“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” — 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.
Leadership is the Art of Accomplishing More
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.
18 Best Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell
Colin Powell leaves a lasting leadership legacy through his powerful words of wisdom.
The following are Colin Powell’s lessons on leadership, in quotes, along with my commentary:
Leadership Lesson 1 – Sometimes You Piss People Off
“Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 2 – When People Stop Bringing You Their Problems, You Failed
“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.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 3 – Don’t Be Buffaloed by Experts and Elites
“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.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 4 – Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge the Pros
“Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 5 – Never Neglect the Details
“Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 6 – Ask for Forgiveness Over Asking for Permission
“You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.” — Colin Powell
This is about asking for forgiveness over asking for permission.
Leadership Lesson 7 – Get to the Bottom of Things
“Keep looking below surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 8 – It’s About the People
“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.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 9 – It’s Not Titles, It’s Talent
“Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 10 – Don’t Let Your Ego Get in the Way of Your Duty
“Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 11 – Change What’s Not Working
“Fit no stereotypes. Don’t chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 12 – There is Power in Positivity
“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” — Colin Powell
Stay forward looking, focus on solutions, and create opportunities. The spirit of possibility is contagious.
Leadership Lesson 13 – Pick People with Drive and Ability to Get Things Done
“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.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 14 – Simplify
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 15 – Go with Your Gut
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.”— Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 16 – Empower the People at the Edge
“The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 17 – Work Hard and Play Hard
“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.” — Colin Powell
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.
Leadership Lesson 18 – Leadership Can be a Lonely Place to Be
“Command is lonely.” — Colin Powell
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.
Colin Powell is a tough act to follow.
He knows the power of language to inspire, motivate, and educate.
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Photo by dbking.