Not too long ago, I asked each Officer on our team to submit a short essay on a topic of their choice. Many good thought pieces were submitted and this one was ideally suited for this particular forum. Though the author has given permission to share his work, he has asked that I refrain from mentioning his name, as he prefers to maintain a low profile. The opportunity to lead with professionals who share this message remains a true pleasure and is the primary reason the current chapter of Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command’s story is so amazing.
Failing Our Way to Success:
The Power of Mindset and Choosing to Learn From Failure
Many years ago, a young Naval Officer assumed command of a destroyer. Even in that generation, when it was common for junior officers to assume command early in their careers, it was unprecedented for such a young officer to be given so much responsibility. However, this junior officer was special. His superiors were confident that he was destined for greatness.
One evening, as his ship pulled into a harbor, this young officer decided to forgo taking proper bearings and “eye-balled” his approach. Furthermore, he also elected not to check the tide direction, assuming he had plenty of clearance. The loud screeching sound and abrupt halt to the ship’s forward momentum suggested otherwise. He had run the ship aground on a mud bank and could not shake it free. Realizing he was stuck until the tide shifted, he ordered that a cot be brought up to the bridge so he could take a nap. In the morning, a tug boat finally pulled the destroyer free.
The officer was court-martialed and found guilty of “neglect of duty” and “hazarding a ship.” He was relieved of command. Thirty-seven years and 56 days from the day of the incident, he sat across from me in an insurance office (where he worked) and tried to talk me out of joining the Navy. He cited his personal experience as an example of how quickly good officers could be discarded by a Navy that has no tolerance for failure.
I tell this story because it is NOT true. All the details up to the court-martial are in fact true, but the outcome was different. Thirty-seven years and 56 days after running his ship aground, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was NOT in an insurance office trying to talk me out of joining the Navy. He was on the deck of the USS Missouri, signing Japan’s Instrument of Surrender to signal the end of World War II. Yes, one of the greatest leaders in the history of the U.S. Navy had committed the unforgivable sin of all Naval Officers at one point in his career.
Many will wonder which “Sea Daddy” in high places allowed Nimitz to survive such a catastrophic failure. But that would be missing the point. For the rest of his career, Nimitz cited the running aground incident as evidence that a single failure should not be used to define an officer. It is what the officer chooses to DO with failure that matters. Nimitz didn’t just recover from his failure and quietly put it behind him; he reminded others of it and allowed it to shape him throughout his career.
There is a less well-known Nimitz story from the same ship he ran aground. During one terrible storm, the Chief Engineer stumbled to the bridge and announced that the ship was flooding and may capsize soon. Nimitz reportedly stated “just look on page 84 of Barton’s Engineering Manual – it will tell you what to do.”
Both of these stories illustrate why Nimitz succeeded. He knew a) that he must own and learn from his failures, and b) that hard work mattered more than natural talent. He knew that embracing his biggest failure would make him a better Officer and so he did it. He knew that reading Barton’s Engineering Manual would make him a better Officer and so he did that as well.
The fundamental lessons of success that Admiral Nimitz displayed so dramatically have been empirically validated by several researchers in the field of Psychology, most notably Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University. In a series of studies conducted with school age children, Dweck empirically verifies the importance of one’s mindset to achieving long-term success.
Dweck characterizes individuals in two broad categories: those with a “fixed mindset” and those with a “growth mindset.” The fixed mindset individual believes all people are endowed with a certain amount of natural ability and that success is solely dependent on fulfilling that natural potential. For fixed mindset individuals, failure means you have achieved the extent of your potential. If you have to study and work hard to pass a test, it must mean you are not as good as a student who can ace tests without putting in any effort whatsoever. With this mindset, if you fail, particularly while trying hard, it means you are not smart or naturally gifted enough.
In contrast, the “growth mindset” individual believes that ability is fluid and can be developed through hard work and a healthy view of failure. Growth mindset individuals believe that failure is simply a challenge that can be overcome.
Dweck’s research showed that students with a fixed mindset were more likely to cheat and lie about their test scores, inflating them to appear more naturally gifted. Growth mindset students were more likely to persist even when confronted with failure and dramatically outperformed the fixed mindset students over time.
The military has traditions that, on the surface, appear to promote a healthy attitude toward failure. After Action Reviews are documented for future generations to learn the lessons of previous units and drive long-term improvement. However, there is a dark side to these processes. These documented failures are often accompanied by destroyed careers; Officers who make big mistakes are often not given a chance to learn from them. Indeed, Officers in the modern era are groomed to deflect, hide, and willfully ignore their own failures. A friend of mine once summed up his Officer experience: “it’s not about how good you do, it’s about how bad you don’t do.”
It can be easy to descend into fatalism and say that the modern day Navy does not allow for a growth mindset. However, the Navy was no different in Nimitz’s era. Whether or not he stayed in the Navy was less important to Nimitz than allowing his terrible mistake to make him a better person. He knew he could turn his failure into long-term excellence, whether it was in the U.S. Navy or some other profession. The Navy recognized the value of his mindset and decided to keep him.
We have a choice as Officers how we build our own mindset.
- Will we promote a growth mindset in our team, division, or department?
- Will we choose to let the fixed mindset culture that is so prevalent in our Navy shape us as people?
- Or will we step forward, embrace both our success and failure, and lead.