It was December 8, 1941, Douglas MacArthur was the US general overseeing 100,000 Filipino and US troops in the Philippines. News of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had reached MacArthur. He knew the value of the Philippine islands and that Japan would make them a prime target in their quest to take complete control of the Pacific. He had previously modified the US government plans on defending the islands and chose to go with an air defense strategy aimed at attacking enemy vessels using B-17 planes stationed at local air bases. For reasons unknown, MacArthur delayed getting these planes airborne and engaged with Japanese assault vessels preparing to attack the islands. Most of the B-17’s were destroyed on the ground by Japanese planes supporting the invasion force just hours after the Pearl Harbor attack. MacArthur and his troops were forced to fall back to Bataan and Corregidor with few supplies. They were dug in and not prepared to retreat. They would be engaged in heavy fighting over the next few months. As supplied dwindled, it was evident that there was little hope for the remaining US and Filipino troops. The superior and well supplied Japanese army was pushing them toward the ocean and the Japanese fleet was cutting off any escape route. In March of 1942, MacArthur and a few select individuals were able to slip through the Japanese fleet on PT boats. He left behind the remaining troops under his command. These forces would surrender to the Japanese some two months later. These 70,000 soldiers would undergo very harsh treatment and for those that survived, spend the remainder of WW2 in POW camps.
In his departing comments before leaving on that PT boat, MacArthur made the now famous statement, “I shall return”.
I have no idea what was going through his mind that day. I can only imagine how I might feel knowing that I was leaving 70,000 to 100,000 soldiers behind. Furthermore, that my decisions or lack thereof, played a huge role in the failure to defend these islands. On a broader scope, that by losing control of these islands, I had now allowed the Japanese forces to be significantly closer to the West Coast of the US.
MacArthur could have easily given up, quit, turned the role over to someone else, etc. However, he didn’t do any of these things. He made his way to Australia, regrouped, came up with a new strategy, and began to execute that strategy piece by piece. Two and a half years later, he was back in the Philippines and was well on his way to leading the US to drive the Japanese army back to Japan. The war had turned, and MacArthur’s leadership in the Pacific was a primary driving force in the eventual victory.
I don’t tell you all that to just give you a history lesson on WW 2. I tell that story to emphasize the fact that if you lead long enough, you are going to experience some defeats. You are going to experience setbacks. You are going to go through some difficult times. Some of these will be the result of mistakes you make. Some will just be the result of circumstances beyond your control. Regardless, you are going to experience failure at some point.
Here a three key ideas for you to remember in these situations:
1. Don’t let circumstances or failure define you by dwelling on them too long. Learn what you need to learn and move forward. When I coached my son’s teams when he was growing up, I would always tell them that the most important play was the “next play”. “Go make the next play” was an often heard comment from me. Too often we let the past defeat us in the future. Regroup, re-energize, re-strategize, re-whatever you need, but get focused and move forward as quickly as possible. Your followers need leadership today, and if you have some “defeats” you are dealing with, they need it now more than ever.
2. Turn the defeat or failure into something more significant or impactful for the future. If you have had a serious safety incident, come back with a stronger leadership plan and message going forward that has a positive impact on your folks. If you have had a disappointing customer experience, make adjustments that absolutely keeps that situation from ever happening again. If you have experienced some disappointing operational issues, make whatever changes are in order to get the results that are needed. If you need a new strategy, go a different route. If you just need to execute better, then drive that process at a higher level. Turn that failure/setback into the backdrop for your success story.
3. Focus on the future benefit for those you are leading and not your personal interests. When we get away from a self- focused, prideful centered thought process and focus on those we lead, we will more likely get ourselves and others back on track faster. Be relentless in your focus on leading others to success, not stuck in a prideful focus on personal accomplishment. We all experience failure. Get over it and get back to leading. Whatever your role is, go make today better than yesterday.
I would say General MacArthur followed this plan; not that he needed my advice. He kept his commitment; and then some!