Failure is an important part of any career…but only if you learn from it. I’ll admit that I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by fantastic leaders throughout my career. But no amount peripheral talent can eliminate the bumpy learning curve that accompanies a life of military service. As such, I have found failure despite their best efforts. This post is but a snippet of those failures.
“You’re a No Go, Ranger.”
I had the pleasure of being a Ranger School student in the winter, so life was miserable. (Truth be told, it’s Ranger School…life is always miserable.) I had made it through Benning and Mountain phases without quitting, although I thought about it daily. And Florida was shaping up to be a relative breeze. It was the last phase, what could go wrong?
If you’re not familiar with the course, there’s a point in the 10-day Florida phase field exercise when the instructors withhold the rations for the day. The normal allotment is about 2 MREs per day (which isn’t nearly enough) and they arrive in a morning resupply. Well, on this day the cache of rations “got blown up” and our platoon wasn’t getting any food. Not cool.
We walked all day, tired, pathetic, and more hungry than our exhausted bodies had been at any point in the course. We planned and executed the platoon attack, which took us well into the evening, then marched off to search for our nighttime patrol base miles away. Once we had established it and set up adequate security, the Ranger Instructors surprised us by rolling in with the next day’s rations…PLUS the ones we had missed that morning! We had four…count ‘em 4!…MREs in-hand! And to round out this euphoric moment, they told us to relax our security standards, start a fire in the cold February night, and get some sleep. We were beside ourselves!
The ensuing hours found Rangers inhaling no less than a 1.5 MREs and in some cases I personally witnessed, as many as three full MREs as they lingered by a roaring fire. It was a memorable night, the only “unaccountable” period of my Ranger experience.The sun rose to a patrol base littered with trash and motionless bodies that resembled the latter days of Khe Sahn. MRE trash was everywhere, damp clothes lay by the fire, rucksacks were unpacked and strewn about, and weapons sat unclean from the previous day’s mission.
My esteemed colleagues and I were in varying stages of our glucose-induced comas when the Ranger Instructors darted into the perimeter at 0600 and yelled out the leadership assignments for the day…“Pittman, Whitfield, Wilson, Gerber, Sullivan, Steadman.” Four squad leaders, a platoon leader, and a platoon sergeant. Assuming the final position immediately, I knew the platoon had a long list of administrative and tactical tasks to complete before we even stepped off on the day’s mission.
I tried to rouse the BDU-adorned zombies left over from the calorie apocalypse that had befallen us the night before, but my efforts were futile. I ordered, cajoled, begged, and tried to motivate the sleepy Rangers to get off their butts and get the mission going. Ammo resupply, water resupply, equipment inspection, weapons maintenance, route planning, foxhole repair…none of it had happened by the time the instructors got fed up and threw artillery simulators into the patrol base, prompting our immediate and frenzied exit.
I had failed to display any of the leadership qualities which would have led to a successful mission, in Ranger School or in combat. It was so bad that the instructor didn’t even use the words “No Go.” Instead, he said in a matter of fact tone, “Yeah, that was horrible. You know what you got, right?”
I did. A No Go, which presented me the opportunity to repeat the experience three weeks later as a recycle (although I was 15 pounds heavier after discovering that the Gator Lounge had an endless supply of Ben & Jerry’s). I was crushed, and considered quitting. Again, if we’re being honest here, I had thought about quitting almost every day of that course. Two months earlier, standing in the cold, shivering, I remember trying to force my leg to begin the 30 foot journey to the Instructors’ tent to give it all up. I tried to will my boot forward but thankfully my body was smarter than my mind at that moment and I stayed put.
A recycle in Ranger School is a tough thing to reconcile. A “Day Zero” Recycle (that is, a chance to start over at the very beginning of the course) is an almost unfathomable travesty. This type of failure, however, is perfectly applicable to combat. Every day in Ranger School is an exercise in resilience and fortitude. You suffer right up to the breaking point, and then something happens that challenges that breaking point and pits it against the will to continue and get the Tab. What you think is the absolute boundary of your comfort zone is just the buffer to new phase of suffering. And so you must suck it up and keep walking.
It is exactly this mindset of endurance that makes good combat leaders, and why the Ranger Course is so valuable. Conditions change unexpectedly. Storms scratch the jump. Resupplies fail to arrive. The enemy employs reinforcements. The deployment jumps from 12 to 15 months. You name it. Combat has plenty of curve balls, and the best leaders remain flexible as those curve balls come in. They see them not as obstacles but as waypoints on the road to some different version of success.
Questions for Leaders
- How has failure shaped you to become the leader you are today?
- What failures did you see as travesties at the time, but were grateful for later?
- In what ways could you incorporate honest feedback about your leadership performance to inspire growth?
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