Colin Powell on Leadership Summary

General Colin Powell (US Army, retired) is one of the most respected and admired leaders in America.  He was a soldier for 35 years and has held many command and staff positions. He was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (highest position in the DOD), and then when he retired from the Army, he became the U.S. Secretary of State. What made Colin Powell such a great leader? Oren Harari, a management professor, breaks down Powell’s principals and virtues in his book, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell.

Make performance, innovation, and change top organizational priorities

Ask what if and why not questions in order to challenge the status quo… and yes, you will piss some people off in the process (those that are against change). Ask, “what are we trying to achieve?” and “how can we do this better?”

  • Challenge prevailing wisdom.
  • Set expectations and a clear agenda (that shake things up).
  • Listen, learn, and involve people in the change process. Be open and collaborative.
  • Give everyone considerable opportunity to shape and develop the changes. You want to get your subordinates to help develop new and innovative methods/processes so that they take ownership and buy-in to the changes.
  • Fight complacency.
  • Identify shortcomings (don’t cover them up). Focus on truth telling – tell it like it is.
  • Provide people with the tools and resources to succeed.
  • Don’t reorganize until you have the folks on your side and believing in your leadership.
  • Generate as much consensus as possible with changes (get your best people to buy-in).
  • Hold people accountable for new results and reward accordingly.
  • Don’t let your ego cling to the status quo and prevent/delay change.
  • Challenge the process even if it means you will get taken to the woodshed.
  • Dig beneath the surface, and if you find something wrong, find a solution to fix it.
  • Evolve your job. Are you maintaining the status quo or are you changing things up?

Encourage open and honest communication in order to get unique perspectives, ideas, and opinions

Honest dialogue is key for leaders to get the most accurate and critical information. Be available to subordinates and let them know they can speak their mind without fear of retribution. Tell them to put aside title or rank for the time being (don’t try and intimidate people). Encourage active communication of concerns, observations, data, insights, and suggestions. You must be in touch with your followers and their ideas (they are the ones in the trenches).

Create an environment where they feel free to speak their mind (use a cozy, round table to discuss ideas, problems, issues). Avoid having a massive desk between you and your subordinate when discussing issues. If you don’t know the real problems facing the organization, then you’re ineffective as a leader.

The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.

Let subordinates vent their problems and let them figure out ways to solve them. Listen to their concerns, and then coach and support them. Throughout this process, remain open-minded, flexible, and willing to change your opinions in light of new facts.

Identify barriers to communication and information flow and destroy them. Simplify overly complicated communication processes. Encourage communication from everyone and get the entire team to participate in information flow. We are always better off being open and candor with each other.

Be honest and if you don’t like a decision, ask for the opportunity to gather new info that supports your position. Act with honesty and integrity and no one can fault you for standing on your principle.

Don’t go looking for a no and take initiative

Don’t go looking for a no and don’t look for a yes. Take action, work around the rules of the game (creatively), and get things done. Mediocre managers carry out standing orders and passively wait for more orders. Proactive managers 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.

Make a clear and simple mission statement (purpose) – ensure everyone knows and understands it

Ask, why do we exist? What are we trying to accomplish? What are we committed to and why? You have to believe in the mission. Are you willing to commit to it? What about your people? What do we want to achieve and how badly we want to get there? These are all vital questions to ask because you need to have a clear purpose and direction. If you don’t understand the direction from higher ups, then ask for clarity (even if it makes people uncomfortable). Choose causes that inspire others. Articulate where you’re going and why. Take the complex and make it simple for your followers. Put a far simpler version of the story out in the field.

Next, focus on execution. Figure out what is crucial and then stay focused on that. Execution is key. Ensure that objectives are unambiguous and compelling. Ensure a clear and sensible plan of action in place, the right preparation and resources have been brought to bear, and that their foresight has critically addressed the question of what will and should happen next.

Recommended viewing: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People SummaryExtreme Ownership Summary.

People are your most valuable asset

People are usually so focused on the mission that they forget the flip side of the coin; the people. The people and the mission go hand in hand and cannot be separated. Work for and take care of your people. Count on people more than plans. You can have the best plans in the world, but they don’t mean squat without good people to carry them out. The people bring teamwork, highly trained, highly motivated, and well led people.

  • Everyone must believe that they are a part of the team.
  • Express your confidence in people’s ability to solve their own problems.
  • Work together as a family. No one is more important than the next. Every task is important. Everyone has a vital role to play.
  • If you believe your people are high performers and convey that belief to them, then they will be high performers.
  • Be compassionate and express concern for and interest in the people who work for you.
  • Make subordinates feel valued. Inquire about their needs and personal lives.
  • Create an atmosphere of teamwork, innovation, and mutual respect.
  • Get involved with their training and development.

Everyone’s job is important unless data shows that it’s not. Separate the job from the individual. Assess the job and then assess the individual. Fire people who are not doing their job after you have counseled them and helped them along. There is no room for dead weight.

Don’t micromanage, but be aware of what’s going on

You don’t need to over control or micromanage, but you need to know the details. The big picture is made up of many details. So, if you can’t master the details, you can’t master the big picture. Knowing details helps with determining the best course of action and sometimes small details become determining factors. The leader who has mastered the details inspires confidence. Know the information flowing through your organization. Be the best prepared person in every meeting. Anticipate arguments several steps out as well as the second and third order effects.

Different situations require different approaches

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. Use your flexibility and creativity to achieve the organization’s ends. 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.

Surround yourself with the best people (and the ones who compliment your weaknesses)

It’s easier to train a bright and willing novice in your business than teaching someone to have integrity. Look for the following:

  • Those with the capacity to anticipate and see around corners. You want those who look beyond today.
  • Those with intelligence and judgment as well as loyalty, integrity, balanced ego, and the drive to get things done.
  • 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.
  • People who are better than you.
  • People who stand for something.
  • Find people who look for ways to improve things and themselves.
  • 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.
  • Look for those that put the needs of the team above their own personal needs.

Conduct an honest and fair assessment of your abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Surround yourself with people who compliment you.

Empower your employees – decentralize and reduce HQ size (simplify)

Let smaller units and sections have the authority to make decisions. You want to decentralize what you can because that speeds up decision making, processes, and execution. Centralization creates bottlenecks. Treat employees as partners and use bottom up leadership, not top down. Allow participation in decision making because innovation comes from front lines, not HQ. Decentralization creates trust and let’s employees know that you believe and trust in them. But remember to hold them accountable for results. Remember, decentralization doesn’t mean being out of touch.

Having a centralized headquarters is good, but they are there to support front line troops. There will be overriding organizational principals, but announce the need for decentralization and explain exactly how the new system will work. Again, provide the rules of the game, mission, primary objectives, reason for being, policies, and core values. Sometimes direct involvement is needed but this is usually only during extraordinary circumstances. Be lean, fiscally disciplined, and accountable. Your aim should be to be fast and innovative. Leaders are still needed for oversight, overarching vision, and critical intervention.

Leadership is about influence

Organizational charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing. True leadership is much more than authority. What you really need to lead is influence. Persuade your people to accept you as a leader and follow your lead. A true leader influences, persuades, and inspires others. This is done by:

  • Setting the example – it’s in what you do, not what you say.
  • Being competent – skills and expertise.
  • Genuine caring and empathy. Understand people’s needs, aspirations, and expectations.
  • Getting things done – focusing on what’s crucial (get rid of busy work).
  • Motivating people
  • Consistency, clarity, and honesty in your words and daily actions.
  • Show passion and fight for organizational goals and values.
  • Encourage and protect those who follow you down your path.
  • Loyalty – up, down, and sideways.
  • Confidence – be infinitely cool, unfazed, unhurried, and enjoy oneself. Confidence that we have the skills to solve our problems.
  • Certainty and resolve. Certainty in the mission and resolve to do whatever it takes to tactically achieve your goals.
  • Create a calm, creative, and cooperative atmosphere.

Be optimistic

Offer a positive message. A leader’s enthusiasm, hopefulness, and confidence radiate throughout the organization. Have an upbeat personality and have the attitude that we can change things, we can achieve amazing results, and we can be the best. Pessimists never climb the ladder, so always search out the positive side of people and situations. Believe that you have control over your immediate environment. Have the belief that we do makes a difference and impacts our course. People don’t choose a doomed vision, they choose visions of hope and opportunity. Optimism allows for bold action and extraordinary results.

Aim for dynamic optimism, not passive optimism (others will solve our problems). Take consistent, daily action towards goals. Don’t whine passively about problems; do something about them. If you get the dirty end of the stick, sharpen it and turn it into a useful tool. Have an ‘I can do that’ attitude and let negativity roll off your back. Don’t ignore practical problems and challenges; confront them.

Work hard and play hard

Learn to balance work and play. Don’t allow your profession to become the whole of your existence. Have fun and don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earned it and spend time with your families.

  • Don’t watch the clock – be results based.
  • Focus on what’s important and forget about the ‘busy’ work.
  • When the mission demands it, work extra hours… but don’t work long hours for no reason.
  • Don’t infringe in off duty time unless absolutely necessary.
  • Build realism into schedules.
  • Identify unnecessary sources of stress in the workplace and work on minimizing them.
  • Identity sources of satisfaction and inspiration in the workplace.
  • Take your work seriously but also have fun during the process.
  • Have get togethers, parties, and celebrations.
  • Don’t make the mistake of an easygoing style with lax standards.
  • Use humor to relieve tension, stuffiness, and pomposity.
  • Laugh a lot, especially at yourself.
  • If you enjoy yourself, people will notice.
  • Life is too short to allow for too much grimness.
  • Create a balanced fun environment for others.

Leadership is responsibility

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.

  • Make sure that your agenda is perfectly clear in advance. Leaders need to be clear upfront and they need to own their decisions in advance.
  • Set the example for your followers. Do your best because if you don’t put forth your best effort, they won’t either. Subordinates watch everything you do. They watch what you put resources and time towards, what you track and report, and what angers or excites them.
  • Prepare the people coming up behind you to lead the way. Great leaders know when to leave the stage and pass it to someone else.

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