The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the United States Military Academy or the United States Government.
In 1925, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett with his son Jack and a small expedition ventured into the Xingu Region of the Amazon in search of what Percy believed to be evidence of an ancient amazonian civilization– which he termed “Z”. They were never heard from again.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale Of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann chronicles the life of Fawcett leading up to this expedition and the numerous failed rescue attempts that followed. It’s shrouded in adventure, and the unknown, in a way that never quite satisfies our desire for answers. And perhaps that’s the point.
There is something to be learned here from a stand point of a leader. On one hand, we are immersed into the life of Fawcett and his unwavering passion to push the limits of human exploration and make the unknown known. There is something deeply human about the desire to explore. We have always revered those that push the envelope and breakthrough boundaries– Edmund Hillary, Shakleton, Shepard, Armstrong, Yeager– are almost household names. They are pioneers, and eternal testaments to human achievement in the face of incredible odds and disbelief about what the world thought was even possible at the time.
“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”- Steve Jobs
Ashton Kutcher said of his role playing Steve Jobs in the latest movie chronicling the visionaries transformation from working out of his garage to CEO of one of the most profitable and innovative technology companies in history that this quote was one ‘of the most profound things’ he learned while preparing for the part. That kind of unwavering belief borders on the eccentric. In the case of Jobs, it eventually led to an incredible amount of success. And in the case of Fawcett, the result was catastrophic.
What separates relentless ambition and a visionary from a dangerous obsession? How can a leader push past conventional boundaries and still retain respect for limitations that might lead to an eventual down fall. How does one recognize the difference? Or does achieving one mean risking the other?
At some point you cannot have your cake and eat it to. Achieving long term successes inevitably means risking failure. Rampant risk aversion or a “zero-defect” mentality ultimately stifles creativity, innovation, and organizational change. Leaders have to be trusted and encouraged to take risks and not just when it is convenient– when it’s painful. Failure will happen. That needs to be taken as an opportunity to further develop leaders. This means cultivating a climate of candor, honesty, and acceptance of mistakes. There is nothing worse for leadership development than indecisiveness as a product of fears of failure, reprimand, or loss of career opportunity.
On the other hand, leaders must respect their limits. They need to be perceptive of risk, apply common sense to mitigation, and be mature enough to learn from their mistakes. Accepting responsibility for failure is a hard lesson to learn. Having the introspection to treat that failure as an opportunity for change and growth is what defines a leader.
In the end, it’s about learning to balance the two. And the character arcs of both Steve Jobs and Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett provide an example for both the benefits and consequences of that kind of visionary. Both embraced risk, both were willing to sacrifice everything for their vision, and both overcame a large amount of failures in their pursuit of change.
Ty Stephens is a Native of East Texas, and he is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with a BS in International Relations. After commissioning in 2011 as an Infantry Officer, he has served as both a Armored Platoon Leader and a Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader while assigned to 1st Battalion 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas. He has deployed in support of Operation Shared Accord to South Africa in 2013 and Operation Enduring Freedom- Horn of Africa in 2014. Ty has traveled to the North, Latin and South Americas, Western Europe, and South Asia. Ty enjoys the outdoors and adventure sports.