As a young Marine leader, I read a ton of books about leadership from great military minds. I read about their tactical expertise, their passions, and how they all enriched their capabilities through hard work and dedication to their craft. One leader who stuck out above the crowd was Colin Powell.
From his humble beginnings to his rise to Secretary of State, Colin Powell succeeded in every measurable way. But, he almost didn’t. That’s why I admired him so much.
At the onset of one of his books, Powell recalls his time as a young 1st Lt while he was on a mission in Africa. It was a peacekeeping mission but there had been the occasional fire fight. While taking his platoon out on a mounted patrol, Powell went out to inspect the soldiers. He went vehicle by vehicle to ensure that everyone had what they needed. After checking, the patrol went out to conduct their mission. After conducting the detail with no real action, Powell had the vehicles circle up for post checks. They did the typical weapons count and Powell noticed that one weapon was missing. It was his.
Right about that time, a runner from headquarters was attempting to reach Powell on his radio to report that a group of children was observed firing a weapon into the air at an area that Powell had marked as their halfway point. It was a pistol. Powell knew it was his.
Colin then went to his commander and reported that it was his weapon that was lost and possibly being used by the kids. The battalion commander pulled Powell to the side and said that he had seen Colin drop his pistol while he was getting into his truck earlier in the day. Powell apologized and said that he was willing to accept whatever punishment might come. The commander handed him back his pistol and continued their stern conversation.
Losing your weapon is a big fucking deal but the commander showed him some Grace. He told Powell that he had a bright future in the Army but it could be ended that day. A letter of reprimand for something like that on a deployment would have derailed his young career. He might not have made it to the rank of major much less the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
The commander told Powell that over the next few decades he would be in charge of troops and to remember that just because you can punish someone, doesn’t mean you always should. People make mistakes. Evaluate character and not just actions. Allow people space to improve.
From that moment, Powell said his idea of leadership changed. He went from a hard-nose, by the book commander, to a hard nose, by the book commander who lead with compassion and courage. He began living by a mantra that I quote often. Namely, he started living by the phrase Bloom Where You Are Planted.
The wild flower has no control over where its going to be germinated. It blows where ever the wind blows and lands where ever it lands. In the military and in life, many things are out of our control. Our bosses control where we live, the money we make, and the people we are around. We control our attitudes and actions in those moments and places. We chose to bloom or not. We work as hard as we can to flourish in the spot that we are in when we are in that spot. If we work to bloom where we are planted, that’s all we can do.
Colin Powell bloomed better than most. The world lost a legend. There’s no question about that. I hope that we can use his many lessons and example as the compost to help us continue to bloom where we are planted. We owe that to ourselves and those around us.
Fair winds and following seas.