It is true, I fail every day…
I fail at communicating with those closest to me. I fail at listening more than I speak. I fail at making those around me feel like they are important and deserve my undivided attention when they are having a conversation with me. I fail at completing all the things I need to in a day. Honestly, I could go on and on about areas I drop the ball in every day, but that is not the point of this post.
Failure has become something intimate for me both personally and professionally over the last 24 months. Professionally, I have failed. I didn’t get promotions, i have failed at meeting goals I set for myself. Personally, I wasn’t meeting my goals in reaching and influencing people like I wanted to and I spent time in a funk about it all!
Then, about 18 months ago, I had the opportunity to take the lead on introducing an innovation program into the fire department. An interesting journey to say the least, striving to push a hierarchical culture towards embracing engagement, open discussion, respectful dissent – I really had no idea what I was in for.
It was an important step emotionally and as a leader to begin exploring the notion of making it safe for myself and others to fail. We don’t innovate, create, or grow without failing. It. Just. Does. Not. Happen.
In all of that, I have come to realize that I have always been someone who wants to try something and see what happens. I am generally OK with testing something, not worried if it doesn’t work. I am genuinely someone who is OK with taking a risk, to have the debate with those that are in direct opposition of my view point and to learn from them to build something better, together.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for the Canadian published “Canadian Failures – Stories of building towards success”. It’s a mix of journeys compiled by author Alex Benay that highlights stories of an Astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk; an Olympic athlete, Erica Wiebe; and Chatelaine CEO, Aimee Chan, to name a few. Specifically, the book discusses how failure in life is not terminal, but critical to success.
Dr. Thirsk describes one of his many prep sessions for one of his space flights and how it is critical for Astronauts to fail on the ground at NASA in order to learn to work through those failures in every possible scenario before they get to space. As you can imagine, failing in space could mean destroying a billion dollar space station, or killing your crew and yourself – not to mention the disastrous reputation damage for the country should that happen.
While I was in amazement with the brilliant insights Dr. Thirsk shared and wishing beyond everything I was an Astronaut - it triggered a powerful story of one of my first failures in the fire service. I learned very early on in my career that failure is not terminal, but necessary to shape who we need to be in the future and that it takes true leadership to set the tone for making it all right to fail.
It was June of 1998 and I had been a firefighter with the City of Vancouver Fire Department for about 6 months. I was scheduled to complete my 6-month probationary exam on this particular day and on our way to the training academy we caught a kitchen fire. I promise, I am not making that part up! We were very close to the address and were able to arrive and help very quickly. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty good about the job, being part of a great team and crew, but of course… the test still loomed in my future!
We had to complete a practical exam and a written exam. We arrived, and the Chief Training Officer of the day greeted us at the front gate to provide my Captain with the rundown on what was to take place. We would be doing the practical portion first and he explained all the components that we were expected to complete. For 6 months all I did at work was study, drill, eat, respond as required and repeat. I was ready for this… no problem… Everything was flowing, I was confident and clear with instructions provided to me and demonstrated everything that was asked, until… “Probationer Pelke, please raise the extension ladder with a beam raise to the 2nd story window to prepare for ventilation.” I repeat back the direction to be sure he hears that I understand, “Raise the extension ladder to the 2nd story window to prepare for ventilation. Chief, please provide wind direction so I can place the ladder appropriately”
“Wind as you observe it today.”
I direct my crew how to assist me and the ladder goes up; it is secured appropriately; it is set at the right climbing angle and is on the windward side of the window… check, check, check, check..
“Chief, the ladder is ready to climb.” This was the last evolution in the practical exam and, for the most part, you do not get a second chance to demonstrate your abilities in an exam environment.
“Probationer Pelke, can you repeat to me how I asked you to raise that ladder?”
“Yes Chief, on a beam raise, for the purpose of ventilation.”
“Probationer Pelke, and how did you raise the ladder?”
As my heart fell into my gut, I realized I had performed the incorrect raise of the ladder based on his instructions.
“Flat raise, sir.”
I remember thinking in that moment, “I am dead. This Chief is known as a hard ass! And how could you be so stupid – dummy…” Yes, I was thinking that and more at the time and really at the mercy of whatever was to happen next. I really was not ready for his next statement.
“Probationer Pelke, your flat raise was impeccable, now you should lower the ladder on a beam raise as I previously requested.” The ladder came down and he told me to wait for a moment while he spoke with my crew.
A moment seemed like forever, of course, but I did not soon forget his words and more importantly was reminded of this lesson the other night.
“Probationer Pelke, you have passed your practical exam. While you did not correctly follow my directions on the last evolution, we have all had moments like you did today, and it is better for that to happen here than on a real fire ground, when you are raising that ladder to rescue someone. I want you to remember how important it is for you to not just to hear an order but to process the request and act accordingly. Despite the stress or environment around you, people and your crew will be counting on you in critical moments. I have spoken with your Captain and crew and they have expressed how dedicated you are and how hard you have worked during the past 6 months – they also recognize how important it is to fail here, not when it counts the most.”
Sometimes, we just need to fail to learn what is important and realize the solution we would never get to otherwise. I have realized over the years to how important it is to create a culture of being able to take risks in a safe environment and making sure those around me know it’s OK to fail.
As leaders, peers, and humans, do we accept those that fail around us? Do we help each other in those failures and seek to learn how to do it better?
My challenge for us today – fail. Fail often and early and note what you learn, then get back up and do it again – and give people the space to do the same!
Thanks Chief McLeod for the lesson.