Swabs from Echo Company practice sailing techniques on the Thames River, July 31, 2013, as part of the Swab Summer training curriculum. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall)

Leading with Character: Growth Through Failure

“Don’t be upset by failures, they’re part of our growth.”

— Og Mandino

Leading through the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard. Leaders have had to add new skills to their seabag to ease their employees’ fear and keep them motivated. People generally perform according to how they’re measured. If results are all that matters, they’ll focus on nothing else, and hold back from innovative methods for fear of failure. Yet the daily experience of trying new things is what develops people’s expertise and draws out their best ideas.

Encouraging people to learn from failures while celebrating life’s victories, however small, can fuel them day after day, bringing joy and satisfaction from the ordinary things. In his masterpiece Don Quixote, Cervantes captures this perspective well, advising, “The road is better than the inn,” or in more modern language, “Life is about the journey, not the destination.” Leaders who want their people to succeed will bring out the best in them by adopting this perspective.

Looking back, the road to success on my life’s journey was paved with failures. They weren’t huge failures, but persistent, nagging failures sometimes leading me to question my choices. Reporting to the Coast Guard Academy straight out of high school, I could hardly wait to learn how to sail. Growing up near Annapolis, Maryland, I’d always dreamed of sailing, but my family lacked the means. I knew sailing at the Coast Guard Academy would be a dream come true.

One of the first cadet leadership experiences during summer indoctrination training is sailing in the intercollegiate dinghies. I remember thrilling to the core as we marched down to the waterfront and prepared to set sail for the first time. I had a vision, based on witnessing sailboats blissfully gliding along on the Chesapeake Bay, of a wonderful, inspiring experience of freedom in harnessing the wind. I could almost feel the wind in my hair and the cool sea spray on my face. I could see myself earning a spot on the intercollegiate dinghy team.

My dreams were shattered from the moment I first stepped gingerly into my dinghy and sat down on the gunwale. I grabbed for the tiller in one hand and the sheet, which is a line to pull in the sail, in the other, and the dingy seemed to slip right out from under me! I started drifting aimlessly down the river.

My situation only got worse from there. To my chagrin, I spent the entire training session stuck “in irons.” With a mind of its own, the boat defeated my efforts to control it, pointing triumphantly up into the wind. There it stalled, sails luffing vigorously, causing the boom to swing wildly from side to side. I, the would-be sailor, was left crouching helplessly in the cockpit, trying to survive and decide what to do next.

The boom bonked my head continuously as I tried in vain to impose my will on the stubborn little boat. When I finally figured out how to pull on the sheet and catch the breeze, the boat rebelled by rounding up on one side and unceremoniously surrendering to the sea. Continuing its unfortunate momentum, it turned completely upside down, leaving me drenched, gasping for breath, and clinging to the slippery bottom for dear life. Feeling conspicuous, I hung there, unglamorously, in the middle of the Thames River with the sailboat “turned turtle,” or upside down. To add insult to injury, I was left with the conundrum of figuring out how to right the blasted thing and get it back to the dock.

I wanted to quit right then and there, after my first escapade in a sailboat. I noticed other cadets capsizing their boats; it wasn’t only me. I bucked up and kept trying, although convinced the boat had it in for me. After countless failures over the ensuing weeks, my perseverance paid off, and I finally mastered that darned sailboat. Then, I realized my dream and made the intercollegiate dinghy team.

My initial thought was that success meant making the dinghy team, but I was wrong. A greater measure of success was learning how to master the wind and feeling the deep satisfaction that comes from persevering through failure to achieve a goal. Exactly as depicted in Don Quixote, making the dinghy team was merely the manifestation of the journey to success. What a powerful life lesson!

The small failures I experienced while learning to sail helped instill in me the confidence and competence I needed later in my career when I graduated from the Academy and went on to serve in ships at sea. No one reports to their first ship as a new junior officer knowing how to handle the vessel safely alongside a pier. There are little failures as you learn under instruction, and the sailboat had taught me not to quit. I started my career as a seagoing officer with the mental preparation and nautical skills necessary to succeed, based on working through and learning from my failures in the sailboat.

Look in the mirror. Are you motivating your employees by incentivizing them to try new things, embracing the small failures as developmental and rewarding the small victories?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

Leading with Character: Devotion to Duty

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Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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