Colin Powell is an American icon. A former US secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this four-star general rose from modest beginnings as a child of immigrants to the heights of power as a military and civilian leader. In this autobiographical book of observations on leadership, Powell, collaborating with writer Tony Koltz, parses through his life and the opportunities he has had, distilling the valuable information he has learned into anecdotal teachings on management and leadership. Many of his conclusions are inspirational, though the book does bog down at times in diplomatic and military exploits. His treatment of his infamous 2003 UN presentation, when he asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, may leave some readers dissatisfied.
In this summary, you will learn
- What Colin Powell’s life taught him about leadership and
- Which 13 rules guide his decision making and the way he leads.
- Colin Powell, the son of hardworking Jamaican immigrants, became a top US military and government leader.
- During his illustrious careers, he became a four-star general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and US secretary of state.
- Powell follows 13 rules of leadership that have guided him throughout his career.
- Among them are: “Get mad, then get over it”; “check small things” and “be kind.”
- Corporate executives can learn from military commanders’ behaviors and rules.
- As a leader, discern where you need to be and when you need to be there for maximum effectiveness, whether it’s on the factory floor or at your desk.
- Leadership entails passing on “generations of experience.” Cultivate your team.
- “The Powell Doctrine” says that a nation at war should bring all its “decisive” military might to bear at the right place and time in pursuit of a clearly defined goal.
- The “Pottery Barn Rule” is another of Powell’s war axioms: “If you break it, you own it.”
- Secretary of State Powell put his credibility on the line in 2003 when he assured the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Colin Powell grew up in the Bronx in New York City, the son of Jamaican immigrants. He spent his teenage summers and school vacations working at a local store and at a soft-drink bottling plant. By dint of his strong work ethic, he managed to rise from the all-black porters’ staff to become the first African-American on the plant’s bottling-machine team. He learned it was important to “always do your best, [because] someone is watching.”
“Superior leadership is often a matter of superb instinct.”
“In the ‘heat of battle’ – whether military or corporate – kindness, like calmness, reassures followers and holds their confidence.”
Because of his race and less-than-stellar grades, Powell couldn’t aspire to any of the country’s elite military academies, but he did graduate from the City College of New York as a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet. He then served as an officer in the US Army, coming up through the infantry and doing two tours in Vietnam. He was an honors graduate of the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
“Every person in an organization has value and wants that value to be recognized…The person who came to clean my office each night was no less a person than the president, a general or a cabinet member.”
“If we need a battalion commander, he or she must have come up inside the organization. We don’t lateral them in from IBM.”
Colin Powell’s 13 Rules
Powell was the first African-American to head a “four-star troop command” when he became the general in charge of all stateside Army forces at the Army’s Forces Command (FORSCOM). In August 1989, a popular US magazine published a cover story on him that spelled out 13 of his favorite leadership maxims:
“When you first take over a new outfit, start out trusting the people there unless you have real evidence not to.”
“Respect for leaders by followers can’t be mandated; it must be earned.”
- “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.”
- “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.
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
“If you don’t know your job and can’t do it well, there is no reason why followers should respect you.”
“Corrections done in a firm and fair manner with an explanation are appreciated, not resented.”
On the Corporate Battlefield
Powell went on to serve a series 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. Throughout this time, his leadership experiences, rooted in the military, were critical.
“Good managers are good leaders, and good leaders are good managers. But great leaders have a special touch that separates them from managers.”
“Verified facts don’t always come pure, but with qualifiers.”
He found that in the military, the commanding officer needs to be in close proximity to the action to get timely information and make better decisions. And, similarly, a corporate executive has to discern where “the point of decision” is for any given issue or challenge. In some cases, leaders have to go into the trenches by visiting factory floors, operating plants or sales offices. But executives should also know when to retreat and let their teams get on with their work. Leaders do their jobs by ensuring that their workers have the essentials to execute their assignments.
“There are often better ways to get what you want done than to huff and puff and bellow out an order.”
“No plan survives first contact with an enemy.” (Military saying)
The armed forces provide some useful insights about developing employees. For example, military recruits learn to become soldiers during intensive basic training. At first, the recruits hate their tough drill sergeants, who never cut them any slack. But eventually, as they learn, the young soldiers come to appreciate their superiors. Leadership is all about passing on “generations of experience.” If you show your team respect, they will extend themselves for you. As secretary of state, Powell often had junior analysts, rather than senior officers, directly brief the president. This gave up-and-coming staffers valuable confidence and experience.
“I have run into too many people in public life who think they turn on the sun every morning.”
“The challenge in public life is to keep your balance.”
The military must continually and diligently train its troops. When it needs a new commander, the military doesn’t hire from the outside; it has a ready source of qualified candidates within the organization. In assessing an individual’s potential to advance, use the “50-50 rule”: Base your judgment on a candidate’s past performance but give equal weight to your own appraisal of how well you think the person could do in new and challenging circumstances.
“Never walk past a mistake.” Take the time to point out errors in a constructive manner because: 1) It shows you pay attention to detail; 2) others see that it’s alright to speak up when something is amiss; 3) team members respect leaders who care enough to correct them; 4) you set the standards of behavior for would-be leaders on your staff; and 5) it prevents small errors from getting any bigger.
Leaders in all fields need solid, reliable information to make good decisions. Employ these four rules for assessing information and sharing accountability:
- “Tell me what you know” – Substantiate and check your facts.
- “Tell me what you don’t know” – Question what might be missing or incomplete.
- “Then tell me what you think” – Don’t discount feelings, ideas or “wild beliefs.”
- “Always distinguish which is which” – Make decisions based on “facts, analysis, opinions, hunches” and “informed instinct” but know the difference among them.
During his career, Powell learned a great deal from his experiences as well as his mistakes. “The Powell Doctrine” represents his belief that a nation at war should bring all its “decisive” military might to bear at the right place and time in pursuit of a clearly defined goal. The doctrine begins, though, with the precept that countries should first use all political, economic and diplomatic means available to avoid war. A commanding US show of force after nonmilitary interventions had failed ended the first Gulf War successfully.
The “Pottery Barn Rule” – “if you break it, you own it” – is another idea that Powell made famous. As President George W. Bush considered an attack on Iraq in 2002, Powell warned him that, though a US military victory would come in short order, unforeseeable political and civilian consequences would likely arise. Within months of the war’s start, the president declared “mission accomplished” when the military achieved its objectives, but a subsequent insurgency led to chaos, atrocities and deaths because the US failed to plan for the war’s aftermath; “we broke it, we owned it, but we didn’t take charge.”
The greatest “blot” on Powell’s reputation stemmed from his UN presentation on February 5, 2003, when he did his best to convince world leaders that they should support America’s attack on Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Powell put his credibility on the line by assuring his audience that intelligence proved Iraq was producing, selling and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Yet no Iraqi WMDs ever turned up after the war. Powell blames the failure on erroneous reports, overreliance on one informant and a tight deadline.