Allow Subordinates to Fail

Allow Subordinates to Fail

Monday, August 1, 2022

An important part of leadership is underwriting the mistakes of subordinates when those mistakes are made in good faith. Most leaders will admit that tolerance and forbearance on the part of superiors are a big part of growth and success. In my long Army career, I was fortunate to serve under many commanders who understood this—and who remembered their own growing pains.

As a young officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, life was challenging and demanding. But on rare occasions, allowances were made for a lieutenant’s rash, brash mistakes.

As a new platoon leader, I was tasked to run a rifle range for the company on a crisp day in early winter. Arriving an hour early to open the range, I climbed up into the range tower, called range control on the radio and began to brew a canteen cup of hot coffee on a small one-burner camp stove.

Just as my coffee began to boil, my platoon sergeant, who was in the tower with me, noticed a jeep pulling into the range complex with a large white star on the red plate affixed to the front of the vehicle. “Get down and report to him,” I urged as I frantically tried to prevent my coffee from boiling over. Scrambling down, the platoon sergeant snapped to attention in front of Brig. Gen. Peter Boylan, the assistant division commander for operations. “All the way, sir! Sgt. 1st Class Allen, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5-0-4 Parachute Infantry, range safety NCO for Range 57, reporting, Sir!”

Towering Inferno

As Allen began to brief the general in the prescribed format, Boylan looked over Allen’s shoulder to see a column of smoke pouring from the wooden tower, which was layered with about 50 coats of paint since its initial construction during World War II. In my haste, I had knocked over the camp stove and ignited the wooden structure, which was quickly engulfed in flames.

Rather than burn to death, I launched myself out of the two-story tower, executing a perfect parachute landing fall in front of the general, and snapped to attention with my field jacket smoldering. “Second Lt. Hooker, Sir, range officer in charge!”

A faint smile creased Boylan’s otherwise impassive face (no doubt he was recalling similar escapades in his salad days). As the tower collapsed in a roaring heap of flaming cinders and charred timbers, he returned my salute with the obligatory “Airborne!” As I waited for the withering blast that my crimes deserved, he said, “Carry on, Lieutenant, carry on.” With that, he was off in a whirl of flying gravel.

An hour later, the company arrived. As my captain dismounted from his jeep, he surveyed the scene in dismay, while the company first sergeant looked skyward. In the background, the ruined control tower smoldered. Looking at me sternly, the captain snapped, “Report!”

Standing at attention, bullhorn in hand, I saluted and barked, “Ready to train, Sir!” My captain burst into laughter. I had survived, at least for one more day.

Similar Situation

Years later, as a battalion commander in the same division, I was supervising platoon live-fires one summer evening. The training scenario called for my platoons to advance behind a smoke screen, covered by overwatching machine guns, enter a trench line and clear it with hand grenades and direct fire. As each platoon maneuvered, I followed behind with the battalion operations officer.

Some hours into the exercise, disaster struck when a live grenade failed to go off in one of the trench bunkers. Simultaneously, a machine-gun tracer round ignited one of the tarred timbers propping up the trench line. Suspending training, we called range control to request fire trucks and explosive ordnance disposal support. Some time later, both responded.

By now, the fire had spread through the timbers, engulfing the trench line in roaring flames. The firemen could not enter the trench for fear of the grenade “cooking  off.” The ordnance disposal crew couldn’t remove the dud grenade because of the fire. As we all watched despondently, the entire range complex burned to the ground.

Learning From Error

The next day I found myself, once again at attention, in front of an angry general. “That’s a $2 million range,” he roared. “It’ll take months to rebuild! What were you thinking?”

I responded as I had been taught. “Sir, I accept full responsibility. But I would like to ask, for future reference, what would you have done in my place?” Taken aback, the general pondered for a second, and his glowering countenance relaxed into a bemused smile. “That will be all, Colonel,” he said. “That will be all.”

Only rarely do we learn from our successes. Far more often, we learn from failure and error. Good leaders understand this and accept the responsibility to support their soldiers as they learn by doing. As one mentor taught me long ago, “Give them room to grow and good grass to grow in.”

That’s leadership in action. That’s how to make a great Army.

Col. R.D. Hooker Jr., U.S. Army retired, is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank that addresses international affairs from Washington, D.C. A career infantry officer, he commanded a parachute infantry battalion in Kosovo and the Sinai, and a parachute brigade in Baghdad. A former dean of the NATO Defense College, Rome, he served three tours with the National Security Council in the White House.