Seize the opportunities that come with mistakes

Col. Donald Dickerson, 314th Maintenance Group commander

Col. Donald Dickerson, 314th Maintenance Group commander

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- A long-standing military axiom asserts "no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy." You can't plan for everything and things will surely go wrong at some point. That's true in combat and it's true in life. We can fly by the seats of our pants or we can attempt to plan every aspect of our lives down to the smallest detail; either way, problems will arise and there will be times when things don't go as we wanted.

We show what kind of people we are by how we respond when things don't go our way. Anybody can be happy and successful when everything is going well. But the world sees what we're made of through our actions when we encounter life's inevitable setbacks.

When things don't go as planned, do you give up in frustration? Flail about in a panic? Look for others to blame? Or do you calmly assess what went wrong, learn lessons from falling short and come up with a new plan?

Mistakes will happen and plans will fall short of expectations. To expect otherwise is unrealistic. Dealing with mistakes -- our own and those of the people we lead -- is one of a leader's most important and difficult tasks. Leaders are responsible for the performance of their units and should be held accountable when things don't go well. However, placing our emphasis on assigning blame rather than applying lessons learned toward better performance in the future is counter-productive and damaging to unit morale.

Analyze every mistake, take lessons from them and share them across not only your own unit, but with similar units as well. I've heard formal military "lessons learned" programs called "institutionalized scab picking", but the truth is every event is a learning situation and we often learn more from failure than we do from success. The most effective units are those with a strong culture of making learning events of their missteps, continuously searching for their weak areas and focusing aggressive improvement efforts on making things better. When things don't go as they planned, they don't panic and they don't argue over who to blame. They fall back, regroup and re-attack with a better plan and they keep doing so until they succeed.

All this is important in our personal lives as well. My life has been about Plan B. None of my early dreams came to pass; in fact the biggest ones came crashing down around me in heartbreaking fashion. Yet, I pulled myself together, examined my remaining options and came up with a new plan. Today, I clearly see my life is better now than it would have been had my original plans worked and it is definitely better than it would have been if I had just given up in despair.

More often than not, things won't go as planned. So what? Show what you're made of by how you react and learn, and end up as a stronger leader in a stronger unit because of the experience.