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Knowing your strengths & overcoming failure can help us achieve "Excellence in All We Do"

  • Published
  • By Col. Mike Hornitschek
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing commander
As Airmen, we're always striving to achieve "Excellence in All We Do," as this is one of our Core Values. That's why during our Comprehensive Airman Fitness training today, we're focused on our strengths--learning what they are, and then improving areas that are weak and learning to leverage the areas which are strong both as individuals and as teams.

Of course, getting to that state of "excellence" doesn't come automatically. Rather, it's a result of hard work, experience, and getting up after we fall. It's about who we've become on our journey of self discovery and incorporating discipline, standards and self mastery into all areas of our lives.

So how does failure play a part in achieving excellence? I'd offer that it's not the act of failing, but what one does afterwards. I like how Winston Churchill puts it: "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." It's only when we think of failure as the enemy to success that we lose sight of a path to excellence. We can either be discouraged by it ... or we can learn from it.

It's a bit counterintuitive that some of our most important growth can come from failures--or mistakes--in our lives. But, how else does anyone improve? It doesn't matter if it's math, or drawing, or sports or our jobs ... the only failure that's unacceptable is quitting. If you work hard, you can understand and solve that math problem, learn to draw, play a sport of your dreams or be that "go-to" Airman at work.

I've always admired the story of Wilma Rudolf who was the 20th of 22 children. She was born premature and at 4 years old contracted double pneumonia and scarlet fever, which left her with a paralyzed left leg. By age 9 she could remove her metal brace and by 12 she decided she would become a runner. In her first race she came in last. In fact, for the next few years every race she entered she finished last ... until suddenly she wasn't last at all. By age 16 she qualified for the Olympics and won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay. Four years later she would become the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics. She won the 100-and 200-meter dash, and ran anchor on the 400-meter dash.

Our attitudes about failure can determine our course for success. Sadly, for some Airmen, they see failure as something that cannot be overcome or too overwhelming and some take their lives. That is one reason why we are all working to improve our resilience ... so that Airmen have the tools to see that rejections and failure can and will lead to recovery and victory if they are willing to make course corrections and work for it.

If we're willing to learn from failures then we can turn it into success, which is also part of the AFSO21 problem solving tool set. For instance, first, we must identify a problem or a process that isn't working right or that isn't achieving the results we want. We ask ourselves why and explore all aspects of the issue. Sometimes it's an easy fix and sometimes it may require institutional change, but we can't fix it if we won't acknowledge that it's broken in the first place.

Most of us know the story of Thomas Edison and how he tried 6,000 different filament materials before he got his light bulb to work. I admire his attitude when a young reporter asked him how it felt to fail so many times. He said, "I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 6,000-step process."

One of the fundamental tenets we profess here at the Scott Campus of Leadership University is that every experience, good or bad, is a leadership learning opportunity. As leaders, one of the more complicated skills is to lead and manage effectively. While we can learn a lot of techniques in class, to implement them in the real world will quickly provide us feedback as to what works and what doesn't ... we may need to adjust fire. We all make mistakes as we interact with each other because we're human, so the key to excellence is to allow for mistakes from those we lead as well as being quick to change our course of actions as needed.

We can admit that we don't like to make mistakes or fail at a task. Sometimes those failures can be catastrophic, but as NASA astronaut Charles Camarda said in a speech to engineers "Our motto is: Where there is failure, there is knowledge and understanding that doesn't come with success." Camarda played a large role in researching the cause of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster and then developed the necessary technology to prevent future tragedy for shuttle flights.

Whether it's day-to-day support to Scott AFB or achieving an "Excellent" on our upcoming ORI, our mission success depends on a combination of individual and team strengths and the ability to learn rapidly. The goal of today's CAF Day is for each of us as individuals to know or discover what our strengths and weaknesses are, and then to share this knowledge so we can smartly assign tasks and build teams that deliberately maximize those strengths rather than leaving things to chance. In that way, we minimize the number of mistakes or failures we need to make in the learning process while maximizing performance and sense of accomplishment that elevates everyone's confidence and attitude--it's a win/win for everyone.

Ultimately, knowing what our character strengths are and recognizing that they are developed through trial and error experience is powerful knowledge--in fact, it's really the foundation of wisdom. We must learn from our mistakes, our errors ... our failures if we are to achieve "Excellence in All We Do." And, if we agree to never quit trying, then we will succeed!