Why You Need to Fail if You’re Going to Lead – And Other Lessons from a Top Gun Pilot

A relationship with failure is something most of us spend our lives striving to avoid. We’re prone to highlighting our best moments, whether on social media or in a job interview. You know: “my greatest weakness is that I try too hard.” When it comes to work, whether you’re in a competitive industry or a workplace demanding growth, admitting to failure is seen as problematic if not disastrous. Why take the risk? 


Which is why it is ironic that having failed is often the mark of a great leader. Talk to any CEO of a brand you respect, and you’ll hear that not only do they have their own stories of failure, but they're looking to hire leaders that do as well. If you’re aspiring to any kind of great heights, you have to learn to fail. Perhaps even to fail often.


There were a few core principles drilled into me during my time as an F-16 pilot in the Israel Air Force, where I flew more than 4,500 flight hours over 500 operational missions. I served long enough to see the IAF grow from a group of feisty and talented top guns to a supremely well-run operation that inspired armies, corporations, and large organizations around the world to copy its methodology, which I now help teach to business leaders and executives. 


What is that methodology all about? There are five core principles:


Leave No One Hanging: If you caught the recent blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick,” it’ll spoil very little of your enjoyment to know that one of its major protagonists is nicknamed “Hangman,” because, well, he leaves other pilots in the squadron hanging and always prioritizes his own goals and glory. And if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie, you know how this  ends: Hangman learns the importance of teamwork. It’s no cliche: The main challenge facing Cruise in the movie–taking a handful of young hotshots and teaching them to work together–is the very same one that’s the central obstacle every CEO must overcome en route to success. Training the leadership teams of some of the most successful companies in Israel, I see this drama unfold every day: Talented, ambitious young men and women joust with each other, certain that self-fulfillment requires  out-performing their peers. A leader’s first – and perhaps most crucial– task is to disabuse them of this notion and cohere them into a unit that functions well together. How? Enter principle number two.


Mark Your Targets Clearly: Tasked with dropping a bomb into a very small air shaft in an enemy’s fortified underground nuclear reactor, the F-35 pilots in the movie soon learn a very painful and necessary lesson. Success doesn’t come in one climatic battle scene, or in two or three minutes of grit and gumption that end in an explosion and the good guys walking off into the sunset. It’s a mosaic made of small moments, each unobtainable without the previous one: First you enter the enemy’s territory at high speed and low altitude, then you mark the target with your laser sight, then you launch the missile, then you avoid enemy jets. You hardly have to be an air force colonel to understand that no one pilot–not even Cruise’s Maverick–can achieve that by him- or herself. Once you clearly define these goals, you help your team not only coalesce, but also grow as individual leaders and performers, because excellence is now not an amorphous sentiment but a steely set of deliverables. Which brings us to principle number three.


Learn to Love Process: It’s all about the planning. As anyone from an accomplished fighter pilot to a veteran CEO could tell you, the actual action–the combat mission, the big business deal–is a flash in the pan, coming and going  in a split second. Most of your days are spent hunched over paperwork: looking at maps, studying spreadsheets, sweating the small stuff and asking thousands of what-if questions to make sure you’re thoroughly prepared for everything that lies ahead. Even worse, you’re not the only one going through preparation, which means that you must pay very close attention, as the only way to make distinct individuals and groups entrusted with doing very different things come together seamlessly. Successful organizations are the ones that have learned to love process as essential and natural and as embodied as that first cup of morning coffee, rather than an imposition. But plan as you may, you’re still going to fail sometimes. Learning to do that is the subject of principle number four.


Be a Sore Loser: In my former line of work, losing was, quite literally, a matter of life and death. I know well the pain of returning from a mission and realizing that a mistake had cost a dear friend his life, and the unbearable feeling of having to face his grieving family and realize you have  nothing but heartbreak and frustration to offer. But here’s another truth, just as crucial: the day after such a painful loss, you have to soar once again, putting behind all the pain and flying anew on another mission. It’s a complicated emotion to master; it does not mean suppressing the grief, ignoring the anger you may feel, or simply stiffening the upper lip. It means developing the ability not only to learn to lose but to become  better at failure. What does that mean? The fifth and last principle applies.


Fail Forward: Pilots, we say in the IAF, aren’t people who fly planes; pilots are merely improvement machines. That’s because literally everything we do in our professional lives is followed by a swift and effective process of debriefing, asking questions, understanding what went wrong, and learning from our mistakes so that next time we might make  better mistakes rather than repeating the same vexing ones. In movies, debriefs are often depicted as showdowns, a set piece for hardened superiors to dress down anyone who dared take a risk or deviate from protocol. Top Gun: Maverick gets it much more right, sharing with its viewers the culture of robust, vocal, sometimes charged but always essential debriefs. They teach us how to fail forward, meaning tat while we can make mistakes,  we don’t make the same mistake twice. It’s this culture, for example, that helped the IAF go from losing two or three planes every year to losing one every three to five years, a major improvement delivered almost exclusively by being candid about what went wrong and taking the necessary steps. 


As always, Maverick himself put it best. “When I fly,” he says in the first movie, “I’ll have you know that my crew and my plane come first.” And that right there is the essence of  business leadership education as well.


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: