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Leadership Lessons From Colin Powell

Powell congratulates an officer who participated in the assault on the Panamanian Defense Forces headquarters on Jan. 5, 1990. Photo from AP
As national security advisor, Powell worked closely with President Ronald Reagan. Photo from GEN (Ret.) Colin Powell

The former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reflects on principles that took him straight to the top.

General (Ret.) Colin Powell reached the highest levels of leadership in both the military and civilian worlds. He was President Reagan’s national security advisor, later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state. Today, he devotes his time to speaking engagements; the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service in New York; and America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged children. GX was fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk with the general about his latest book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.

What was your primary motivation to join ROTC in college?
I was a drifting 17-year-old kid just entering college, and my engineering major and I did not agree with each other. Then I saw these young men walking around campus in uniform. I inquired about them and the ROTC program and said, “I think I’ll join that and see where it leads.” I did well; I became the cadet colonel, the head of the ROTC cadet corps, before I graduated, and then went into the Army, and the rest was history. It gave me structure, it gave me discipline and it gave me something I love doing.

You’ve stated that your time in the military included some of the best days of your life. Can you please elaborate?
Now, there were difficulties. There are difficulties in every phase of life. But I loved every day I was a Soldier. As I’ve told so many young audiences over the years, success and satisfaction for me did not come from becoming a general or becoming the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Success and satisfaction came from trying to do my very best every day.

Powell deployed to Vietnam twice, first as a captain, then as a major (pictured here). Photo from GEN (Ret.) Colin PowellYou deployed to Vietnam twice, first as a captain, then as a major (pictured here). How did two tours in Vietnam shape your vision as a leader?
I learned that if you’re going to send young men and women into battle, make sure they have a sound political objective that makes sense and that can be explained to them and to the American people. And when that political objective is clear and requires the use of military force, then go in and use decisive force in order to achieve the objective.

During Operation Desert Storm, was there a particular facet of leadership that helped you execute the mission?
Inspiring the troops is one of the essences of successful leadership. Giving the followers inspiration and a clear purpose of what they are trying to achieve and why is an important part of leadership. The troops knew that they were going in to kick the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. We were not going to Baghdad; we were not going to try and create a new country in Iraq. It was a limited mission, a limited objective and [we had] the necessary force to do it. And every Soldier knew that was it.

What are your impressions of the National Guard today?
I’ve been a great admirer of the National Guard my whole career. And it didn’t just start when I became FORSCOM commander and had a responsibility to command the Army Reserves and supervise training of the National Guard. Back when I was a young major at Fort Benning, GA, one of my missions was to evaluate National Guard training, and I became very familiar with the 28th Infantry Division of Pennsylvania, the famous “Keystone Division.” And when I was the brigade commander of the 101st Airborne Division, my responsibility included working with the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard. Between the Army National Guard and Air National Guard, I have a seen a level of professionalism that is unmatched. More than just professionalism, it’s a level of dedication and service and sacrifice that is remarkable. I’m so proud of the Guard and all that it has done.

Throughout It Worked for Me, you mention President Reagan. What did he teach you about leadership?
He reminded me of something I always knew, and that is as a commander you can’t get it all done by yourself. So you hire and train the best people you can to be your subordinate leaders. But then you have to give them the latitude to make decisions and solve problems so you can preserve yourself for the more important problems. But at the same time, when it’s your turn to be decisive about something, then you have to be decisive because it’s your problem. And Reagan was very, very good at that.

What are the challenges of being a leader in the civilian world as well as in the military?
I have found that leadership is leadership is leadership. It comes to putting your followers in the best environment to get the job done and inspiring them to follow you. And you do that by giving individuals a purpose to achieve and giving those individuals all the tools to be successful.

Why do leaders need to constantly evaluate their strengths and weaknesses?
I think every human being has strengths and weaknesses. As you become more senior, people have a tendency to tell you how wonderful you are. It’s important not to fall for that. The ability to look honestly at yourself will make sure you are improving yourself and improving your organization. So take a look in the mirror. Make sure you cleaned it thoroughly and you’re looking at a clean image.

Why do you often tell people to “look through the front windshield while living life”?
Because you can’t do anything about things that have already happened. It’s an expression I use all of the time. So many people I meet want to tell me about things that happened to them in the past. I tell them life is always unfolding in front of you. Always look through the front windshield. Now, I’ve got some things I’ve got attached to my name that I will never shake. But I can’t let them dominate my life. So I always keep looking forward because there’s nothing that I am going to learn from looking backwards.

What was your goal retiring from the military? 
Initially, just decompress and look for new things to do. I had been a Soldier for 35 years; I will always be a Soldier at heart. But at the same time, you have to move on. You keep looking forward in life and not backwards. I started out on the speaking circuit, and I’ve been doing that for the last 20 years. And that became my business and began occupying a lot of my time. Why? Well, I love talking to audiences and I learned a lot about the country, and I felt I had a message that I could give to my audiences, so that turned out to be an important part of my life that I really wasn’t expecting, but it just happened.

– Story by Christian Anderson



General Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.

2. Get mad, then get over it.

3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

4. It can be done.

5. Be careful what you choose: You may get it.

6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.

7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.

8. Check small things.

9. Share credit.

10. Remain calm. Be kind.

11. Have a vision. Be demanding.

12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.