Good Leaders Tolerate Mistakes

By | October 15, 2019

[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.

“It’s funny how, when things seem the darkest, moments of beauty present themselves in the most unexpected places.” – Karen Marie Moning in Dreamfever

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.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

16 thoughts on “Good Leaders Tolerate Mistakes

  1. JT Patterson

    This idea that leaders do tolerate some level of mistakes is one that my first boss taught me. I’d drop a plate and broke it while working as a teenager in a local diner. He said that I should be careful, BUT, he would not fire me this time. “Learn from your mistakes and you will go far.” Good lessons from a diner owner in a small town.

  2. Dennis Mathes

    Learning lessons “in the worst of times” is certainly a great point to make. You WILL REMEMBER the lessons from those times. I certainly remember when a tornado hit our little town in Oklahoma when I was a kid growing up in the northeast part of the state. It wiped out a good part of our neighborhood. I learned that neighbors are some of the most important people on Earth.

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      I agree Dennis. This is a major point that should not be pushed aside. Let’s all remember, however, that not all important lessons are learned the hard way.

    2. Eva Easterbrook

      Really? Not many people get to experience such extreme weather conditions. I hope we never do. Thanks Dennis for sharing.

  3. Jane Fillmore

    Thanks for another great article. This one is wrapped in a couple of stories. I like the way this is done … the reason is that it helps me remember the content and your point. Please continue writing.

  4. The Kid 1945

    Gen. Satterfield, you have certainly met some real ‘characters’ in your travels and time with the Army. You must have a big stack of stories to tell. Me? I really only had a simple life. Thanks for making my day to show how it is possible to do good things for others. This NCO (what does that mean) was certainly a good man to know.

    1. Lynn Pitts

      Hi “thekid1945”. NCO stands for Non-Commissioned Officer. It’s a term in the military that generally categorizes Sergeants. They are also referred to, often, as the ‘backbone’ of the military because they are the men and women who carry out the plans of more senior officers.

    2. Len Jakosky

      I see that Lynn has already noted what NCO stands for. What is important in Gen. Satterfield’s point on NCOs is that they are the pivot on which success is made or not made in the military. Without NCOs, there would be no success in the US Army or other services.

  5. Scotty Bush

    Excellent article today, thank you Gen. Satterfield.

  6. Army Captain

    Leaders must balance mistakes with the impact it has on the organization’s mission and those who are part of it. There will be mistakes (unintentional actions) that will not be tolerated and some that will be. It takes a leader who makes good judgments to determine which is which.

    1. Ronny Fisher

      Army Captain, point well taken. This is why there are leaders. They have the experience, intelligence, and judgmental character to make fair and equitable decisions on this issue.

    2. Harry Donner

      Thank you Army Captain. Point well taken. This is often overlooked when discussing great leadership.

      1. Eric Coda

        This is exactly why I keep coming back to the comments section too. It helps clarify and, on occasion, there is a bit of humor too. Thanks guys for adding to the discussion.

      2. Greg Heyman

        I couldn’t have said it better. Too many folks overlook simply too much in the leader who have to balance at lot of issues.

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