Failure is an option

by Laura Baker, a musing on Roger Herbert’s speech at Leadership Wyoming’s Alumni Summit

I was lucky enough to attend a leadership conference last week and Roger Herbert, Distinguished Military Professor of Ethics at the US Naval Academy, spoke about the topic of failure and why it is good.  After listening to his presentation, I realized that the topic of failure certainly applies to cybersecurity.

Roger’s discussion was about leadership, courage and failure.

First of all, the elements of courage as Roger discussed are self-awareness, self-control, love, and failure tolerance.  From the Wyoming Cybersecurity Symposium and Cyberpsychologist Dr. Erik Huffman we learned that the number one reason why people click is impulsiveness…the opposite of self-control and self-awareness.  Within the first 5 minutes I was hooked on Roger’s speech.

Then Roger said something that we in cybersecurity hear all the time “Failure is not a matter of if but when and how.”  We often hear this as ‘cyber attacks are not a matter of if but when.”  It is another interesting parallel between leadership and cybersecurity.

Roger continued to discuss different corporate cultures, which are defined by the leadership of the company.  Roger believes that cultures where failure is not an option often get good short term results but end up breeding mediocrity and can easily end up in catastrophic failure. This is because the ‘failure is not an option’ culture squashes innovation, ambition, and personal ethics. 

I found this extremely interesting in the world of technology.  I know many IT professionals that are extremely nervous about asking for needed cyber products because of the company culture.  They don’t have direction because the company hasn’t thought out their policies or contingency plans and they often hear “it hasn’t failed yet so why should we upgrade.” 

On the other hand, Roger continued, corporate cultures that allow for graceful failure more often avoid catastrophic failure because:

  1. Innovation is encouraged knowing that failures will occur and it is okay.
  2. Ambition is encouraged so employees try harder tasks.
  3. Employees’ personal ethics remain steadfast because they don’t have to try to manipulate the ‘failure is not an option’ system.  If the cost of failure is negligible, then your success at your job is not dependent upon the success of every task or project.

And isn’t graceful failure what we plan for in case of a serious cyber attack?  We hope to prevent the failure all together with our policies and employee training.  But, we know if it does happen, then we have our incident response plan and our disaster recovery plan to fall back on.  Spending time thinking about these ‘what if’ situations allows us a graceful failure instead of a catastrophic failure.

It is the difference between Campbell County Health’s recovery process where the county emergency manager was extremely complimentary of their incident response team and Wood Ranch Medical Center in California that is closing at year end because they can’t recover.  Campbell County Health’s is a graceful failure and Wood Ranch Medical Center is a catastrophic failure.

Roger also gave three alerts that could indicate that you are working in or creating a ‘failure is not an option’ culture.

  1. The Drive to Work Test
    1. What are you thinking about work as you are driving there?  Are you thinking about how to build your team or solve a problem?   Or are you thinking ‘will I be listened to today?’
  2. The I Will Not Tolerate Test
    1. If your work will not tolerate honest mistakes then it creates a threat to your livelihood.
  3. The Harlem Globetrotters Test
    1. If the tests are too easy, then they are fixed to be successful and that means catastrophic failure is around the corner.

Do you find that you are now alerted to your company’s culture? If you are a leader or manager, now is the time to start the change of thought at your company, especially if you are in the tech field.

With technology, the failure is not an option culture is completely unrealistic.  Computer systems fail every day even without cyber attack.  Creating a culture that embraces graceful failure will only lead to long term sustainability for Wyoming’s economy. 

The culture that embraces failure has to be far away from recklessness.  It has to include accountability, collaboration, contingency plans, and a level of risk that is acceptable to the company. 

Embracing failure creates empowered employees and meaningful work.  Cybersecurity really is a leadership issue when you look at it this way.


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