Our nation's fourth President, James Madison, had a distinguished career in government that spanned over four decades for which all American's continue to benefit from his labors. His crowing achievement was having the distinction of being identified as the Father of the United States Constitution. He also wrote 26 of the 77 landmark articles that comprise the famous Federalist Papers. During Thomas Jefferson's retirement years, he made the point that he would never have wanted the Presidency if he did not have the services of James Madison as his Secretary of State. Nonetheless, Madison became our first acting President while the nation was under attack from a foreign invader. It was during this time the President failed to act properly with regards to the safety and security of our nation's Capital. Despite this, he did not compromise his integrity on issues of leadership.
Generally speaking, people want to succeed in their jobs. They cherish the idea of waking up in the morning ready to start their day, arrive at work with a smile on their face, throughout the day make a positive contribution within their given profession and leave in the evening looking forward to their time of rest and relaxation with their family and friends. However, when over 60% surveyed state that the chief cause of personal stress stems from their boss and that 78% are saying that work in general is their greatest source of stress, then the idea of enjoying one's labor is looking more like a pipe-dream every day.
So let's pose a question at this time, "Why is failure looked at in such a negative light?" With regards to the business world, organizations stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue (depending on the size of the organization), not to mention the countless man-hours that can be lost when someone fails at his or her responsibilities. The Enron debacle is a prime example of this type of failure. From a military standpoint, people die as a result of failure, and from a political point of view, people lose elections when blunders occur. Yet mistakes can be corrected if they are recognized, looked at as a teaching opportunity to better oneself, and the proper corrections are made when mistakes are discovered.
In combining both a military and political failure, a good example to consider is the Presidency of James Madison during the War of 1812. Thus, on August 19th of 1814, a British squadron of 50 war ships with over 700 Marines under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn disembarked at a place called Benedict off the Patuxent River (located in the State of Maryland) just 35 miles from the city limits of Washington DC. At Cockburn's side was an additional 3,400 hardened British Regulars under the command of General Robert Ross, who gained distinction during the Napoleonic wars while serving under the Duke of Willington. Their mission was to destroy the Capital, capture the President, and instill a lack of confidence with the American government within the minds of the citizens of the United States. Moreover, Admiral Cockburn had a reputation for reeking havoc on his enemies as part of his name "burn" would suggest. As indicated, it was at his command our nations Capital was torched.
To make matters worse, the U.S. Secretary of War, John Armstrong, and the military commander responsible for the defense of the city, Brigadier General William H. Winder, were obviously the wrong people selected for their given assignments. Both were appointed by the President (Winder's selection was under the advisement of James Monroe). To be more blunt, it was a profound failure on Madison's part with regards to their choice. Although Armstrong was formerly a U.S. Senator, Ambassador to France, veteran of the Revolutionary War and a current Brigadier General during the War of 1812 before being selected to Madison's Cabinet, he was more interested in becoming the next President of the United States than with his current job at the War Department. Similarly, Armstrong believed he had to compete with public opinion with regards to the hero of Tippecanoe, Major General William Henry Harrison, as well as with the Secretary of State James Monroe, who would both eventually become President. (Andrew Jackson had yet to fight for the Battle of New Orleans which gave him national prominence).
On the other hand, Winder had only two years military experience and was given command for political rather than military reasons. For instance, a number of people within the Federalist Party were against the war (Madison was a member of the Republican Party). General Winder's uncle Levin Winder, the Federalist governor of Maryland, had over 6,000 State Militia at his disposal. Consequently, Monroe believed that by appointing the younger Winder, the governor would release his militia to the aid of his nephew in preparations for the defense of the Capital city. However, less than 250 troops were sent. As a result, the security of the city was doomed from the start. The American forces were ill placed and not properly prepared even though they outnumbered the British by over a 2 to 1 ratio (The American count was 10,000 strong). Hence, when the British Army initially attacked at Bladensburg (northeast of Washington), the Americans abandoned their posts, regrouped twice while heading towards the Capital, until they were in full retreat as one observer called it, "the Bladensburg Races." By the end of the day, the city was looted before it was eventually engulfed in flames.
However, Madison was not done, recognizing that attacking Baltimore or Annapolis would have strategically been more beneficial for the British; he realized that both General Ross and Admiral Cockburn wanted to inflict a psychological, rather than a tactical blow to U.S forces. Consequently, when many voices within Congress wanted to move the seat of government back to Philadelphia, after the city lay in ruins, Madison refused. Instead, he ordered Congress to meet in the only two buildings left standing, the Post Office and the Patent Office. Within a month's time, the American government was up and running again in Washington DC; which sent a signal to the rest of the nation that the government was not shaken despite the condition of the city. (Learning from history and having his share of inept generals, Abraham Lincoln refused to see Nation's Capital end up the same way during the Civil War. Thus, he created the Army of the Potomac whose first responsibility was to defend the Capital. Initially the army had up to 77,000 troops and by the spring of 1865, there were a total of 68 forts with 93 batteries, 807 cannons and 98 mortars in defense around the city.)
To recap James Madison's example, his failure was quite evident after examining the following deficiencies; (a) as time drew closer to the British attack, Armstrong and Winder were not making the proper preparations for the city's defense, (b) both functioned more as scouts, Winder in particular, than as military commanders, (c) although the English landed 35 miles away from Washington and just five days before the city's destruction, there were no American forces to impede the initial British advance on the Capital, (d) and even though the President recognized these failures at the time, he did nothing to correct his observations until it was too late. (Madison was the first of only two Presidents to observe a battle from a distance. Lincoln too observed the Battle of Fort Stevens which also took place on the northwestern side of Washington DC.) Nevertheless, he learned a valuable lesson, replaced both Armstrong and Winder with more capable men, and eventually the war was concluded a few months later by the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.(The treaty was endorsed in Belgium on December 24, 1814 but news did not reach the President until February 14th the following year.)
Jim Collins has identified that people are not your company's greatest asset. It's choosing the right people for the given task which is by far most important. He goes on to say, by using his bus metaphor, first you have to get the proper people on the bus, then when you find the right employees, you must place them on the appropriate seat within the bus. Accordingly, the selection of both Armstrong and Winder may have appeared politically savvy at the time. Both had prior leadership experience and each looked good on paper. However, both were on the wrong seats. Moreover, when it came to details in military tactics, both lacked the savoir-faire of what you would find in people like Winfield Scott, William Henry Harrison or Andrew Jackson.
Mistakes can be a great learning tool for us all. Obviously, most mistakes that occur do not result in the loss of life or negative political status, yet many times they are treated as if they are. Leaders must realize that people learn far more from their mistakes than from personal success. However, if blunders on the job are not only frowned upon, but openly criticized, then errors may not be discovered by management for some time, if at all, because the employee making the same will probably be afraid of reprisal and or public embarrassment. That in itself will monetarily cost the organization a great deal. Likewise, the employee will be under an increased amount of stress due to the emotional strain of trying to hide the mistake. Simultaneously, other people throughout the workforce are watching the response of management to the one responsible for the failure, and if they view a humiliating reaction, chances are they will act the same by hiding their own missteps. For any organization, that is a horrible price to pay. Therefore, a positive approach to failure is strongly suggested as Dr. Charles Manz recommends the following:
"If we can concentrate on learning from every situation, especially those in which we seem
to fail, we will continually move ahead. This effective approach might be called learning
forward. How can we learn forward through failure? To begin with, view short-term failures as
the building blocks for future success and concentrate on learning all you can from them
rather than trying to make excuses or trying to cover up these temporary setbacks. The trick
is to always move forward as you fail."
By reexamining James Madison's example, one may observe a valuable lesson during the debacle in Washington D.C. In particular, he gave both John Armstrong and William Winder a chance to succeed at their jobs, despite their shortcomings. It was only until after the battle was over that they were eventually replaced. Although it could be argued that the President should have made the change in leadership before the Capital's destruction, leaders in business should observe Madison's willingness to give people a chance. As leaders in the corporate world, what's at stake is far less important than the loss of human life and the demise of a city. Nevertheless, when providing your employees a chance to succeed, regardless of knowing he or she could fail at their given assignments, the organization in question provides the opportunity to acquire a great deal knowledge, both individually, as well as on the corporate level.
Dr. Bruce Macdonald has an earned doctorate degree in Strategic Leadership. His Master's degree is in Christian History. Both degrees were earned at Regent University located in Virginia Beach Virginia. In addition, he is the President of Renewal Consulting which provides educational venues for businesses in occupational stress awareness and prevention, as well as personnel and leadership development. In addition, he has been a manager for a number of years, primarily working in the mailing industry and is the Chairman of Industry for the Hampton Roads Virginia Postal Customer Council. Much of his research interests include American History, U.S. Presidents, Leadership/Management and Theology. For more information, he can be reached at email@example.com