Mullen: Learn From Mistakes and Move On
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md., Sept. 22, 2011 The top military officer returned to his alma mater last night to tell future Navy leaders not to fear failure, but rather to learn from their mistakes and grow.
“We are all going to fall on our faces now and then,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy here during a Forrestal Lecture series address. “And the measure really is, how do you get up off the deck, how do you dust yourself off and how do you look to the future?”
To illustrate, Mullen shared his own story of an early-career failure, and how he ultimately rose above it.
Back in early 1973, when he was 26 years old and just five years out of Annapolis, friends had counseled then Lt. Mullen against taking command of USS Noxubee, a Vietnam-era gasoline tanker.
It was too risky, Mullen said they warned him. Many of his peers chose a “quieter path,” avoiding command positions for jobs that kept them farther below the radar screen.
But that wasn’t for Mullen. “It was high-risk” to take the command, he acknowledged. “But from my perspective, taking that risk was more than worth it.”
For the first two months, Mullen felt good about his decision. Things were going smoothly until his ship struck Buoy 11 along the Thimble Shoals Channel in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
“When you are on a ship and you are a [commanding officer], colliding with anything” is not a good thing, Mullen told the midshipmen.
The Navy wasn’t amused. Mullen’s evaluation, written shortly after the incident, blamed his “misjudgment of the ship’s characteristics and lack of appreciation for the prevailing tide/current conditions” for causing the accident.
“This misjudgment may be attributed to his youth and lack of experience,” the evaluation said.
“Those lines haunted me for a long time,” Mullen said. “It was the first time I had really failed at anything, and it was tough to come to grips with.
“At that point in time, my career took a nosedive,” he said, “and I fell behind for a long time.”
Mullen said it took 11 years for his career to fully recover. He credited his mentors, commanders and captains who “saw something in me that gave me hope for the future.”
Mullen went on to other command positions, rising to become chief of naval operations and, ultimately, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Looking back, as he prepares to retire from the highest military post, Mullen said the biggest take-away from his experience aboard the Noxubee wasn’t that he failed, but that he was able to recover and continue a successful military career.
“One of the messages with respect to that is, we are not a zero-defect Navy. We were not then, and we are not now,” he told the audience.
In fact, the Navy -- and in a broader sense, the military as a whole -- rewards persistence and performance, he said.
“I’m not saying ‘Seek failure here and you will do okay,’” Mullen said. “That’s not the case. But it does happen. We are all human.”
Mullen challenged the midshipmen to think about failure, and when they face it, how they will work to overcome it.
“It’s how you get up and it’s how you move ahead, and it’s how you prepare to do that,” he said.