion Adjutant when the Battalion Commander directed me to serve as the Rear Detachment Commander for the unit’s 9 month deployment to Iraq. (For the non-military readers, this just means that my boss put me in charge of the ~100 soldiers who did not deploy to Iraq, as well as the unit activities required to support the unit’s ~700 deployed soldiers and their families.)

As any former rear detachment commander will tell you, it’s not an enviable job. I had to stay home while the unit deployed to do the very thing we had trained to do:  fight and win. Rear detachment life is filled with paperwork, logistics, and family-related crises. I worked closely with the unit leaders’ spouses to support the battalion’s Family Readiness Group (FRG). My small team and I assisted the FRG in everything from fundraising to planning holiday parties to delivering food to families in need. Compared to deploying with the troops, rear detachment is not exciting.

But what I realize now (and what my commander tried to emphasize to me then) is that rear detachment command is a critical function for the unit. I had direct influence over our soldiers’ highest priority:  their families. A poor rear detachment will distract the deployed unit leaders and taint the Army family experience for years to come, potentially even pushing soldiers to leave the military. It was three months into my duty when I failed these families.

Deployed at Christmas

Mary* was the unit’s FRG Leader and the battalion commander’s wife. Mary was a saint with an irrepressibly positive attitude and a gentle way of guiding the unit’s families (and me) in the right direction. We talked almost daily and our duties overlapped in every aspect.

After some successful fundraising, Mary asked if we could use the money to make Christmas stockings then ship them to the unit’s soldiers. It was a fantastic idea and I agreed to help. All they had to do was prepare the boxes and I’d take care of the shipping. So, Mary and a dozen spouse leaders spent an entire weekend hand-making the stockings from old donated uniforms and got them ready to send.

On Sunday evening, they piled about 30 boxes in an office in the headquarters building, complete with shipping labels. The only remaining task was for me and the rear detachment team to take the to the post office and pay postage. This was mid-November, plenty of time to get the stockings there for Christmas.

Sacrificing the Important for the Urgent

Thanksgiving rolled by and I didn’t see Mary for a few weeks. The work of running the rear detachment had piled up, we had several more injured soldiers to respond to, and frankly, I got busy. I got sucked into knocking down “5 meter targets” and got distracted. So distracted in fact, that come mid-December, I hadn’t even noticed that the pile of boxes containing handmade Christmas stockings had not moved in 30 days.

One day, Mary happened to stop by the headquarters building and turned the corner to discover the Christmas boxes still sitting there, right where she and the other spouses had left them…and not in Iraq where they should’ve been. I walked out of my office to greet her and met a sullen face welling up with tears. She said, “Are those our Christmas stockings?”

In a nanosecond I was mortified, humiliated, humbled, and centered. She and the other families had entrusted me with fulfilling this heartfelt expression of their deep love for their deployed soldiers…and I completely blew it. Mary didn’t say anything else. She didn’t have to. I apologized profusely and leapt into action to get those packages to the post office, an act I could’ve personally executed weeks before or easily delegated to someone else.

It’s not like I had prioritized other important matters over that commitment. The FRG didn’t simply get outmatched by “operational requirements.” No, I had let the trivial outweigh the important. Consequently, I had eroded the trust that was so vital to enduring the deployment together.

Some of the packages got there by December 25th…most did not.

Busyness Blinds

So, what I mentioned in the first sentence actually came to be:  the demands of being a leader put me on a path to break someone’s heart, and I didn’t change course.

The flood of requirements, taskings, briefings, incidents, and administrivia make it necessary for leaders to actively discern the no-fail tasks from the routine. Shipping those boxes was a no-fail task and for a number of trivial reasons, I missed it. The critical mistake was that I failed to let a moment of empathy override the daily busywork, thus allowing me to understand how important this project was for the families.

Without setting off on a monologue about productivity, I think asking this question is a good litmus test for identifying the no-fail tasks:

Has someone you trust or depend on made a significant emotional,
financial, or relational investment in the situation?
Would their trust in you be at risk if you didn’t complete the task?

If so, you should make it an immediate priority. Organizations depend on leaders to define reality and prioritize activity. Leaders make decisions about what is important and what is not. As such, leaders need to be free enough from distraction to recognize when no-fail requirements arise, then take immediate action.

Questions for Leaders

  • How effective is your routine/procedure/system for identifying the critical tasks from the mundane?
  • Have you identified those around you who deserve your unmitigated attention and response?
  • What is your personal method for drawing lessons from failure? Are you even in the mindset to do so?

If you want a fantastic book about identifying the highest priority and saying no to everything else, check out Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Have you experienced a hard lesson that personally impacted others? If you’re willing, please share it in a comment below.

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*Mary is not her real name.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Claudio Alpaca

    we may ,on our activity, mistake, that is sure. But by mistakes we try a lesson that improve us and our ledaership. when REAR detachement commanders we have to support, logistically and morally, either important and vital, the men on front, the men deployed for combat and fight enemy and this our activity is an aspect of high relevance, for by our men try autostime and a support they need like fresh air. Sometime we, on planifying all what is required on such our activity, may involuntarly loss one of the more relevant aspects, that of send packages containing materials for holidays such us thanksgivings or Christmas, not reflecting than that is vital for the moral of the men we support, for boost their lymph, their will and improve their ability. It is possible that the more adminstratif required acts may dominate our mind and make us unable to priotitize and so is for us avvilent. We are so mortified by, to feel like a sensation of inutility or unability and, reflecting on, we search to make of mistake a lesson, asking forgiveness to their families, to them when came back and reflect how our leadership is not made only by orders to done, discipline to require, ability to train and improve, but also by a phsycologic ability to be with our men when deployed and follow them on a moral manner, with a support not only logistic or related to operations, but inherent their skill and their necessity to feel the leader presences also at distance, to feel they are followed as we was with them, they are extimated and considered more than only a warriors. We must make them sure they are humanily supported and appreciated, they have to understand they are lead by us and we live with all their operations. That is the lesson we receive by our mistakes and also the lesson we try by them, the men we live for and lead, being aware they are, all, singularly and collectively, followed, supported, appreciated and that our leadership find on them and on that his reason, the principal our reason, to be and exist. We apologize for have had sometimes such weak knowledge of our moral duty and try by a new force, that make us able to never avoid any aspect of our leadership, to never avoid to be near our men also when deployed far by us, for we have to make visible our presence on all the ways possible. claudio alpaca