Colin Powell on leadership

From business to military to politics, Colin Powell’s principles of leadership will serve you well…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Remember Colin Powell?

Colin Powell is an American politician, diplomat and retired four-star general, who served as the United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005. Powell also served as the United States National Security Advisor from 1987 to 1989 and as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993.

He had a widely distributed set of thirteen leadership principles that I used in my classes precisely because they were so universally applicable.

From business to military, and from family to international politics, these principles will serve you well;

1. It Ain’t as Bad as You Think! It Will Look Better in the Morning. Leaving the office at night with a winning attitude affects more than you alone; it conveys that attitude to your followers.

2. Get Mad Then Get Over It. Instead of letting anger destroy you, use it to make constructive change.

3. Avoid Having Your Ego so Close to your Position that When Your Position Falls, Your Ego Goes With It. Keep your ego in check, and know that you can lead from wherever you are.

4. It Can be Done. Leaders make things happen. If one approach doesn’t work, find another.

5. Be Careful What You Choose. You May Get It. Your team will have to live with your choices, so don’t rush.

6. Don’t Let Adverse Facts Stand in the Way of a Good Decision. Superb leadership is often a matter of superb instinct. When faced with a tough decision, use the time available to gather information that will inform your instinct.

7. You Can’t Make Someone Else’s Choices. You Shouldn’t Let Someone Else Make Yours. While good leaders listen and consider all perspectives, they ultimately make their own decisions. Accept your good decisions. Learn from your mistakes.

8. Check Small Things. Followers live in the world of small things. Find ways to get visibility into that world.

9. Share Credit. People need recognition and a sense of worth as much as they need food and water.

10. Remain calm. Be kind. Few people make sound or sustainable decisions in an atmosphere of chaos. Establish a calm zone while maintaining a sense of urgency.

11. Have a Vision. Be Demanding. Followers need to know where their leaders are taking them and for what purpose. To achieve the purpose, set demanding standards and make sure they are met.

12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers. Successful organizations are not built by cowards or cynics.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. If you believe and have prepared your followers, your followers will believe.

Each one of these principles speaks to underlying guidelines and assumptions about leadership, progress and group cohesion and purpose.

Powell was a career military man. As such, he learned directly that decisions and policies hold literally life or death consequences.

Our decisions may involve hiring and firing or budgetary cutbacks, but his principles still hold.

An organization of any size, from small family to corporate behemoth could profit, perhaps literally, from following his hard-earned life lessons.

I’d like to expand on just a few of these.

1. It Ain’t as Bad as You Think! It Will Look Better in the Morning.

No matter how crazy or catastrophic a situation looks. A good night’s sleep can make a world of difference in your ability to both see and respond to it.

A guiding principle that I’ve used before is that almost nothing is as bad – or as good – as we imagine it to be.

2. Get Mad Then Get Over It.

No matter what happened, or whose fault it might be, life goes on and new challenges and opportunities will emerge.

Getting “stuck” in vengeance or personal vendettas will derail the best of companies – and the most important of projects.

Vindictiveness will poison every relationship and potential deal.

Potential business partners will never forget pettiness and revenge.

A flow of “disgruntled former employees” from your organization is the worst possible legacy.

3. Avoid Having Your Ego so Close to your Position that When Your Position Falls, Your Ego Goes With It.

There’s an old saying that a dysfunctional family cares about who is right. A functional family cares about what is right.

As a parent, as a CEO, or even as a friend, if your ego gets tied into a position, and anyone who disagrees or holds a different perspective is seen as an enemy, the original problem gets lost or obscured and all the energy that could have solved the problem gets squandered on personal attacks or defensiveness.

Ideas or positions should be valued no matter where they come from. And, as too many of us have forgotten lately, the ability to change one’s mind due to reflection or new information, is a sign of strength and resilience, not weakness.

There’s an old saying that in any difficult situation we have the choice between loyalty and integrity.

Loyalty to a cause or an individual is likely to lead you into compromise, if not destruction. Integrity never will.

4. It Can be Done.

The whole purpose of leadership, after all, is to get things done.

Unsettling and unexpected situations emerge constantly.

History may inform us about how people dealt with similar situations, but we need to be careful about what lessons we draw from their experience.

After all, there are few messes that humans of every age have been able to avoid, and few, if any, unique to any single generation.

Wars, disasters, recessions and betrayals are part of the fabric of human history, if not existence.

Sometimes we prevail, and sometimes we slog through and are lucky if we survive.

As another observer put it, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Few things are worse than premature proclamations of victory. Whether it’s a baseball game or a war, or even a family disagreement, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

And it “ain’t over” until we all agree that it’s over.

It might seem like a throw-back to an ancient, even mythical era, to think of leaders who stand for principle and integrity and not for their own self-promotion and aggrandizement, but integrity and sacrifice for a larger purpose is what true leadership has always been, and will always be.

These are the leaders who not only “lead” but they bring out the best in each one of us.