Fail British-ly: Dunkirk’s Lessons on Failing Well

So, you’re going through a failure?

As bad as it is, I doubt it’s quite as bad as the failure of the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940.

After the rapid German conquest of France, British troops were holed up at this last French port on the English channel. With the enemy closing in, the only Western Allies worth speaking of were about to lose the core of their ground forces.

Then the “miracle” happened. You know the story. Small craft from Britain – personal boats, fishing boats, even a canoe – crossed the English channel in the hundreds to carry British troops to safety. The evacuation at Dunkirk was still caused by (in Churchill’s words) “a colossal military disaster” – the loss of France. But the evacuation itself was a clear example of how to respond to a failure and snatch a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat.*

I think there are a few things we can learn from the British Expeditionary Force and Dunkirk about how to fail well:

1. Beat a steady retreat.

Be orderly and be prompt, just like the British. Failure doesn’t have to be a cause of panic, and it shouldn’t be. Put another way, if you’re going through the hell of a failure, keep on going and get through it as fast as you can.

2. Provide covering fire for others.

While ground troops waited for evacuation, the Royal Air Force (RAF) downed 262 German aircraft in an astounding number of fighter sorties.

The lesson here? Don’t just save yourself. With most failures, someone else is also failing or reaping negative consequences.  Do what you can to give them covering fire and let them escape with fewer scratches. They’ll be more likely to help you out in a later fight if they do.

3. Buy yourself a second chance.

The British objective at Dunkirk was to save as much as possible of the remaining Allied ground force. With it, the Allies could still have a fighting chance of holding Nazi Germany back from taking the English mainland.

Like the British, you should already be thinking about starting over and rebuilding from the moment failure becomes evident. Fail in such a way that you save as much as possible of what you’ll need to start over.

4. Look for unlooked-for help.

The civilian craft which rescued British troops were not what you’d think to expect from a rescue force. But they did the job.

If you don’t find help or a solution where you expect it, start thinking outside of the box. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your imagination may be too limited to see the solution you need.

5. Inspire others.

The British handled a “colossal military disaster” with rare gracefulness and courage. You can do the same in your failure. It will at least help others handle their inevitable failures better.

6. Don’t plan to come back the same way.

When the British landed troops in France again in 1944, they didn’t come through Dunkirk, or any of the northern French ports. They landed in the less-likely target of Normandy.

Similarly, you’ll only bounce back from your failure if you don’t try to re-tread the same paths. A failure is a signal that the old ways of doing things no longer work. Move on, and take a new approach – one that failure won’t expect.

* Like most people, my historical knowledge of this event comes from brief historical sketches and, of course, the excellent Christopher Nolan movie Dunkirk.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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