Leader Trends: Do We Excuse Failure?

By | October 14, 2014

[October 14, 2014] One of my best friends, with a great personality and positive disposition, was recently relieved of his military duties. He was a Flag officer and had responsibility for thousands of soldiers. To obtain this station in the military meant that he had to prove himself worthy over many years. Just recently he was also asked to resign his commission; his successful career ending early and on unpleasant circumstances. The basis for his downfall was that he wanted everybody to succeed at all times and went to great lengths to help them – an admirable trait. What was not acceptable, and the cause of his demise in being helpful, was that he overlooked illegal behavior by some of his subordinates. As leaders, do we excuse failure in others? Yes, we all do and the trend over the past few decades is to be more accepting. However, when the failure is egregious then we must act appropriately and not excuse it.

Where to draw the line is often difficult to see. Should we have a “zero defects” mentality where we tolerate no deviation from protocol and standards? Common sense tells us, of course, we should not. Leaders should use their experience and discretion to guide their decisions. Senior military personnel are often very good at giving and accepting no excuses for personal failures. We know that it is best to simply admit failure quickly and learn from the consequences. For example, a colonel was in the news just this week for plagiarism at the U.S. Army’s War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Comment from the college spokesperson noted that “the board found that then Colonel John Walsh did commit the offense of plagiarism and thus his Master’s Degree and status as a graduate of the U.S. Army War College should be revoked.”1 He was wrong and no excuses from him were accepted.

Excusing the failures of yourself or others is acceptable … at least to a certain degree. The problem is that we have become so excepting of failure that standards of behavior are lowered. When this occurs, workplace decay begins to set in and can become part of the informal organizational culture – it’s okay to be 15 minutes late to work today becomes it’s okay tomorrow to miss a day of work. This is especially true when the person accepting failure is one of the most senior persons in that organization. I do not know the source of this trend, whether from political correctness or the tendency to over litigate and investigate workplace behavior. I see no reversal of this trend, but the fact that it is occurring is not a positive for a society.

When I speak with other Flag officers in the U.S. military about this, they tell me privately that they see this as a bad thing especially among some senior officers. They tell me that they see its source as political and part of a “fairness” philosophy that has slowly crept into the workplace. Sadly, they have no answers other than continuing to discuss among ourselves and being on the lookout for more egregious conduct that they will punish. Like my friend who lost his career, there will be more.

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[1] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/10/11/army-war-college-revokes-sen-john-walsh-degree/



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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.