Don’t Punish Every Mistake

In one of my assignments as a young infantry officer, I was sent to the 48th Infantry near Frankfort, Germany. In those days our prize weapon was a huge 280-mm atomic cannon. Guarded by infantry platoons, these guns were hauled around the forests on trucks to keep the Soviets from guessing their location.

One day Captain Tom Miller assigned my platoon to guard a 280. I alerted my men, loaded my .45 caliber pistol and jumped into my jeep. I had not gone far when I realized that my .45 was gone.

I was petrified. In the army, losing a weapon is serious business. I had no choice but to radio Captain Miller and tell him. “You what?” he said in disbelief. He paused a few seconds, then added, “All right, continue the mission.”

When I returned, uneasily contemplating my fate, Miller called me over. “I’ve got something for you,” he said, handing 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 took the gun away.” The disastrous possibilities left me limp. “For God’s sake, son, don’t let that happen again.”

He drove off. I checked the magazine and found it was full. The gun had not been fired. Later, I learned that I had dropped it in my tent before I ever got started. Miller had fabricated the scene about the kids to give me a good scare.

Today the army might hold an investigation, call in lawyers and likely enter a bad mark on my record. Miller gave me the chance to learn from my mistake. His example of intelligent leadership was not lost on me. Nobody ever got to the top without slipping up. When someone stumbles, I don’t believe in stomping on him. My philosophy is “Pick ’em up, dust ’em off and get ’em moving again.”

Colin Powell
From the book, “A Cup of Chicken Soup for the Soul”

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