Shyamsundar Ramanathan in Tradesman and skilled workers, Directors and Executives, English Director - Head of Delivery QA • VirtusaPolaris 3 d ago · 3 min read · +300

The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell

The Leadership Secrets of Colin PowellI love leadership books about leaders who have really done it. One such leader who has done it big time is Colin Powell. I loved the book The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell by Oren Harari. It is well written and has the essence of leadership anyone can apply.

The author says Powell has had a truly extraordinary career which reflects strong values, hard work, discipline, exceptional standards and high integrity. In 1989 he received his fourth star and was appointed by George H. W Bush as Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1993 he retired from the military. From 1993 to 2000 he was a much sought after public speaker. He also served on various boards. Then of course he became Secretary of State during George W. Bush’s reign.

There are some Powell principles mentioned at the end of each chapter which were interesting and some gems. Here are some of them with my take on each.

Define the new game and expect everyone to play it: This basically means take the time to clearly articulate what you want your team to achieve. At the same time once the agenda is defined make sure everyone has bought into the vision.

Make sure best performers are more satisfied than poor performers: Make sure the best performers are rewarded and the poor performers are given the correct feedback to make course corrections. Powell directly confronts those who don’t perform. 

Don't worry if some people are pissed off: I like this quote "Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off."

Maintain an open door policy: Powell didn’t believe in rank and welcomed suggestions from everyone. Make sure you make it easy for people to reach you. This is the best way to maintain high team morale.

 Foster a noisy system: This simply means give everyone a voice to bring bad news as well. As Jim Collins said in his seminal work “Good to Great” conduct autopsies without blame and engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion.

Monitor the environment for tomorrow: Basically this means don’t get stuck in the past. Flexibility is the number one skill needed in the 21st century and you need to adapt to changing situations quickly.

Challenge status quo: The only leaders who make a mark in this world are the ones who have challenged existing status quo. They don’t accept things as it is and push to move to new frontiers.

No guts No glory: This simply means take calculated risks. There is no leader ever who reached any state of preeminence who didn’t take some risks. Encourage your team as well to take risks.

Make everybody want to stretch: Provide everyone an opportunity to take risks and give them opportunities to stretch beyond the current role. Everyone can make a difference.

Be a dis-organizer: This one is interesting as it simply means challenge conventional wisdom and don’t just accept best practices. Be the change agent of your organization.

Success can breed failure and complacency is the enemy: I take this to mean stay hungry. Just like what happened in the movie Rocky 3.  If you remember Rocky becomes complacent and lets success get to his head. He then gets back to the training and the things that made him great in the first place. We can all take a leaf out of that by getting back to that hunger which got us to where we are.

Truth and Integrity above all else: This quote from Powell addresses this “Untidy truth is better than smooth lies that unravel in the end anyway.”

Be Patient: In a long career the qualities that are needed to go to your personal Everest is a strong belief that you can do it and developing enormous patience required to slug it out.

Execution is the key: The number one reason a lot of CEO’s are fired is due to lack of execution. The bottom line in leadership is not in setting a large vision but it is in getting the results as per the mission set. Execution is not everything but it is the only thing.

Powell’s Three C’s – clarity, consistency and commitment: Be absolutely clear on the mission and vision of the organization. Be consistent in your moods and actions. Finally have enormous commitment to get the most out of yourself and others.

Become a servant leader: Put the interests of people ahead of your own self-interest. Give them all the tools and information needed to get the job done.

Avoid “analysis paralysis”: This is interesting because sometimes we keep analyzing before make any decision and by the time we do make it everything else has already changed. The basic point is don’t procrastinate and take decisions based on available information. Don’t brood too much on this.

Key Powell traits in hiring and promoting: They are intelligence and judgement, a capacity to see around corners, loyalty, integrity, drive and balanced ego.

Curiosity is the key: All great leaders have a child like attitude to learning. They are open to ideas from everyone. They also arouse curiosity in others.

Walk the talk: Finally everything is great but ultimately the leader has to walk the talk to earn the respect of everyone. If there is a gap between what the leader says and what the leader does there will be seeds of distrust sown within the team and organization.

I consider these principles excellent ones and even if we adopt a few it can make us better leaders. Ultimately all leaders take personal responsibility for the results they produce. They give credit wherever it is due and take the blame when things go awry. Leaders should be inspired themselves and then have that great ability to inspire others.

Thanks for reading this post.

The views expressed here are my own and do not represent my organization.