Colin Powell’s 12 Leadership Lessons

colin-powellWhen Colin Powell isn’t taking on the right wing Republicans or Dick Cheney, Powell uses his leadership and diplomacy skills to improve the United States’ image on foreign policy. On the side, he’s also insisting that the Republican Party must be more inclusive and mainstream to remain viable in the future. Watching, listening, or reading about Powell in current events provides insight into his leadership principles.

Colin Powell on Leadership

Powell was featured in the new Success magazine’s article, “Leadership – From the Battlefield to the Boardroom: Colin Powell explains how to be a leader worth following.” Unfortunately, the article isn’t available online, but below are Powell’s leadership lessons, distilled into twelve  tips, quoted below with my commentary:

  1. Never be afraid to make people mad: “good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group. Some decisions you make may upset certain individuals; this is inevitable. Trying to be nice to everybody will only invite mediocrity and compromise your goals as leader.” I’m a believer that it’s okay to make people mad, as long as we’re making a point that we believe in and are professional in how we communicate it. When I was younger, I had the tendency to be too outspoken. Over the years, I’ve learned diplomacy.
  2. The soldiers stop bringing their problems is the day you have stopped leading them: “make yourself accessible and available. Too often, asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness, which leads to cover-ups and poor performance. Show your concern for the people below you.” Are your direct reports afraid to come to you? Find a way to convey that you’re open to any problems they have in their jobs, that you’ll work with them on discovering solutions.
  3. Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites: “always question what the experts say, if you don’t understand. Don’t assume that they know more than you, and certainly don’t be cowed into accepting something that you don’t fully understand.” When experts and elites are forced to breakdown complex ideas, you’ll be able to poke any potential holes in their position, if they were trying to hide problems with nomenclature or fancy words.
  4. Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard: “learn from the pros; seek them out as mentors and partners. But if you don’t agree with what they’re saying, let them know. Reputations shouldn’t be a hindrance to progress.” Similar to previous leadership, but with an emphasis on not getting psyched on being on the pro’s home court, where their power resides. Again, challenge the pros, but think to yourself, “How would Powell challenge them?” and then act accordingly.
  5. Never neglect the details. When everyone’s mind is distracted, the leader must be doubly vigilant: “all the ideas and visions in the world are worthless, if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to the details every day.” I’ve seen managers and leaders unable to communicate the details of what going in their department. Bad for the leader, bad for the department. Remember, effective managers and leaders delegate, but always know all the details of what’s several rungs down the corporate ladder.
  6. You don’t know what you can get away with until you try: “don’t wait for permission–just get things done. If you ask too many people, one of them will say no. So don’t ask.” Act now, apologize later works for self-starters. If you have confidence and a proven record of getting things done, then this approach is a perfect fit with your style. When I take initiative, I do so on my own time, if it’s something I believe, then if the work fails to take off, my manager could never accuse me of working on the wrong stuff. My ideas worked 90% of the time, so I had confidence that I was usually on the right track.
  7. Keep looking below surface appearances: “don’t assume that today’s realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy, linear, and predictable fashion. Take steps to solve problems as–or, if possible, before–they emerge.” Like icebergs, we never know how things are under the surface. When you look, you’ll be surprised at what you learn, possibly saving your job, department, or company.
  8. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds: “surround yourself with the brightest and the best. It will make the difference between organization and achievement.” If you’re threatened by people you’re hiring for your department, then you’re on the wrong track. Good managers and leaders hire people that exceptional in ways that compliment them, rather than feeling threatened or competitive with the job candidate. Don’t be small or petty, find the self-confidence to surround yourself with smart, accomplished people.
  9. Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your positions goes, your ego goes with it: “change is stifled by people who cling to their turf. Effective leaders create a climate where people’s worth is determined by their willingness to learn new skills and new responsibilities.” Working identity can be too narrowly defined, limited our self-image or to a specific job. I used to be attached to titles, when you work your way up the ladder, this happens. But when I changed from VP to entrepreneur, my working identity was off. I was no longer a VP. I didn’t know what to expect from being an entrepreneur. I had to change my perception and evolve my working identity.
  10. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier: “leaders who cast blame or whine engender those same behaviors among their staff. Have an attitude that says, ‘We can change things here, we can achieve our goals, we can be the best.’” Does your team or department reflect you? Do you like what you see? If you’re self aware, you may be willing to admit that you team have a negative outlook, rather than a positive one. Value and teach optimism in work and in life. Life’s too short to always be looking at a glass that’s half empty.
  11. Have fun in your command. Take leave when you’ve earned it. Spend time with your family.: “finding the right balance is essential; a happy home life means greater productivity in the workplace.” I once failed to travel to one of my closes friends during a crisis. She’s like a sister to me, which why I should have traveled to her in time of need. I’ve never forgotten this lesson. We can’t change the past, but we can change how we behave from this moment on. Commit to not putting career ahead of your family.
  12. Command is lonely: “the buck stops here. The essence of leadership is the willingness to make the tough decisions. Prepare to be lonely.” Sometimes, we’re the only one, who’s willing to say, “I take responsibility. My department did it.” in a conference room, when none of your peers are willing to hold themselves accountable for less than stellar company performance. It’s also lonely, when you have to make the touch decisions that your team will not be happy with. You get paid to be the manager and leader, making the tough decisions. You’re not paid for being their buddy.

Take Powell’s leadership’s lessons to heart. While you may not agree on his politics, you will most likely agree with how skillful he is, when he discusses his politics or America’s international relations.

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