[October 15, 2019] The average person thinks that when people make mistakes, they should be punished (e.g., fired from their job, go to prison). This, however, does not fit reality. From experience, leaders quickly learn to tolerate the mistakes of others. They have learned that making mistakes is a well-trodden path to success for us all. Immediate punishment usually does not work.
“Remember that life’s greatest lessons are usually learned at the worst times and from the worst mistakes.” – Anonymous
I read that quote long ago. It was prominently displayed on the desk of one of my NCOs who had been a Rifleman in the Vietnam War. He had learned that lesson the hard way when his squad walked into an enemy ambush in 1968. His squad leader was killed instantly and he was now in charge of a nine-man unit in contact with a dedicated enemy. When under great stress, people make mistakes and Sergeant Ballard’s squad did that day. Only six American soldiers walked away alive.
A few days ago, I gave a talk to the Sons of the American Revolution. We had a fine evening and when I spoke, one of my main points was that those who came home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did so as better people. The news media distorts what these service members are like. You would think we all have PTSD or some brain injury. Hard times in combat make you stronger; it teaches what is important and not so important. Combat veterans can distinguish better between the two and live our lives better for it.
We all make mistakes and leaders have learned that by tolerating most mistakes, they will earn respect, loyalty, and deference from those they lead. On the other hand, leaders who possess a zero-tolerance mentality are hated for their lack of humanness and understanding. Humans are error prone. That is a simple fact of life. It matters not how much training, experience, and good intentions we have, mistakes will be made.
Good leaders tolerate mistakes. They also tolerate quirkiness, poor attitudes, disrespect, and stupidity. Sergeant Ballard said he could get along with just about any one; even the lazy soldier. The only thing he didn’t tolerate was an unsafe act with a weapon (which could get someone killed). Sergeant Ballard is like many other leaders who have found that understanding the motivations behind what humans do is a good way to improve yourself as a leader.