Failure Is an Option

Ivey Business School Professor Emeritus Glenn Rowe has learned a lot about leadership by studying decision-making in the private sector. But the most valuable leadership lesson of his life was learned as the officer-in-charge (OIC) of Patrol Boat Standoff in the mid-1980s, when Rowe was a staff officer at HMCS Cabot, a Canadian naval reserve division in his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Designed for coastal defence and law enforcement, PB Standoff was a 75-foot vessel initially operated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police between 1967 and 1978, when it was transferred to the Canadian Navy. Under Rowe’s tenure as OIC—effective 8 a.m., August 28, 1986—the ship had a crew complement of about 10, including two mates, four engineers, three bosuns, and one cook, when it was assigned to deploy to the northern coast of Newfoundland. The mission was to train sea cadets in various duties, ranging from serving as lookouts to crewing PB Standoff’s inflatable zodiac, as they gained experience in general seamanship and conducted emergency drills (man overboard, fire, flooding, etc.).

Over previous weeks, Rowe had served as first mate under a very experienced OIC. But being the OIC of PB Standoff was new to him as he sailed out of St. John’s on the training mission. As fate would have it, things didn’t go as planned.

During the dog watches (the first dog watch, or maritime work shift, is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and the second is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.), Rowe was notified of an engineering casualty (that is, an engine malfunction in civilian terms). According to PB Standoff’s chief engineer, the problem needed fixing ASAP, so Rowe changed course to the nearest available port, which was Bonavista Harbour.

Under skies overcast with thick, dark clouds, PB Standoff reached its destination at about 9 p.m. Rowe’s intention was to berth the vessel along the public wharf in the inner harbour. His ship was capable of 16 knots (nautical miles per hour), but Rowe had slowed to approximately 1–2 knots. As he recalls, “I was just gliding along on a very even keel while proceeding towards the eastern side of the outer harbour.”

All looked well. But there was little, if any, ambient light in the misty, almost foggy atmosphere. And the inexperienced OIC mistook the light on the public wharf for the light indicating the entrance to the inner harbour, which Rowe needed to keep on the starboard side of his ship’s 11-foot beam when turning to enter the inner harbour. As a result of this error, Rowe missed the inner harbour entrance.


Shortly after this mistake, the port and starboard lookouts spotted rocks and Rowe felt a nudge as the hull of the ship under his command went aground close to the northeastern shore of the outer harbour. He then made a series of even more grievous mistakes.

Aiming to back out over the rocks, Rowe ordered full speed astern, but PB Standoff had a draught of just six feet under its propellers, and the force of the twin engines being thrust in reverse caused the ship’s stern to squat in the water, where it hit some of the rocks the ship had glided over while going slow on an even keel. This caused the engines to stall, which prompted PB Standoff’s chief engineer to ask his OIC if he’d like them restarted. “Yes please, Chief,” Rowe replied in a calm, quiet voice before repeating his mistake.

“I went full speed astern again,” he recalls, “and again the stern squatted in the water and the propellers hit rocks and the engines stalled out again.” For a second time, PB Standoff’s chief engineer asked if Rowe wanted the engines restarted. Once again, the OIC calmly and quietly responded, “Yes please, Chief.” But this time Rowe ordered his ship to go slow astern, which enabled PB Standoff to pass over the rocks on an even keel. Once clear, Rowe slowly followed a fishing boat into the inner harbour, where he headed through navigationally safe water to PB Standoff’s intended berth on the public wharf.

Rowe’s error in mistaking one light for another led to his ship’s grounding, which is a cardinal sin in any navy. Furthermore, by twice ordering full speed astern, he unnecessarily damaged both propellers and one of the shafts joining them to the engines, which limited PB Standoff’s speed to just 6 knots as it headed to a shipyard for repairs the next day.

As a result of Rowe’s “imprudent” actions as the OIC of PB Standoff, he received an official reproof from the navy (see Appendix 1). And yet, somewhere between his first and second “Yes please, Chief,” something profound had happened.

During his first outing as OIC of PB Standoff, Rowe failed in his immediate mission to safely dock at Bonavista Harbour and his longer-term mission to train sea cadets. But, while extracting PB Standoff from the grounding, he realized he had what it takes to command large ships even when things go wrong: “I was aware of the very calm, quietly commanding nature of my voice as I spoke to the chief engineer, and I realized I had learned something about myself that allowed me to persevere through failures in my subsequent naval and academic careers.”

Decades after Rowe grounded PB Standoff, he had a conversation with another academic with a military background. As a former lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force, the academic in question expressed a deep concern over the number of senior officers in the United States military who had never failed at anything throughout their military career. Since many of these officers would be promoted to the General and Admiral ranks, the concern was with how they would respond when faced with failing at such a senior level.

Sharing this concern, Rowe reflected on what he had learned about himself while on the rocks in Bonavista Harbour. This article—which Rowe co-authored with Ken Nason, another former Canadian naval officer with a second career in business—examines how failure can be a powerful driver of leadership development by highlighting how it positively affected Rowe’s career.

Facing Failure

Grounding PB Standoff was not Rowe’s first experience with failure. He failed his first year of a pre-med degree at Dalhousie University. He subsequently worked for two years before pursuing a five-year Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) program at Memorial University in his home province. During his BCom, he came close to being thrown out of the navy when he found himself with only 25 out of 30 credits completed after his third year.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I achieved a minus 3 based on the written qualitative assessment of my performance by the commanding officer.”

During his early navy years, Rowe was selected for and attended the Combat Control Officers (CCO) course. Passing this course was a critical step for most naval officers who wanted to command destroyer-class vessels. Rowe placed fourth in the academic phase of this 13-month program. But his performance during the sea phase was far from impressive. “On a scale of 1 to 10,” he says, “I achieved a minus 3 based on the written qualitative assessment of my performance written by the commanding officer.”

After failing the CCO course, Rowe was sent to sea in a destroyer to be assessed as to his suitability to be a CCO.  After about 10 weeks, the navy concluded he lacked what it took to succeed as a combat control officer on a destroyer and he was posted to the navy’s navigation school, where he passed the Maritime Advanced Navigating Officer (MANO) course—but “only by the skin of my teeth.” Rowe was then assigned to be the OIC of the Blind Pilotage Trainer, a navigation simulator designed to help navy navigation teams achieve expertise in restricted visibility before going to sea.

Following his successful stint at the navigation school, where Rowe discovered a talent for teaching, he was posted to HMCS Preserver, a 564-foot Protecteur-class auxiliary oiler replenishment ship, which he was technically qualified to serve as a navigation officer thanks to his “passing” of the MANO course. But while serving as HMCS Preserver’s navigation officer from January 1982 to October 1982, Rowe never fully gained the confidence of his commanding officer. “It was entirely my fault,” he says. “After about nine months, I asked for a meeting and told him, in essence, that our working relationship was not conducive to the safe navigation of our ship.” Rowe’s superior agreed. In fact, he had already put in a request for a replacement navigation officer.

Rowe’s failure as HMCS Preserver’s navigation officer led to a non-navy posting—albeit still a military one—as the Provincial Warning Officer and Emergency Measures Liaison Officer in his home province. While in this position, he enrolled in an MBA program at Memorial, attending the same business school where he had completed his commerce degree on time a decade earlier. The military supported Rowe’s desire to advance his education and he completed the degree in three years while studying part-time. As one of the top two students in his class, he graduated with an Award of Excellence. But failure was not done teaching Rowe.


Effective July 1, 1986, Rowe returned to a navy posting when assigned to HMCS Cabot, where his naval career had started in 1969. As the regular force staff officer, he was responsible for advising HMCS Cabot’s commanding officer, who was an English professor at Memorial. He also supervised a four-person regular force staff in support of the approximately 150 officers and enlisted who were HMCS Cabot reserve members. This posting was poignant for Rowe since his father had served in the same position 18 years earlier (he even occupied the same office as his father).

At HMCS Cabot, Rowe was determined to be as active as possible in navy operations. And that’s how he ended up heading out to sea as PB Standoff’s OIC in late August 1986.

After the Grounding

The day after PB Standoff’s grounding, Rowe sailed the damaged ship at 6 knots—the ship’s maximum speed while in need of repairs—to the Clarenville shipyard in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. After having his ship hauled out of the water, he learned that repair parts were not readily available from military sources. But PB Standoff was operationally fit again in just a few short weeks after Rowe sourced the required equipment from the RCMP. His efforts to get the ship repaired and back in the water ASAP earned him a commendation.

Once PB Standoff was back in service, Rowe spent five weekends over the next seven weeks at sea, where he participated in a joint army/navy exercise and a joint Canadian Reserve Navy/United States Naval Reserve operation. During the winter of 1987, he served as the executive officer on a minor war vessel and received a recommendation to sit the Minor War Vessel Command Board, which would determine if he was fit to command one of these warships.

Rowe failed this board, held in Victoria, British Columbia, in late April 1987, but passed a second attempt later that year. On August 27, 1987, a year less a day after the grounding of PB Standoff, he qualified to command minor war vessels in the Canadian Navy.

Over the next three years, Rowe voluntarily commanded three different minor war vessels on multiple occasions in addition to his regular duties at HMCS Cabot. He led multiple ships’ companies through sea readiness inspections and achieved a flawless pass rate (see Appendix 2). In addition, every junior officer that Rowe recommended for their oral bridge watchkeeping board passed after training aboard a ship he commanded. These achievements were noted positively in his annual evaluations, and Rowe was promoted to lieutenant commander after 12 and a half years as a lieutenant.

After the Navy

After retiring from the navy in 1990, Rowe accepted a two-year contract to teach business at Memorial. In 1992, he commenced doctoral studies at Texas A&M University. After defending his dissertation on January 5, 1996, he returned to Memorial, where he taught until the summer of 2001.

At Memorial, Rowe had tenure, and in addition to being an associate professor, he was the school’s associate dean, Research and Graduate Programs. But at 52, he gave up this secure position to accept an assistant professor without tenure position at Western University’s Ivey Business School in London, Ontario. He risked having to seek another job if unable to achieve tenure at his new school by 2007. Fortunately, Rowe’s research and teaching records were considered satisfactory, and he was tenured and promoted to associate professor on July 1, 2006—a year early.

In 2014, Rowe applied for full professorship at Ivey and was denied—another failure. “I waited four years and applied again,” he recalls. “I was promoted on July 1, 2019. Since then, I have continued to publish research and have achieved my best teaching evaluations ever for all my 22-plus years at Ivey.”

Rowe technically retired from his academic career on June 30, 2023. He continues to teach at Ivey as a limited-duty professor on a course-by-course basis. Looking back on his life and work experiences, he can’t say he enjoyed failing as often as he did. But he also doesn’t regret having to face failure, which is what helped him succeed while serving as an officer in the Canadian Navy and as a full professor at a world-class business school. “There is nothing like real-life experience to enable one to successfully appreciate failure,” he says.

Seeing Failure as an Option

We often hear from senior leaders that failure is not an option. As co-authors of this paper, we see this as a costly perspective. After all, over the course of our naval and non-military careers, we have learned that failure:

  • shapes our character
  • restores focus and renews motivation
  • teaches us about accountability, transparency, responsibility, adaptability, and ownership
  • builds capacity and emotional resilience
  • opens the door to opportunity
  • teaches you about yourself, about boundaries, and about expectations
  • permits occasions for course correction
  • encourages inquiry
  • leads to retrospective thinking and consideration of meaning
  • teaches you about consequences and the value of risk management
  • teaches you that it’s okay to rearticulate your goals and to reimagine the steps necessary to achieve those goals
  • teaches humility
  • teaches the importance of planning for failure (we call this “defensive thinking”)
  • prompts the “what if?” question
  • obliges us to think about what constitutes success

Simply put, like IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, we believe that it is essential to see failure as a formula for success rather than the enemy of success. “You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it,” Watson stated years ago. “So, go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the far side.”

Learning from failure, however, can’t happen unless you first embrace failure as a teacher. As science writer David Robson notes in a BBC article, “Everyone wants to succeed. Nobody wants to fail. Yet, it is impossible to succeed without failing. This is the conundrum we are faced with as humans.”

When failure is seen as something that can’t happen, it creates what Robson calls the “ostrich effect.” And with your head in the sand, you can’t see the learning opportunities that failure creates.

When Rowe grounded his patrol boat during his first day as OIC, he learned the value of staying calm during a crisis and discovered that he had command ability. Earlier in his career, when proactively approaching HMCS Preserver’s commanding officer to discuss issues tied to his performance, he didn’t save his job, but by admitting to himself and navy higher-ups that his performance was less than ideal, he avoided the “ostrich effect.” This forthrightness enabled him to see the value in learning from failure, which helped him develop the resilience and persistence that delivered him a lieutenant commander ranking in the Canadian Navy and full professorship at Ivey.

The importance of resilience and persistence cannot be overstated. Persistence is obstinately and firmly continuing in a direction when faced with opposition and/or difficulties. Resilience is durability and having the ability to endure difficulties and to recover from difficulties quickly.

In their best-selling book Winning, the late Jack Welch and his wife Suzy Welch noted four characteristics that really matter when hiring a senior-level leader. The characteristics were “authenticity,” “the ability to see around corners,” “a strong penchant to surround themselves with people better and smarter than they are,” and “heavy-duty resilience.” The following paragraphs on heavy-duty resilience are very applicable to our discussion:

Every leader makes mistakes, every leader stumbles and falls. The question with a senior-level leader is, does she learn from her mistakes, regroup, and then get going again with renewed speed, conviction, and confidence?

The name for this trait is resilience, and it is so important that a leader must have it going into a job because if she doesn’t, a crisis time is too late to learn it. That is why, when I placed people in new leadership situations, I always looked for candidates who had one or two very rough experiences. I particularly liked the people who had had the wind knocked clear out of them but proved they could run even harder in the next race.

The global business world today is going to knock any leader off her horse more than once. She must know how to get back in the saddle again.

Welch and his wife wrote those words in 2005, and the challenges our leaders face have not become any easier over the last two decades. In today’s world, resilience and persistence are just table stakes for leaders facing an almost unimaginable combination of disruptive forces. In this environment, we can foolishly consider failure a non option—but that will only lead to failures that could be avoided by embracing failure and learning from mistakes.

So, to those who lead and those who write academically, rise up when you fail, take risks knowing that failure is an option. And when you fail, remember persistence and resilience are options, too. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”

Appendix 1


 . . . is to be administered a reproof for imprudent action in the following areas while conducting a navigation passage in PB [Patrol Boat] STANDOFF on 28 August 1986:

  1. The charted course was improperly plotted;
  2. No attempt was made to fix the vessel before or after wheel-over into Bonavista Harbor;
  3. The chart had two plans on it;
  4. There is no indication of a DR [Dead Reckoning], which might have given the OIC [Officer-in-Charge] a warning of danger;
  5. Even though the echo sounder was unserviceable, no attempt was made to use the radar as an alternative warning system; and,

No use was made of the fully qualified tender charge officer who remained on the bridge [wheelhouse] during the entire incident. [i]

Appendix 2


[i] The data in this appendix is from the letter, dated 16 April 1987, from the Commander, Naval Reserve Divisions to our lead author’s Commanding Officer ordering him to administer the reproof. This letter is in the lead author’s possession and available from him.

[ii] Each ship’s company had to train for and pass a Sea Readiness Inspection. The training period could be from one to three days and was generally carried out in Halifax Harbour, mostly in Bedford Basin. The training included such exercises as Blind Pilotage (training to navigate in restricted visibility), man overboard, steering gear breakdown, bomb threats, fires, engine room casualties, etc. The Sea Readiness Inspection was a day-long event where senior officers and enlisted personnel assessed a ship’s company in the above listed exercises. All exercises had to be passed to pass a Sea Readiness Inspection.

About the Author

W. Glenn Rowe is Professor Emeritus, Ivey Business School at Western University. He served in the Canadian Navy for 22 years and was Commanding Officer of Minor Warships in his last three years.….Read W. Glenn Rowe's full bio

About the Author

Ken Nason enjoyed a professional career spanning 50 years. The first 33 years were given to the Canadian Navy and the Canadian Forces wherein some eight years were dedicated to leadership by….
Read Ken A. Nason's full bio

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