How do you address mistakes by your subordinates? Do you fry them? Do you make an example of them? Do you fire them: One and Done? Or do you use mistakes as an opportunity to teach, to mentor, and to develop your team? Retired General Colin Powell, in My American Journey, tells the following story of his experiences as a new Army officer:
One day (Powell's Commanding Officer) Captain Miller summoned me. He was assigning my platoon to a secret mission. We had been selected to guard a 280 (atomic cannon). I eagerly alerted my men. I loaded my .45 caliber pistol, jumped into my jeep, and headed for battalion headquarters to be briefed. I was excited; I was going to guard a weapon that fired a nuclear warhead!
I had not gone far when I reached down for the reassuring feel of the .45. It was gone. I was petrified. In the Army, losing a weapon is serious business. I was torn between taking time to look for the pistol and getting on with the mission. Finally, I realized that I had to radio Captain Miller and tell him what had happened.
"Powell, are you on your way yet?" he asked right off the bat.
"Yes, sir. But you see...I lost my pistol."
"You what?" he said in disbelief, then, after a few seconds, added, "All right, continue the mission."
After being briefed at battalion headquarters, I returned to pick up my unit, uneasily contemplating my fate. I had just passed through a little German village when I spotted Captain Miller waiting for me in his jeep at the wood line. He called me over. "I've got something for you," he said. He handed me the pistol. "Some kids in the village found it where it fell out of your holster." Kids found it? I felt a cold chill. "Yeah," he said. "Luckily they only got off one round before we heard the shot and came and took the gun away from them." The disastrous possibilities left me limp. "For God's sake, son," Miller said, "don't let that happen again."
He drove off. I checked the magazine; it was full. The gun had not been fired. I learned that I had dropped it in my tent before I ever got started. Miller had fabricated the whole scene about the kids to scare me into being more responsible. He never mentioned the incident again.
Today, the Army would have held an investigation, called in lawyers, and likely have entered a fatal black mark on my record. Instead, Miller concocted his imaginative story. He evidently thought, I've got this ordinarily able second lieutenant. Sometimes he gets a little ahead of his skis and takes a tumble. I'll teach him a lesson, scare the bejeezus out of him; but let's not ruin his career before it gets started.
Miller's example of humane leadership that does not always go by the book was not lost on me. When they fall down, pick 'em up, dust 'em off, pat 'em on the back, and move 'em on.
Thankfully for us all, Captain Miller did not subscribe to the "Zero Defects Mentality" that causes the loss of potential talent in many organizations. This environment also prevents risk taking and discourages the workers whose initiatives often enable the success of our teams. Most of those early mistakes - and those who make them - are worth underwriting. Using mistakes as opportunities to learn certainly helped young Lieutenant Powell. That's Leader Business.