Colin Powell — Leadership Style & Principles
For the past half century, Colin Powell has distinguished himself as one of the most impactful leaders in public life. The leadership style and lessons you can learn from Colin Powell are actually timeless principles. The beauty is that you can take his core leadership principles and adapt them to your own situation.
Colin Powell has been an American statesman and a retired four-star general in the US Army.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell drove the strategy behind the American military’s victory in the Persian Gulf War. As secretary of state, he deeply impacted foreign policy. And as a private citizen, Colin Powell crossed party lines to endorse Barack Obama twice.
Since his retirement from public office in 2004, Colin Powell has spent much of his time sharing his leadership knowledge with the business community.
I have been a long-time fan of Colin Powell. I find his approach to be honest, courageous, and humane. He is very clear about his frailties and emphasizes the fact that leaders and decision makers need to make decisions in a world with less-than-perfect information and in a world where we will not have all the possible data.
His leadership rules are full of emotional intelligence and general wisdom for any leader. For anyone in leadership, they are worth remembering and applying.
Colin Powell’s rules are full of wisdom and application. They remain powerful lessons for any leader. These rules encourage leaders to manage their emotions effectively, have a realistic sense of who they are as a person, model the behavior they want from others, take tough stands as appropriate, and treat their teams with respect.
These Colin Powell leadership principles provide useful lessons relevant for every profession and will only help you grow as a leader and become successful in life.
In today’s post, we will discuss the leadership style and principles of Colin Powell which are applicable to use in our everyday lives both in and out of the office. I believe the lessons you can learn below are especially pertinent in today’s highly charged, deeply polarized climate.
Principle #1: Get Mad Then Get Over It
OK, you’re mad — maybe even righteously so! So, instead of letting anger destroy you, use it to make constructive change in the organization. Acknowledge and accept that you are angry and then use your anger in an effective manner for your own benefit and the benefit of others.
Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
Optimism is infectious. Maintaining a positive attitude and an air of confidence is as important for you as it is for those around you. People will feed off your optimism. Believe in your purpose, believe in yourself, and believe in your people. And they’ll believe in you.
The ripple effect of a leader’s enthusiasm and optimism is awesome. So is the impact of cynicism and pessimism.
Leaders who whine and blame engender those same behaviors among their colleagues. I am not talking about stoically accepting organizational stupidity and performance incompetence with a “what, me worry?” smile. I am talking about a gung-ho attitude that says “we can change things here, we can achieve awesome goals, we can be the best.” Spare me the grim litany of the realist; give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.
It is hard for a leader to inspire confidence and resilience in others if he cannot keep his composure in times of difficulty.
It is hard for a leader to garner loyalty from others if he treats them badly. Remain calm and be kind and your team will climb mountains for you! There’s always going to be days when events — or people — push you to the edge. When you do lose your temper, don’t lose control at the same time. People always remember the leader with a bad temper, and never in a good way.
Colin Powell argues it’s important to keep your emotions in check, but that, to some degree, it is unrealistic to think you will never get mad at certain situations.
However, he warns against the leader who holds a grudge and decides that he simply “can’t get over it.” In fact, great leaders must get over it. More important, they must take responsibility for communicating to those who experienced their anger and, if not apologize, at least explain where the anger was coming from.
Yes, we are emotional beings. Yes, situations make us angry.
Colin Powell learned to process the anger and get over it quickly so he could think strategically and find the right solution — without letting anger poison the thought process. This can be a challenge for young leaders — particularly if they have high standards for themselves and expect the same of others.
In those times when the challenge to maintain perpetual optimism may be reaching a highly difficult time, that is when it’s need and value are indeed at their highest.
Leaders will find not only the opportunity to continually assert that unwavering confidence and passion for what they are dedicated to, but will inevitably act in a manner that prepares their followers for the opportunity to fully share the successes that await them.
Principle #2: It Can Be Done
Leaders are about making things happen. They continually ask, Why Not, when faced with the improbable. While one approach may not work, it can be done another way. Find the other way to make it happen!
Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.
Just about anything can be accomplished if you set your mind to it, have the necessary resources, and the time to get it done. Don’t succumb to the skeptics; listen to what they have to say and consider their perspective but stay focused and positive.
Don’t go looking for a no and don’t look for a yes. Take action, work around the rules of the game, and get things done.
Mediocre leaders carry out standing orders and passively wait for more orders. Proactive leaders take action. Have the mindset of: “If I haven’t explicitly been told no, I can do it” versus “If I haven’t explicitly been told yes, I can’t do it.” Create an environment that allows people to push the envelope. Give them the authority, space, and obligation to do so. Protect those who take initiative if something goes wrong. Learn the lessons from failed attempts and move on.
When you find a problem, solve it.
Too often we might be tempted to ignore something if it makes us uncomfortable, or might require a difficult conversation with someone. But avoiding, burying, or minimizing the problem doesn’t make it go away. As leaders we need to have the courage to see things for what they are, confront that reality, and find real solutions that make a difference.
“If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the scared.
It’s an excuse for inaction, a call to non-arms. It’s a mindset that assumes (or hopes) that today’s realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy, linear and predictable fashion. Pure fantasy. In this sort of culture, you won’t find people who proactively take steps to solve problems as they emerge.
There is no one size fits all, so remain flexible in your approach. Don’t fall into rigid patterns of behavior or use packaged responses to problems.
Constantly change your approach to fit evolving situations. Don’t become wedded to a particular business model, management theory, program, technique, or style. Remember, problem solving is the core of leadership. Employ the most effective tool for the situation at hand. Again, be willing to change and innovate — be willing to change your approach. You can’t fight the next war with the last war’s tactics.
Principle #3: Keep Your Ego In Check
Your position is what you do to live, it is not who you are. Leaders that have their egos in check can lead from wherever they are. For them, the position was just a means to an ends — not the ends itself. You can always lead!
Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
People who think that their way is the only way tend to experience a lot of disappointment. Things aren’t always going to go your way, that’s just a fact of life. Be humble enough to accept that fact. A jacked up ego is a collaboration killer. Oh, and you can kiss creativity buh-bye.
Too often, change is stifled by people who cling to familiar turfs and job descriptions.
One reason that even large organizations wither is that managers won’t challenge old, comfortable ways of doing things. But real leaders understand that, nowadays, every one of our jobs is becoming obsolete. Effective leaders create a climate where people’s worth is determined by their willingness to learn new skills and grab new responsibilities, thus perpetually reinventing their jobs. The most important question in performance evaluation becomes not, “How well did you perform your job since the last time we met” but “How much did you change it?”
Strong leaders work to make themselves obsolete so their people are self-sufficient.
This allows them to go on to tackle bigger and better problems. Weak leaders hold on to control and decision-making so they remain critical to the current processes. And while it may give them job security, it will limit their professional growth.
Left unchecked, an ego can be a destructive force.
It may keep you from admitting you don’t know something you need to learn, or persuade you not to consider the areas you need to improve upon. Sometimes it takes the form of the fear of looking foolish, which can keep you from speaking up or taking a chance on an opportunity. The best leaders understand that big egos come with big expectations, and they resist the constant temptation to measure themselves against others. They compare themselves only to their own ideals and aspirations as they decide what’s most important and focus on getting there.
Here’s something to keep in mind as you strive to keep your ego in check: Many great innovators, including Steve Jobs, have had strong beliefs, loosely held.
They have strong self-esteem and confidence in their abilities and methods. But they also change course any time a better option arises that is in keeping with their values and goals. These leaders understand that to change the external world, they first must change themselves. When we change how we perceive the world, how we think about and understand the world, and how we act in the world, we will begin to grow again as leaders.
Principle #4: Share Credit
It is probably our occidental culture but leader worship seems engrained in us. The executives get all of the attention and most of the credit for a company’s success. While leaders are indispensable to success, the truth is the leader did not achieve all that success by himself. His success is built on the talents of the women and men working with him to achieve the vision. Without them, he would not be successful.
So, share the credit with others! Some of it rightfully belongs to them anyway.
Success relies on the effort of the entire team, not just the leader. Recognition motivates people in ways that are immeasurable. Don’t be a glory hog. Share credit where credit is due and allow your people to stand in the spotlight. It isn’t about you. It’s about them.
When stuff goes well make sure you pass that praise down to those who deserve the recognition.
Likewise, when something bad happens, take the blame, figure out why it happened, and fix it. The higher up you go in leadership, the more credit you get for anything going well. Consequently, you get more criticism for things going poorly. Leadership is about sharing credit and taking blame. When things go well, spread the credit around. Don’t hoard it.
The “credit others” mindset is fundamental for impactful leadership.
If something goes well and people notice, they already know you’re the leader and played an important part in the success. You don’t need to remind them. Instead, take every opportunity to highlight the work of those who aren’t in the spotlight. People respect leaders who make them feel valued, and that value is much more important than an outsider’s opinion.
Leadership is giving. Great leaders understand that leading others involves serving their followers as best as possible at all times.
Giving credit to others simply shows gratitude. And gratitude is an essential ingredient in building faith and loyalty in one’s leader. Great leaders are not interested in personal accolades as much as the well being of their followers and their overall mission. They express their gratitude to their followers whenever they can.
The reality is, when a leader makes another person look good, it makes them look good too.
By giving others credit a leader will be perceived in the following ways: more effective in their overall leadership effectiveness, fairer, committed to help others succeed, does what is best for the company, walks their talk, accepts responsibility, is trusted, lives their principles and core values, and values diversity.
When you lead people, they become reflections of yourself. That how culture is built, by leading by example to see mistakes not as the end of the line, but as the beginning of growth.
True leaders pull the thumb, before they point the finger. They turn each misstep into an opportunity to learn from the mistake instead of pointing figures and always fall forward. They privately address their team members’ mistakes with them but take the blame publicly without dissent. They pick up team members who slip, don’t point the finger and pass the blame.
Principle #5: Pick The Right People
Lost sometimes in the language of employee participation, servant leadership, motivation, etc. is the fact that leaders are demanding when it comes to fulfilling the vision. Effective leaders do not accept poor performance and mediocre results. Be clear about what needs to be done and hold people accountable for fulfilling their roles and responsibilities.
Look for intelligence and judgment and, most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also look for integrity, a high energy drive and the drive to get things done.
More often than not, we ignore these attributes in favor of length of resume, degrees, and prior titles. A string of job descriptions a recruit held yesterday seem to be more important than who one is today, what she can contribute tomorrow or how well his values mesh with those of the organization.
It’s easier to train a bright and willing novice in your business than teaching someone to have integrity.
Avoid people who give lip service, back stab, and play political games in an attempt to undermine a decision. Don’t pick people who passively wait for marching orders. Hire those with initiative. Hire those that inspire others and share knowledge. Who aren’t overly impressed with own importance, but are self-assured. Those that have self-awareness and work hard on humility.
Effective leaders embrace cultural diversity, encouraging those associated with their organizations not to shy away from or try to alter their heritage or backgrounds.
Leaders should view differences in perspective as an asset, not a liability. Homogeneous environments can lead to sterile thinking, while companies that engender inclusion benefit from the richness of a broad range of perspectives. A leader overseeing a team of all quarterbacks or a company without true diversity does so at his or her own peril.
Any good leader knows that your most critical decision is how you hire and whom you work with. People are your best capital and your biggest asset.
And if you get it wrong, it is literally the difference between success and failure. Talent is built-in, while experience is earned. The former is internal, while the latter is external. But the talent is ultimately the origin of the success. Looking for individuals who are passionate about the company and the position can alleviate many talent shortages.
In a brain-based economy, your best assets are people. But how many leaders really walk the talk with this stuff?
Too often, people are assumed to be empty chess pieces to be moved around by grand viziers, which may explain why so many top managers immerse their calendar time in deal making, restructuring and the latest management fad. How many immerse themselves in the goal of creating an environment where the best, the brightest, the most creative are attracted, retained and-most importantly — unleashed?
Principle #6: The Decision Is Yours
While good leaders listen and consider all perspectives, they ultimately make their own decisions and take responsibility for their choices. If it does not feel, seem, or smell right, it may not be right. Make your own decision about what is in your own best interests. Accept your good decisions. Learn from your mistakes.
Don’t rush into a bad decision. Take the time to consider your options, weigh the relevant facts, and make reasoned assumptions.
Once you pull the trigger, there are no do-overs. So make it count. Colin Powell was fond of connecting good leadership to good instincts. Be a leader who hones judgment and instinct. Take the time to shape your mental models. Learn how to read a situation for yourself. Become the decision-maker your people need you to be.
The decisions and responsibilities ultimately lie with the leader. You will need to make the decisive and critical decisions.
You will set the right course of action, inspire hope and confidence, bless the right initiatives, anoint the right people, and articulate the right standards. You own it! Leadership is not rank or position, it’s responsibility. While most hide or shy away from responsibility, leaders seek them out. A true leader provides no excuses, scapegoats, or backpedaling. They take ownership and responsibility. They own mistakes and give away victories. When you own a mistake, you are often forgiven much quicker than if you make excuses and blame others.
The best leaders trust themselves as they lead through uncertainty, even if they can’t know whether their decisions will lead to success.
If the ultimate responsibility for something is yours then you need to make the decision yourself. That is not to say you should not involve others or get their feedback. The idea is to make sure your decision is not based on the pressure or desire of other people.
When you have to make a decision, don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it can also paralyze a leader at the worst possible time. Learn to understand your fears and channel them in ways that you control rather than allowing them to control you. Think clearly, think rationally, and make decisions that aren’t rooted in emotion.
Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.
The right thing to do isn’t always the popular thing to do. Making the tough calls means taking a stance. When you take a stance, not everybody will agree. The worst scenario is a conflict of values. This means that people will be divided, and if you try to make everybody happy, you’ll make nobody happy.
Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions.
It’s inevitable — if you’re honorable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.
Principle #7: The Devil Is in The Details
While leaders live in the “big picture” world they should never forget the importance of the details and ensure they are attended to. It is often the small things, or little foxes as King Solomon put it, that ruin the best laid plans. Don’t forget the details!
Success is built on a lot of seemingly minor details.
Having a feel for those “little things” is essential. In a 2012 interview, David Lee Roth shared the story of how Van Halen used brown M&Ms as an indicator of whether large concert venues paid attention to the minor details critical to a major performance. Leaders must have ways to check the little things without getting lost in them.
Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, But they pay attention to details, every day.
Bad leaders — even those who fancy themselves as “progressive visionaries” — think they’re somehow “above” operational details. Actually, the little details is where games are won and lost. Leaders need to have a feel for small things — a feel for what is going on in the depths of an organization where small things reside. One way Colin Powell suggests is to visit the front-lines often where the small things reside to see what’s going on.
Colin Powell talks about this through his book, citing one example where he stopped a buddy from rappelling out of a Huey on an unattached rope.
Attention to detail saves lives and gets the mission done. Nothing sets this climate better than a leader who walks the line to check and reinforce the basics. And in the fog of war and late hours of exhaustion, that leader must remain vigilant for small mistakes that can have disastrous consequences.
When leaders don’t really care about the details and are content to produce low-quality work, guess what? That’s what your team will start to do, too.
It’s important to remember that you’re a role model for your team. They watch what you do, and they take notice of what you focus on. If you don’t pay attention to getting the details right, then they won’t feel the need to worry about them either. So if you are frustrated with a lack of quality in the work of your team, maybe take a look at the example you are setting first.
Attention to detail is a crucial skill for leaders because it is a source of insight.
The greatest insight comes from our ability to observe, pay attention and connect the dots. Not being able to discern some small but critical details leads to losing valuable information and being unable to quite understand why something does not work. Leading an organization calls for the ability to quickly switch between paying attention to the important details when gathering information and trying to get insight and seeing the big picture when setting the vision.
Most leadership philosophies are built around a list that captures the essence of how a specific leader actually leads. In his 2012 memoir, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership, Colin Powell drew on personal collections of lessons and anecdotes to share the wisdom of a lifetime in service to the nation. In this book, he demonstrates that these leadership lessons transfer and scale.
What you learn about leading 2 people are still applicable when leading 2,000, and you can apply that leadership knowledge in just about any area you might be leading.
Trust, respect, positive reinforcement, and personal connection are the foundations of influence and leadership. When people see that you are ready, willing, and able to solve their problems, you grow stronger in all these areas, and you become a better leader in the process.
True leaders have a responsibility to overcome institutional and individual inertia against the greater good of the team.
To embody a courage that is never afraid to turn up the heat on poor performance. Success will breed complacency, be wise in your discouragement without being disgustingly disagreeable. All leaders must avoid ideological rigidity when making important decisions and when working with the people around you.
Maintain flexibility in your thinking and in your leadership.
Do not get married to a single position and do not be afraid to change your mind. It is never too late to come to the right decision. Carefully consider all options when coming to the decision and embrace the diverging personalities and opinions to help you get to the right answer.
I hope these leadership lessons provide you the same road to success that they provided Colin Powell. Good luck!
What do you think of Colin Powell’s principles? Do you use any of them currently? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! And be sure to sign up now for my weekly leadership newsletter with more tips and premium content not available elsewhere on the site.