Lessons Learned from Colin Powell


My manager shared Colin Powell’s lessons in leadership with our team today. I had seen Powell’s leadership lessons before, but it was a great refresher and a perfect reminder that some leadership practices never go out of style.  In fact, I would argue that Powell’s leadership lessons are actually timeless principles.  The beauty is that you can take his core principles and adapt them  to your own situation.

Powell summarizes his approach to leadership with a great one-liner, "Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of  management says is possible."   I think this echoes my experience that leadership is both an art and a science, and that there is often a gap between the state of the art and the state of the practice.

Colin Powell’s Lessons on Leadership
The following are Colin Powell’s lessons on leadership, in quotes, along with my commentary:

  • Lesson 1. "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.
  • Lesson 2. "The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.  They have lost their confident that you can help them or concluded that you do not care.  Either case is a failure of leadership." If people bring you their problems, it’s a good thing.  At a minimum, it means they think you’re listening.  When people stop bringing you their problems, it’s a sign you’ve failed them as a leader.  When people no longer share their problems, you lose touch with what’s going on.
  • Lesson 3. "Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites.  Experts often possess more data than judgment.  Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world." Don’t undermine your own instincts, insight and perspective.  Respect opinions, but don’t blindly adopt them.  It’s one thing to be right in theory, it’s another to be right in practice.  There is a lot of space between theory and practice where your perspective can help shape a better result.
  • Lesson 4. "Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard." If something doesn’t add up, challenge it.  Challenge the people around you to grow.  It’s easy for people to stagnate.  Push people to continuously raise their bar and achieve new levels of performance.  One of the best ways is by asking the tough questions.
  • Lesson 5. "Never neglect details.  When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant." Stay on your toes and be careful of what can slip through the cracks.  The details are where the rubber meets the road.  Some of the best leaders I know always walk the processes to get first-hand experience.  This helps them understand and rationalize how things fit together in the bigger picture.  Some people mistake this for micro-managing, but it’s preparation for more effective delegation or for direction and coaching.
  • Lesson 6. "You don’t know what you can get away with until you try." This is about asking for forgiveness over asking for permission.
  • Lesson 7. "Keep looking below surface appearances.  Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find." You have to be ready to face the music.  The sooner you know the real situation, the sooner you can deal with it.   Getting to the bottom of things can also be a great way to gain perspective on problems and treat root causes versus chase symptoms.
  • Lesson 8. "Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything.  Plans don’t accomplish anything either.  Theories of management don’t much matter.  Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved.  Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds." It’s about the people.  Empower people and get out of the way.  Unblock them.  If you can’t trust people to do the right thing, then you don’t have the right people.
  • Lesson 9"Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing." Opinion leaders, people with influence, and people who get results, or control resources or have expertise, don’t necessarily map to what’s on the org chart.
  • Lesson 10. "Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it." You are not your job, just like you are not your behavior.  Perform your role to the best of your ability, but don’t get caught up in it.
  • Lesson 11"Fit no stereotypes.  Don’t chase the latest management fads.  The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission." Use the right tool for the job, and be flexible in your approach.   Pay attention to the results you’re getting and if it’s not working, change it.
  • Lesson 12. "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." Stay forward looking, focus on solutions, and create opportunities.  The spirit of possibility is contagious.
  • Lesson 13. "Powell’s Rules for Picking People: Look for intelligence and judgment, and most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners.  Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego, and the drive to get things done." This is about finding people that are self-driven and exercise good judgment.  If you have to tell people what to do or if you can’t trust people to make the right decisions on their own, that’s not leadership, that’s baby-sitting.
  • Lesson 14. "Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand." The ability to get everybody on the same page is priceless.  Often, arguments are simply about different views or perspectives.  Sometimes, people can’t follow because of ambiguity.  Your ability to frame a situation or speak in plain English can go a long way towards moving things forward or bringing people together for a common cause.
  • Lesson 15. Part I: "Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probably of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired."  Part II: "Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut." This is about balancing data and information gathering with your instincts.  Learn to trust your gut (which is about trusting your experience.)  Sure you’ll make mistakes, but you’ll also learn.  In the real world, you don’t have infinite time to explore every problem until you have all the possible information.  Instead, it’s about satisficing to get things done.  You have to find potential solutions that fit and test them against reality to see what sticks.
  • Lesson 16. "The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise." In my experience, the people closest to the problems are often in the best position to see the solutions.  The key here is to empower and not be the bottleneck.  One of my leadership trainers said to think of it like a tree.  Push as many decisions as you can to the leaves and branches, while you worry about the trunk.
  • Lesson 17. "Have fun in your command.  Don’t always run at a breakneck pace.  Take leave when you’ve earned it: Spend time with your families.  Corollary: surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard." Show your human side.  People follow people they can relate to.  If you act like a machine  you create a barrier for trust.  You will also wear yourself down over time.  Balance, downtime, and rejuvenation are keys to being your best.
  • Lesson 18"Command is lonely." It’s lonely at the top.  Being in charge means operating at a different level than being best buds or being everybody’s friend.  It’s about serving a role for the greater good or the good of the group.

Photo by dbking.

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12 Comments on "Lessons Learned from Colin Powell"

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  1. Just so many gems here I could comment on them all, so I’ll pick a couple that stand out…

    “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier” and “Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard”

    Those speak to me today on my own life journey. Thanks!

  2. Valerie M says:

    This is a white hot list, JD. Will be sharing.

    Lesson 16. “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.”

    This is a biggie for me. It’s such a problem everywhere with people commenting and judging things they have zero experience on. For instance, the health care overhaul. Now, I do think something needs to be done about health care, but the thought of giving a bunch of agenda-hungry politicians too much control scares me. I mean, we are talking about people who will get their health care taken care of no matter what happens to this bill. The politicians aren’t in the hospitals, they don’t know firsthand what’s screwing the system up. It’s not just politics, this attitude is literally everywhere. Sorry for the rant, though. This is very inspiring… thanks for writing.

  3. JD says:

    @ Jannie

    Powell is the man. The force multiplier really caught my attention too.

    @ Valerie

    There is a lot to be said for first-hand experience. Peter Drucker was also a fan of empowerment and first-hand experience to improve decision making.

  4. Thank you for the summary J.D. I had the chance to see him speak in person once and he was incredibly forceful and strong. The points here are hard to argue with.

  5. JD,

    Great post. So many lessons to imbibe. I especially liked the first point about pissing people off, because I find that hard to do.

  6. JD says:

    @ Fred

    That must have been an incredible experience. Some people really have an amazing presence and way with words.

    @ Daphne

    Thank you. One of my mentors has a good way to put it, but the gist is, it’s really about being OK with the fact, that you can’t please everybody all the time. Some people go for consensus or avoid conflict, but this is about making the tough calls.

  7. I wish more companies followed lesson 16 “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.”

    Upper management gets used to always having the answers, but really the answers should be coming from the people on the front lines. It’s these people who are close to the action that see all the positives and negatives of a choice. When a company empowers everyone that’s when a company uses everyone’s brain power to succeed. Because we all know two rational brains are better than one rational brain.

  8. Patricia says:

    I did not think I needed to read this post because I had just seen a presentation about Powell’s list, but putting you notes next to mine brings much more to light.

    It is not only lonely at the top, it is often lonely at the bottom.

    Good timing – thank you chunking this down

  9. JD says:

    @ Karl

    #16 really is about empowerment. It’s a shift in perspective, and an important one. The principle behind it really is to put the decision-making power closer to the source and cut the red-tape. This helps lean down and empower up for results.

    @ Patricia

    Thank you. I like Powell’s points, but I thought blending in my experience would help folks internalize them.

  10. When I taught Leadership in high school, I had a PowerPoint presentation with these on them that I used. They were great and resulted in great discussions among my students.

    His life story is also a great motivator and leadership lesson.