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Powell balanced caution with boldness

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Colin Powell showed bravery in combat—once rescuing his comrades after a helicopter wreck in Vietnam— but it was in military strategy that he always achieved a perfect score.

That’s why graduating second irked him. He’d always come in first.

The occasion was an appointment to the Command and General Staff College in 1967. With the military hustling up officers to send to Vietnam, the usual class size had doubled to more than 1,300.

After a year of studies, Powell graduated second. He found the reason in one question on his final exam.

It was a hypothetical question asking for his command decision in the event of an enemy attack. Powell decided on a tactical defense. He would withhold his counterattack until he had more information about the enemy’s strength and position.

The instructor marked him down for not taking a bolder approach. At first, Powell second-guessed himself, but later he reconsidered. In hindsight, he decided that he’d been right to remain cautious and gather intelligence instead of immediately launching an attack. He’d be ready and aim before he’d shoot.

Over the years, Powell remembered that test as a window into his brain: He’d never rush ahead until the scouts did their work. History is filled with bold attacks that ended in disaster.

At the same time, Powell knew caution could paralyze him, and he was instinctively cautious. So, he carried an index card that he slid under the glass tops of his desks. It said, “Avoid Conservatism.” He would strive to be swift, but sure.

By the time the general retired in 1993, surveys showed him to be “the most trusted man in America.”

Lesson: Set up data-gathering processes early, and keep them well-oiled and well-used. That way, you’ll prevent foolish blunders. But when the time comes to strike, you’ll be ready.

—Adapted from Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, Karen DeYoung, Alfred A. Knopf.

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