Leadership Soup
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Leadership Soup

General Colin Powell’s 13 Leadership Principles

General Colin Powell was the first African-American to head a “four-star troop command” when he took command of United States Army Forces Command. In August 1989, he spelled out 13 of his favorite leadership principles.

  1. “It ain’t as bad as you think” — Actually, it may be that bad, or even worse, but this first rule relates how leaders should look at events and problems, regardless of their potential outcome. If leaders are negative and always expect the worst, their followers will abandon them. A good leader never exhibits defeat, indecision or fear. Powell’s positivity traces back to his training as an infantry officer, where he learned: “No challenge is too great for us, no difficulty we cannot overcome.”
  2. “Get mad, then get over it” — Despite having a “severe temper,” Powell learned that managing his anger is critical. In the early months of 2003, when the US was looking for international support for the upcoming Iraq War, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin publicly announced that France would block any military plans against Iraq; he made this declaration despite his private assurances to Powell that he would not broach the subject at that time. But Powell kept his cool and his friendship with de Villepin; France eventually supported the US through “six straight UN resolutions” on Iraq.
  3. “Avoid having your ego [too] close to your position” — When Powell was Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, one of his assistants frequently encouraged him to meet often with the members of Congress who controlled the US military’s purse strings. The assistant performed his duty with such persistence that Powell would often loudly order him out of his office; but this never deterred the aide, who always went back the next day to bug Powell again about going to Capitol Hill. The assistant understood that Powell’s irritated responses to his entreaties were not meant personally. Get your staffers to offer and justify their ideas, but once you decide on a course of action, demand that your team implement your decisions as enthusiastically as they argued for or against them: “Loyalty is disagreeing strongly and…executing faithfully.”
  4. “It can be done” — Always approach your challenges with the attitude that you can deal with them. Reality may prove otherwise, but beginning any project with a negative mind-set means that it almost always will end in failure. Be positive and ignore the cynics, but do consider differing viewpoints: “Try to be an optimist, but…try not to be stupid.”
  5. “Be careful what you choose: you may get it” — If possible, take time to reach decisions. Make reasoned choices “in the light of day and the darkness of night.” Opt for what you will be able to live with over the long term.
  6. “Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision” — Sometimes leaders must trust their instincts when opposing circumstances arise. Other times they must alter their plans depending on these facts. Leading is always about judging. In December 1989, the Philippine government, fearing a potential coup, asked for US intervention in preventing Philippine bombers from threatening the presidential palace. Despite the US president’s OK to attack the air base, Powell chose instead to use US fighter jets in maneuvers meant as warnings to possible rebels, thereby avoiding casualties and damage, and earning Powell the gratitude of the Philippine defense minister.
  7. “You shouldn’t let someone else” make your choices — Numerous corporations tempted Powell with well-paying executive positions when his tenure as secretary of state ended. However, one of his closest friends advised him against taking any of the jobs. “Why would you want to wear someone else’s T-shirt?” he asked Powell. “Remain free and wear your own T-shirt.” Similarly, when public opinion and political advisers pressed him to run for president, Powell followed his own counsel and demurred. Be in charge of your own thinking and the decisions you make; don’t cede your independence.
  8. “Check small things” — Smart leaders know their teams constantly bump up against thousands of minor details that, added together, determine the success or failure of any operation. All leaders must secure an accurate view into “the world of small things”: Make unannounced visits to workplaces, cultivate “informal observers” and trusted allies, and listen to what your staff members tell you.
  9. “Share credit” — To be effective, leaders must acknowledge and reward those responsible for successful projects. During a “change of command ceremony,” one of Powell’s commanding generals broke with tradition by ordering his officers to turn and salute their troops in recognition of their contributions. When things go wrong, however, leaders must accept full responsibility.
  10. “Remain calm. Be kind” — No matter what emergencies you face, stay centered and project an air of confidence and control. Maintain a “healthy zone of emotions,” displaying mostly calmness, but with occasional glimpses of kindness, anger or frustration, so your team will understand how to read you. Powell once let his rage at a sergeant charged with drunk driving boil over, pounding his fist on his desk so hard he cracked its glass top. The sergeant and Powell’s staff members got the message.
  11. “Have a vision” — Your team has to know and embrace the mission and goals it is expected to achieve. Create a sense of purpose. For example, a trash hauler at the Empire State Building in New York City explained his duties: “Our job is to make sure that tomorrow morning when people from all over the world come to this wonderful building, it shines, it is clean and it looks great.” Despite his lowly job, he had a soaring vision that ennobled his work.
  12. “Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers” — Powell first experienced hostile fire during an ambush in 1963 while serving in Vietnam as an adviser to a Vietnamese military unit. It was a frightening experience. He knew that, as an American and as someone taller than the Vietnamese soldiers, he made a tempting target for the enemy. But, as an officer, Powell knew he could not show fear. Prepare for it but never give in to your anxiety or to the cynical pessimists who always assume the worst.
  13. “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier” — The best armies exercise exemplary command and control to get more out of their forces on the ground. Superior logistics and well-trained officers are also force multipliers, as is positivity. Trust that your team will prevail; they will have a better chance of succeeding.

General Powell served a number of US presidents: He was a staff assistant under Jimmy Carter; a National Security Adviser for Ronald Reagan; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H. W. Bush; and US secretary of state for George W. Bush. His leadership experiences, rooted in the military, were critical to his success as a trusted leader.

Explore more of Powell’s Leadership journey in his book It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership where Powell goes deeper into the principles that have shaped his life and career, It’s an inspiring and engrossing memoir and great companion to his previous memoir, the #1 New York Times bestseller My American Journey, Powell’s It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership has a wealth of information for anyone hoping to achieve their goals and turn their dreams into reality. A message of strength and endurance from a man who has dedicated his life to public service.

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Pushing 50. Survivor of 3 wars, child abuse, divorce, parenthood, several near death experiences, endless meetings, and one too many Saints heartbreak seasons.