In the academy or in the field, we need to train to the point of failure
By Kristopher T. Blume
What is the value of success? Is it at least, in part, evaluated against what failure would look like? How do we assign value to success if it is not contrasted against failure? This is to say, the greater the success, the greater the potential and effect of failure. To say there is a value to failure is a tough sell for the fire service. There is immense pressure throughout the ranks to “get it right.” Providing our firefighters and officers the opportunity and benefit of experiencing failure, at first glance, seems to be a juxtaposition to fire service ethos. Why then, should we seek failure?
It is easy and comfortable to discuss success. After all, it is a desired state or outcome. What is necessary to appreciate successful outcomes is reverence of failure. Frequent and unchallenged success can make you muscle-bound; experiencing failure creates agility in mindset and action. The value of failure varies according to the context of the task. High risk should connote a high cost of failure. Inversely, low-risk actions or decisions should correlate to the low cost of failure, with a greater opportunity to grow from the lessons learned. Seeking failure should have benefits. The most important of these include increased perseverance, passion, grit, and determination. The ultimate objective of learning from failure is developing confidence in skill sets that can then be applied in high-risk situations.
The fire service expects and gives high praise for successful outcomes, and rightly so. As servants and professionals charged with public safety, positive–successful–outcomes are expected. Too often, the opportunities presented by failures are swept under the rug or buried in layers of arrogance and ego. Selfishly, not exposing one’s failure sets others up to experience the same failure, missing the gift and opportunity to learn, grow, adapt, and move forward with confidence. Embracing and valuing growth after failure also create a more resilient organizational culture.
How can the fire service learn to embrace and grow from failure? In the lexicon of the business world, the terms “Fast Failure” and “Intelligent Failure” are designed or planned mechanisms to embrace and grow from failure. These two practices teach individuals to see failure as an intentional consequence of the experience and knowledge-building process. Embrace failure and do not deny outcomes; but rather, seek the usefulness in the lessons. The intent is to cultivate an instinctive reaction that is a contrast to the traditional response to failure: fear, shame, blame, and dysfunction. According to businesses that embrace the “fail early, fail often mindset,” they are able to fill gaps in learning and innovation and create change agents that can fail intelligently, providing a long-term benefit to the business.
Growth as a professional and a profession requires us to stretch what we can accomplish, push our growing edges. Doing this in a controlled environment is paramount. This can occur on the training ground, fire station or emergency simulations, and tabletop exercises. Experiment, see what works and what doesn’t, and learn how to develop adaptive solutions to nonconforming problems. The modern fire service doesn’t need more rule books and manuals. Rather, the profession needs mission and values-driven leaders at all levels within the organization willing to experience failure. This requires the department and organizational leadership to embrace the ideology of leaders’ intent–empowering our firefighters and officers to make decisions and supporting the intent of the action, even if failure was the outcome. More than a want, we need people to be courageous enough to act, to take calculated risk without fear of intense scrutiny and ridicule. Firefighting is a verb, an action, that describes a profession. We need individuals to take action. Fear of failure should not be an impediment to action.
As a chief officer, I expect those I serve to take action, regardless of rank. What they need and should expect is support–not for when things go according to plan, but when we experience a failure. What we should train and develop are company officers who are assertive, values-driven, mission-focused employees. This, along with expectations and the support of leaders’ intent, makes it is much easier to pull in on the reigns than push timid individuals forward. Seeking failure and embracing innovative responses to unanticipated or undesired outcomes offer the intangible benefit of maximized learning from failed outcomes as well as building personal and organizational tolerance and resilience to risk taking. The saying “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong” speaks directly to the resilient mindset we as firefighters need to embrace. Simply replace practice with fail in the previous quote and we have a motivational poster that should be in every training academy. Every failure is a practice attempt to get it right.
Whether in the fire academy or in the field, we need to train to the point of failure. If we want quantitative results, we need to evaluate qualitative skills. As a profession, we need to make allowance for failures because if we don’t, we are creating an environment that will promote inaction. Our collective success is on the line as professionals and as a profession. Being successful motivates and inspires others; however, it is through our failures that we can relate to each other.
Kristopher T. Blume is a battalion chief and a 19-year veteran of the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department. He is an author, a lecturer, and an independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program through the National Fire Academy and an alumnus of the University of Arizona and has several undergraduate and graduate degrees. Blume is focused on values-driven, mission-focused leadership for the fire service.