In our present environment of force shaping actions and an increasing expectation to do more with less, the idea exists that perfection is expected. While excellence remains one of our core values, our heritage is wrought with leaders, who are both men and women, great and small, that questioned the status quo and were not afraid to make mistakes, nor push the envelope. Leaders at every level sometimes need to be reminded that it’s OK to make mistakes. Leaders who foster an environment that allows mistakes, in noncritical areas, realize the benefits of innovation, as well as personal and professional growth for those involved.
Inherent in our culture is the expectation to lead. Even at the lowest tier Airmen lead each other through peer-to-peer interaction. Our sister service shares this sentiment in Army Field Manual 22-100 paragraph 1-51, which states, “Anyone who influences others, motivating them to action or influencing their thinking or decision making, is a leader … There are, obviously, many leaders in an organization, and it’s important to understand that you don’t just lead subordinates — you lead other leaders. Even at the lowest level, you are a leader of leaders.”
Leaders are most remembered for their great ideas, passion, vision and work ethic. John Wooden once said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” This same work ethic led Thomas Edison to create more than 10,000 prototypes before developing a commercially viable light bulb. He considered his mistakes by stepping on stones that would inevitably lead to innovation. This willingness to make mistakes allowed him to literally change the way we see our world. These same mistakes that lead to innovation of new processes and improved technology also improve our people.
Great leaders allow their Airmen the freedom to make mistakes and view those mistakes as learning opportunities. On the other hand, great Airmen take responsibility, fix the mistake, and put safeguards in place to ensure the mistake is not repeated. This very process results in a shift in perspective. At the lowest level, completing these steps would result in deeper perspective by not just executing a task or mission, but by thinking through the plan, visualizing second and third order effects, and creating contingency plans to avoid a similar mistake. Leaders that foster this type of environment project a sense of service to others, a confidence in the abilities of others, and a sense of humility that allows them to admit their own mistakes. In my opinion, an embodiment of this idea is retired Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers. At the time of retirement, he was the longest-serving member in Air Force history and the longest serving African-American in the history of the Defense Department. As deputy assistant secretary for budget, he would admit problems and mistakes, but always ended with, “We are getting better every day.”
True leaders empower and support their people by decentralizing many mission execution decisions and allowing them to make mistakes in non-critical areas. This environment supports creativity resulting in innovative processes, ideas, and technology. Finally, trusting subordinates to make decisions fosters ownership of their programs and processes, a sense of responsibility and better judgment.
Take a moment to ask yourself, “Do I promote this type of environment amongst my peers, subordinates, and superiors?” It may seem counterintuitive and even unreasonable to expect excellence as a result of mistakes made by others, however, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”