I was speaking this past fall to a group of cadets and midshipmen, young college students bound for military careers. They asked me to talk a little about my career and what I’d learned along the way.
After pausing and thinking for a minute, I realized the three events that swam into focus were all moments of failure. Yet from each of them I learned something valuable that I still carry around in my mind.
The first was when I was a very young lieutenant and assigned as the Electrical Officer on board an old aircraft carrier, FORRESTAL. This was in 1980, and the ship was in terrible material condition. As was typical for the Navy in those years, drug use was rampant. I walked into the engineering spaces one Monday morning and found a large, cylindrical piece of equipment, about 20 feet in height, painted like a can of Schlitz beer. I had nearly 200 Sailors working for me and probably a third of them had significant disciplinary problems.
Predictably enough, and despite all of my efforts to impose order and improve conditions, we failed a big engineering inspection. I was devastated and felt I’d let down my ship and my captain.
Fortunately, I had a commanding officer who believed in second chances. He understood the depth of the challenges we faced, listened when I took responsibility for the failure, validated and resourced my plan to recover, and supported me strongly in applying forceful discipline by sending me a top chief petty officer to take charge on the deck plates.
I learned the power of second chances, and I’ve remained a strong believer in giving people a chance to improve and try again.
The second incident was years later when I was a captain, myself, of a wonderful new guided missile destroyer, BARRY. The ship was a marvel of modern technology, full of talented Sailors, and well-led by a fine wardroom of officers and an excellent chief petty officers’ mess. We were widely regarded as one of the top ships on the waterfront and had recently received accolades for our combat readiness and retention records.
One of the final tests we had to do before a six-month deployment to the Arabian Gulf was an engineering inspection for which I felt we were exceedingly well prepared. After a morning of tests in port, we got the ship underway and headed out to sea for underway engineering trials. Unfortunately, as we increased to top speed, the lubricating oil in the main engine began to show signs of massive contamination, indicating some kind of major internal casualty.
We were forced to stop and lock the engine shaft and were then ingloriously brought back into port with the assistance of tugs. Obviously the engineering inspection was terminated as a failure. Although it was clearly an “act of God,” the embarrassment and humiliation of being dragged back into port was acute.
Over the next couple of days, as we worked feverishly to repair the casualty (a salt water leak intruding into the oil coolant system) what raised my spirits was the support of my peers. Many of my fellow sea captains on the waterfront found time to call, express their sympathy, offer the help of their engineers, and generally buck up my spirits. It meant the world to me.
I learned how important peer support is to us all. I work very hard today to build strong peer relationships, support my peers wherever I can, and especially reach out to peers when they face adversity.
The third and final experience I mentioned to the cadets and midshipmen occurred when I was a newly selected rear admiral and in command of ENTERPRISE Carrier Strike Group. We were embarked in ENTERPRISE and preparing for a deployment to the Arabian Gulf. One of the key tests that each carrier strike group must undergo is the certification of the carrier air wing for “blue water” operations. An essential part of this is achieving a very high completion rate for landing aircraft safely and smoothly on the flight deck.
For a variety of reasons, we were having trouble passing this crucial test. My carrier air wing commander tried many different techniques to improve the boarding rate of the aircraft, but we were not improving and the deployment date was looming. We held endless meetings, analyzed all the data, tapped my senior aviator chief of staff, and studied all the bad landings – but could not complete the certification successfully.
The four-star admiral who was the fleet commander was very worried about our problems, because the ship would not be eligible to deploy on time without the “blue water certification.” He asked me what I’d done to correct the problem and I went through the litany. The admiral bluntly told me I was failing and that this certification was crucial.
He asked me about outside impressions of the process and I realized we had not sought out help from beyond the Strike Group – I’d been too internally focused and felt we should solve our own problems.
The admiral quickly suggested several organizations that could send teams to look at our problems, and directed resources so we could get the outside help. With that intensive outside help, we were able to certify literally on the last possible day and went on to a successful deployment.
I learned that there are times when you need to reach outside your organization for expert help, and that doing that sooner rather than later makes a lot of sense. Outside help does not connote weakness, but is instead an indication of a full spectrum approach to problem solving.
The subtext in all of this, of course, is that we will all experience occasional failure in our lives and careers. I sought to convey to the young men and women not to fear or be surprised when they fail, because such failure is neither unexpected nor seldom fatal.
The true measure of any life is how we react when something goes wrong; and in the end, the challenges we overcome will form the successes that really matter in our lives.
Admiral James Stavridis
U.S. European Command