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Leaders Can’t Play Do-Overs: Learn From Losing

The Millennium Challenge 2002 was a three week war game conducted by the US armed forces that cost over $250 million dollars. It fictionally pitted American forces against an “unnamed Persian Gulf military” most likely a stand in for Iran (or, as some argue, Iraq).

“Iran’s” forces were headed up by Marine Corps Lt. General Paul Van Riper, a tough Purple Heart recipient, who beat the American forces at every turn in the action. Van Riper, in what he assumed was a everything-goes drill, carried out mock suicide attacks, ran his fleet without radar effectively making them impossible to track, and he kept his men on the go constantly.

Needless to say, Van Riper defeated the American forces–badly.

The result: Van Riper got “relieved” from his post and the rules of the war game were changed. The new guidelines, among other things, forced enemy ships to operate with radar making them easy to follow and detect. In the school yard “do-over“, America won the drill and everyone went home happy.

What does this mean for organizations?

What are the lessons to be learned?

1. Pride on the Line: When we talk about leaders and organizations that wear blinders–it’s crucial to ask, why? Likely, it’s a poor mix of pride and ego that’s at stake and it’s difficult to admit to failure, laziness, lack of innovation, or knowledge. However, it’s essential to always remember that pride, especially in the face of truth, needs to be put aside.

2. Test for Failure–Don’t Imitate Success: Businesses always know that there are  cracks in their foundations. Searching for problems, then fixing them, is a required task. Yet, some businesses, on finding problems, merely write them off, pass responsibility, or vow to fix them next year.

The same can be said for leaders. If leaders find faults within their team or their leadership style they need to remedy them, not explain them away while pointing to a few successes in their office.

3. The Longer You Wait–the Bigger the Risks: Organizations and teams that choose to sideline problems, difficulties, and challenges will face a greater trouble and risk when they eventually try to resolve a situation.