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The Mistake of a Lifetime!


Most of us associate the name “Tom Watson” with the golfer. But there was another famous Tom Watson Sr who served as the chairman and CEO of IBM corporation. He was a self-made man and became one of the world’s richest men. He was also known as the greatest salesman of all time. His leadership and management style became a culture at IBM. After taking over the company’s leadership, revenues doubled within 4 years and went on to skyrocket over the course of time.


But along the way, he made some errors in judgement…errors that resulted in "black eyes" and made it hard to forgive himself. In 1937, Watson was the President of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and was an unofficial foreign diplomat for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That year the ICC convention was held in Berlin. Watson’s keynote address was entitled “World Peace Through World Trade” which would go on to become a slogan for both the ICC and IBM.


Berlin was chosen as the site of the convention because IBM’s German subsidiary company was its most profitable foreign operation. IBM had been working with Germany in a strategic partnership for years to create and provide tabulating census equipment for Nazi Germany. Little did he know at the time that this equipment would be used to assist Hitler in rounding up Jews for the Holocaust. It was during this conference in Berlin in 1937 that the new equipment and machines would be unveiled. It was also the time when Tom Watson first met Adolph Hitler.


Hitler was charismatic and charming, and he was thrilled with the “punch card” machines IBM had developed (which today can be seen in the Holocaust Museum). Those living in Germany were given a punch card as a general census. Each individual trait of a person had a particular punch hole. The punch cards were fed into a “reader” and sorted, identifying Jews by name and providing the necessary census data to locate them. Essentially, the cards served as bar codes for human beings.


Hitler was so pleased that he awarded Watson the Order of the German Eagle at the ICC convention. Watson eventually sent the medal back in 1940 after discovering the real intent of use for the machines. His guilt was deeply embedded and an error in judgment he would not forget. In 1941, Germany declared war on the United States. IBM became deeply involved in the war effort, developing data processing equipment and experimenting with analog computers. Watson developed a 1% maximum profit mandate for all equipment sold to the U.S. Government during the war. Both sons served in the war, with his eldest becoming a bomber pilot.


Tom Watson was a man of honorable beliefs and deep conviction. At times he had a volatile temper. But those who knew him best said it was reserved for those in management who failed to think before making a decision, those who made errors of integrity or character, or those who made the same error twice. His own error in judgment haunted him, yet it made him a more compassionate leader for those under him who made “thoughtful” mistakes.

Years later, IBM had survived the Great Depression, but inventory levels were increasing daily. There were those on the board of directors who were lobbying to have Watson removed as President. Sales desperately needed to be made.


IBM had a bid on the table with the U.S. Government for nearly a million dollars. The salesman working the deal failed, and IBM lost the bid. The salesman reported immediately to Watson’s office to relay the bad news and handed him an envelope with his letter of resignation. He knew how badly IBM needed this deal. Before opening the letter, Watson asked him to explain why the bid failed. The salesman thoughtfully and honestly outlined every step of the deal, offering ways that he perhaps could have done things differently.


As the salesman stood to leave, he thanked Watson for the opportunity to explain what happened. Watson stood with him and followed him to the door. Looking him in the eyes, he handed the resignation letter back and stated, “Why would I accept this when I have just invested a million dollars in your education?”


This story has always resonated with me on a deep level. There have been many times I have failed, made poor decisions, and felt like a complete disappointment. There have even been times when I wondered if I had blown God’s plan for my life. But God kindly informed me…I am not THAT powerful! And He reminded me that He has WAY too much invested in me to let me just give up or walk away…His Son.


I have learned the hard way that life is a lot like riding a tandem bike. There were many times I was sitting on the front seat and He was helping me pedal. I’d run into potholes and dead ends. Then He suggested that we exchange places, and life has not been the same since. At times I was worried or anxious about giving up the control seat. But

I have learned that He knows all the delightful side roads. There are still times when I still get scared or nervous, but He touches my hand and says, “It’s okay…I know bike secrets.” And it’s been a lot more comforting to ride on the back seat. It took a while, but I have learned to just shut up and pedal!


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Anne Hope is the award winning author of Bent Pages...a sharp, funny, and deeply

inspirational narrative.


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