Great Organizations Fail so Why Can’t Your Surbodinates?



Great organizations rarely succeed without failing at least once. For example, only one undefeated team, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, has won the National Football League Super Bowl. The rest of the Super Bowl winners, 49 including this year, failed at some point during the season. Another sport, National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division I Basketball, features two teams in recent memory, the 2014 Wichita State Shockers and the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats, that had perfect seasons going into the March tournament but both failed to complete the perfect season. A question to pose is “Do organizations need to fail in order to find their true identity?”, or put another way “Is failure a pre-requisite, at some level, in order to achieve greatness?” Some may point to Floyd Mayweather and Rocky Marciano as individuals who both remained undefeated while achieving greatness. However, those were individual feats. Organizations, however, involve a wide variety of individuals and require a unified effort in order to achieve at the organizational level. Individual feats within an organization may actually make it become one-dimensional and therefore limit the organizations potential. Due to the number of individuals involved and their differing levels of abilities or talent, organizations will likely meet failure at some point. The leaders involved in these organizations must address what change must occur because of the failure(s) in order to achieve the organization’s highest potential. Without a confluence of ideas and change of direction, the organization may continue on a path that would ensure or encourage repeated failures.

Outside of the sports arena, business leaders demonstrate this principle well. Bill Gates had a company before Microsoft called Traf-O-Data that sought to analyze data from traffic tapes. The company and the process were a complete failure but Gates continued to work on his ideas until Microsoft was developed. George Steinbrenner actually bankrupted a team, the Cleveland Pipers, before owning the Yankees and helping them win six World Series between 1996 and 2003. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper due to lack of creativity and his first company, Laugh-O-Gram films, failed to make a profit. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company, Apple, and only after making a competitor, NeXT, that Apple acquired, was he placed back into positions of leadership.

Each of these large companies faced failure at some point in their history but the organization was able to overcome that failure because of the leadership of individuals within the organization. Few consumers remember one of Microsoft’s greatest product flops, Microsoft Bob, which was a user-friendly interface for Window computers in 1995. The project was too ambitious, required too much hardware for the typical computer at the time, and, as a result, the market could not support such a product. Bill Gates pulled the product from Microsoft’s lineup a year later in response. Taking chances, failing, and then reassessing the direction forward are essential to the growth of large organizations. This ability to take chances and then to learn from them is one of the aspects that can make organization’s great; yet, this also requires someone in the leadership who has also faced, and overcome, failure. By having someone in a leadership position that has faced failure, the organization’s failure is placed into context. The failure now has meaning and proper direction instead of just accepting facts or assigning blame. Therefore, if the experience of failure by an individual within the leadership is essential to organizations becoming great once they fail, why do certain units within an organization push a zero-defect mentality?

Every leader is guilty of a zero-defect mentality at some point. The failures of a subordinate are viewed as extreme and dealt with in a fashion that does not embrace learning. The subordinate that failed now has a sour taste in regards to the rest of the organization and the negative image can seep into other areas of performance. Most leaders realize what they, and their actions, are doing to their subordinates and, after only a couple of instances; they change their approach to failure. Instead of resorting to anger, browbeating, or overly dominant behavior, the leader must learn to slow down, listen to the individual’s failure, help them mend any damage created, and then learn from the failure. This approach may be easier said than done. This approach must also be modified in certain instances, such as a failure that results in injury or death where a more forceful response is warranted. In addition, at the extreme, there are instances in which complete termination from the organization is warranted because of the grievous nature of the offense.

These times of forceful responses and termination are fairly rare in regards to the spectrum of failures. Most failures are in mundane tasks that have little impact on the organization’s success but can serve as a learning point for that individual. In some organizations, all failures are seen in one light; the extreme case which results in forceful response or termination. This zero-defect mentality has toxic effects within the current organization for the immediate future but it also deprives the individuals who will become the future executives of essential growth and learning by experiencing failure. By allowing subordinates to fail, in a controlled manner, and then facilitating a learning process after the fact, the leader may be to exercise one of the most effective tools for developing leadership. As Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” In this New Year, realize that within the spectrum of failure, there are many types of mistakes and very few of them require a harsh approach. Rather, use those instances as learning points in order to develop the future leader of your organization and provide the organization a potential leader to weather a future storm of failure.

What is your Command Philosophy?


Eisenhower’s D-Day Message. Wonder what his command philosophy was during those times?

“The underlying philosophy of leaders has a significant impact on the way they relate to others, attempt to influence others, judge the actions of others, and make decisions affecting others. Most leadership theories, however, neglect this factor.

  • Steven J. Mayer, Ph.D., “Leadership Philosophy”

You are taking command next week. What do you want to accomplish? Do you have any idea? Your past company commanders said they had a philosophy but you never saw it in practice. Another wrote a group of words on the board to guide the company but it stopped at that point. Other company commanders have appeared as natural leaders and guided their companies effectively. How do you model your approach after those that make company command appear effortless? How do you communicate your intent for the long-term success of the company without confusing people or making promises that can never come to fruition?

Every soon-to-be company commander struggles with one aspect before taking command: what will my leadership philosophy be? Phrased a different way, what is my command philosophy? This one piece is the guiding vision for the entire organization and gives insight for the subordinates into how the boss works; yet, the Army does not give a clear-cut example of how this looks. Instead, the army says leadership is “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization” (ADP 6-22). This broad, but vague, definition of leadership serves to inform the soon-to-be company commander of what their role in the organization is supposed to be but does not give them an example upon which to build. Instead, the young officer relies on experiences and the advice of those they consider mentors in order to develop their own personal command philosophy. Below is one such venture by a young captain graduating from a career course with the knowledge that he will take command soon.

The pre-command captain begins the conversation by detailing his current understanding of a command philosophy by stating, “My Command Philosophy encompasses three main tenets within the overall umbrella of honor. If a Soldier is honorable, he will act accordingly. Honor is the basis of all other values. Honor means that a Soldier does what is right all the time, not just when it is easy. The focus is on seeing honor applied in the following ways: Leadership by example, taking care of Soldiers, and integrity.”

The captain continues by explaining his first tenet, leadership by example, “The Warrior Ethos states that we will always place the mission first. We receive missions from higher, which are challenging and may take us to the limits of our capacity. The mission, whatever it is, gives us goals to work to accomplish. If we frame everything within the framework of the mission, it gives us a shared goal. Whatever the mission, its ultimate success is predicated on our attitude and commitment. I commit to always be honest with you, my subordinate leaders, but once we are given a task, I will give 100% to exceed the standards to accomplish that mission. If we as leaders commit to each other and to the mission, and raise our Soldiers up with us, there is no limit to what we can accomplish as a team. For the same reason, it is incumbent on each of us as leaders, Soldiers, and adults to take responsibility for our own success. PT, weapons proficiency, and MOS proficiency are, first, an individual’s responsibility. You must commit to your own success. Those who commit to their own success can call me at any hour of the day or night and I will do all in my power to help you. I will invest as much in you as you invest in yourself.”

The captain moves into the next tenet of his philosophy, taking care of Soldiers by stating, “Taking care of Soldiers is not just a catchphrase. We as leaders must follow this mantra. If we are truly committed to our Soldiers, and invested in their lives, there is no need to have mandatory barracks checks, sexual assault prevention training, or equal opportunity training. We owe Soldiers nothing less that the fullest commitment to their success. None of our Soldiers should fear for their safety. Each one of our Soldiers has the potential to be a leader. In addition, we must ask ourselves what we can do to set them up for success in the future. Taking care of Soldiers goes far beyond letting them go early or getting them out of tasks. It means a true investment in their future. Taking care of Soldiers is not just encouraging them to take college courses, but offering to proofread their papers, or helping them study for tests. It is the Soldier’s responsibility to better him or herself in PT, in education, and in advancement. But, they should be absolutely confident that when they need help, we, as their leaders, will make every possible effort to support them.”

Finally, the captain finishes with the last tenet, integrity, “Do the right thing when no one is watching. If you are a hand receipt holder, it is incumbent on you to know, down to the smallest component, what every end item is, as well as to have your hand receipts and shortage annexes up to date. We do not cut corners. Laziness just makes more work for the whole organization. We take care of each other by doing things right the first time so a repeating of the assigned task does not occur.”

At the conclusion of his command philosophy, the captain asks for advice. He believes he has created a good starting point but his experience is limited. His questions for refinement are 1. Should it be more concise? 2. Could it be expanded? 3. What key difficulties arise during the beginning of command? And 4. What other helpful advice for command could be included?

Based upon these questions and a reading of the philosophy, a more experienced company commander responded with the following comments and concerning the questions posed by the new commander and posed some additional questions for the new commander to consider. “A philosophy is akin to a company vision. How do you see the company being able to accomplish day to day operations or in the future? Your philosophy needs to contain both breadth and depth so that the point is clear and does so in a concise manner. Other areas to expand for this command philosophy are trust, leader development, and creating shared understanding.

Trust is the foundation of mission command. A company commander must set clear left and right limits as well as establishing an end state. Within the established parameters, the commander must then trust the subordinate to execute the mission. A commander has to trust that those subordinates will accomplish the mission even if they will not accomplish it in exactly the same way the commander would. Additionally, the subordinates need to trust that if they make a mistake it will not end their career. Trust is a two way street. Commanders must trust subordinates to accomplish their tasks and they need to trust the commander to support them and their development through careful and thoughtful analysis of any mistakes or shortfalls.

Commanders owe it to their subordinates to develop them and giving tasks is a method to achieve this development. Failure is an acceptable, and even expected, part of development. Learning from mistakes in training ensures that subordinates have the experience to build on in combat. This kind of development occurs on a daily basis whether the subordinates realize it or not. Finally, be honest with subordinates so that they can be honest with the command team. Allow subordinates a stake in the development of an idea such that two-way communication is developed and the subordinates will provide original solutions as well as honest feedback. This last aspect flows into one of the primary challenges faced by all new commanders, building cohesive teams.

Commanders have a short time frame in regards to command and may want to change a lot. Rather than implementing change quickly and angering subordinates, a commander should take a measured approach that includes listening to the subordinates, observing the situation, and making sound decisions off actual data instead of hearsay or rumor. Important to this process of change are the change agents within the company. Individuals such as a platoon sergeant may be the change agents and true power players within the company. By giving those individuals a voice, creating buy-in with the change, and then allowing them to execute, these individuals may create ownership in the change process. By gaining this buy-in and ownership, the commander prevents becoming Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill every day only to see it roll down again.”

With the vagueness of the Army definition of leadership most likely created on purpose in order to give the leader an ability to develop their philosophy in a more personal manner, is this enough advice for this young captain or should there be more included? At the end of the day, if faced with the same request for input, what would your response be?

The Expeditionary Mindset: A Commander’s Perspective



1LT Hubbard disccusing the mission with a company commander from Burkina Faso

“An Officer who doesn’t know his communication and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless”

General George S. Patton

For the last decade, the United States Army has continually deployed in some form or fashion specifically to Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout this process, young noncommissioned officers and officers developed the skills required to deploy a unit and then redeploy; yet, as major engagements end those opportunities presented during the last decade will also dwindle. This presents a problem for the United States Army in that noncommissioned officers and officers at higher levels assume that those at the company level understand deployment operations if the situation requires it. This is a dangerous assumption as evidenced by the now year-old statistics from 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, aligned under AFRICOM in 2014, which showed that 74% of the current E4 and below population had never deployed. Within the junior officer ranks, the statistics were slightly better in that 33% of the population have not deployed; yet, both of these statics get worse daily. Furthermore, the individuals who have not deployed will soon make up the ranks of the noncommissioned officers and company grade officers within the Army. True, units may codify some of these lessons learned, but nothing replaces complex situations faced in real-world situations. Regardless, the overall readiness of the unit exercised through deployment-like situations is lost within the current Army unless a new approach, such as the regionally aligned forces model, is accepted. Hence, assignments, such as regionally aligned forces, allow units to reinforce the readiness of the Army by preparing future leaders to execute mission command at higher levels in other situations.

In June 2014, A/1-28 Infantry faced a unique problem set in preparation for the execution of Western Accord in Senegal, Africa. This problem set asked, “How do we deploy a company from Fort Riley, Kansas to Senegal and operate in an austere environment while maintaining communication, engaging with host nation forces, and conducting training that enhances our mission readiness?” The company was not alone in this undertaking in that brigade staff, reservists, national guardsmen, Marines, and other government agencies came together to accomplish the mission; yet, A/1-28 Infantry provided the majority of the soldiers on ground for the operation. After identifying the problem, the company leadership reduced it to a simple question that fueled the training process from collective training to actual execution, “how do we build the skills congruent with an expeditionary mindset?” This expeditionary mindset was not clearly defined within Army doctrine but, after collaborating with other units, we arrived at the conclusion that an expeditionary mindset is one in which the unit may deploy anywhere in the world to accomplish a variety of missions. Additionally, the conclusion became that in order to prepare and accomplish the expeditionary mindset, our readiness would have to increase. As General Mark Milley, then commanding general of Forces Command (FORSCOM), stated at the 2014 AUSA conference, “Our Number 1 task is readiness. And it is not just readiness according to some [Army Force Generation] cycle. Its readiness now, because we have no earthly idea what will happen a month or two from now.” Most Army units do not understand this concept unless assigned a mission, which forces them to practice this readiness. Granted the Combat Training Centers do stress readiness; yet, units will only go to a Combat Training Center once every two years or if assigned to a mission. Regionally aligned units, though, are afforded the opportunity to practice readiness on a continual basis over the course of their alignment and actually obtain the ability to deploy anywhere in the world on short notice.

The question now became, “what skills are required to develop this readiness which facilitates rapid deployment worldwide?” These skills are those developed prior to a Combat Training Center rotation and then practiced again leading up to an actual deployment. The focus becomes those skills, such as offense and defense, while the other aspects of the rotation such as the administrative and medical components become more of a list to accomplish. This aspect of the rotation, focused on the administrative, medical, and other tasks that occur at the garrison level to allow a Soldier to deploy, is a large component of readiness. Without the forcing function of the Combat Training Center rotation, this component of readiness may never become a focus of the unit. Within the regionally aligned forces model, units have to ensure their formations become deployable due to the unpredictable nature of missions thus increasing readiness. Another aspect of readiness focuses on the formalized training that must occur in order to move units from one location to another. Unit movement officers, HAZMAT officers, and the like, need training to execute their duties multiple times through the alignment. These administrative skills ensure the unit’s success in moving from one area of the world to the next and create experiences for those individuals that may make them better leaders in the future. The final aspect of readiness focuses on the skills required to understand and communicate with the host nation forces in regions that the unit may deploy to within their alignment. These skills center on preparing the unit with the cultural understanding needed for upcoming missions.

4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team accomplished this through a multiple step program that encompassed a variety of resources. One program, the Academic Preparation and Education Program (APEP) or Dragon University, sought to prepare individual Soldiers through providing them with intelligence updates on the region, history of the region and its people, basic language familiarization, host nation armies familiarization, and key leader engagement rehearsals. This program, spread out over two weeks, laid the foundation for other programs to build upon and provided a base from which to build the other aspects of readiness. Within APEP, 4th IBCT brought in local experts from Kansas State University and Fort Leavenworth who shared their experiences and knowledge. This cultural understanding manifested itself in Western Accord by A/1-28 IN’s Soldiers living with Soldiers from Burkina Faso and watching the U.S. v. Ghana World Cup Soccer game with an engineer platoon from Ghana. These were not forced opportunities, but ones that came naturally because Soldiers felt comfortable with these host nation forces. This comfort stemmed from the cultural training conducted at home station prior to the deployment. Concerning language training and its impact on readiness, native speakers were instrumental to the overall success of the mission. Formalized language training to the entire group takes away from readiness due to the complexities of learning a new language so the best solution was to utilize those that already possessed the necessary skills. In the future, integration of linguists would assist in this aspect of readiness. Finally, training such as non-standard weapons, IED defeat, and high frequency radios allowed the Soldiers to exercise skills not stressed at CTC rotations. Each facet needs further refinement but, without the external stressor of the regionally aligned deployment, AAR comments would not surface in order to provide the refinement required.

The end result of the train up for regionally aligned forces and the quest for readiness is that each situation becomes a leadership laboratory focused on the Sergeant and Company Grade Officers that otherwise would not be stressed outside of the Combat Training Center rotation. The regionally aligned forces model provides real world experiences that demand innovative, adaptive, and creative thinkers. These thinkers fit the model of what our Army demands in mission command. Hence, the regionally aligned forces model reinforces the readiness of the Army by preparing future leaders to execute mission command at higher levels in other situations. For instance, during Western Accord A/1-28 IN deployed a company to Senegal, conducted a platoon live fire on unknown terrain with a platoon leader who had never conducted a platoon live fire before, and then integrated host nation units into that same live fire while overcoming differences in tactics and languages. This experience gained further reinforcement by incorporating more host nation armies together and conducting a company situational training exercise with a host nation commander in charge of the operation. Thus, the regionally aligned forces model supports the Army by ensuring that the future leaders of the Army continue to execute agile and adaptive solutions to unique problems while increasing overall readiness and executing an expeditionary mindset. This investment in the future of the Army ensures that future noncommissioned officers and company grade officers are prepared to understand the intricacies concerning sustainment, communication, and deployment operations that are essential to winning our nation’s wars.