Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell

By Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo

The late General Colin Powell is one of my leadership heroes that I look up to along with John Maxwell.  I may not agree with all of his political views although he is a Republican, but I very much adhere to his leadership principles.   In his best-selling book “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership” he outlines his “Thirteen Rules” of leadership that he learned from being a general in the battlefield as well as his various administrative positions in the US government such as being the Secretary of State to President George W. Bush.  I will only mention here my favorite ones and encourage those in leadership positions to read his entire book for a full dose of his leadership wisdom.

Perpetual Optimism

Gen. Powell says, “Perpetual optimism, believing in yourself, believing in your purpose, believing you will prevail, and demonstrating passion and confidence is a force multiplier. If you believe and have prepared your followers, the followers will believe.”  To be an optimist means to be someone who gives hope.  It is a virtue very much required of a leader since you can’t have followers who don’t believe that you can get things done. And because of they see you as someone reliable they would feel that they have a bright future ahead of them with you as their leader.

“To be an optimist means always start out believing it can be done until facts and analysis piles up against it.  Have a positive and enthusiastic approach to every task. Don’t surround yourself with instant skeptics. At the same time, don’t shut out skeptics and colleagues who give you solid counterviews.” (Gen. Colin Powell)

The Zone of Calm

“Few people make sound or sustainable decisions in an atmosphere of chaos. The more serious the situation, usually accompanied by a deadline, the more likely everyone will get excited and bounce around like water on a hot skillet. At those times I try to establish a calm zone but retain a sense of urgency. Calmness protects order, ensures that we consider all the possibilities, restores order when it breaks down, and keeps people from shouting over each other.” (Gen. Colin Powell)

Another must have virtue of a leader is to keep one’s cool amidst chaos and crisis situations.  If the leader himself breaks down by getting too angry or becomes despondent to the point of getting paralyzed in making decisions, you can expect his followers to do the same.  Colin Powell would say, if he receives a bad report from the battle field his first reaction is always to make a good deep breath and not to react immediately to the bad news.  In a humorous way he says, “Try to let the potato cool a bit before you pick it up.”  A great advice because high emotions tend to blind the decision making ability of leaders when big problems are initially reported.

Plans: To be Revised the Moment Execution Starts

According to Gen. Powell, ““Plans are neither successful nor unsuccessful until they are executed. And the successful execution of a plan is more important than the plan itself. I was trained to expect a plan to need revision at the moment execution starts, and to always have a bunch of guys in a back room thinking about what could go right or wrong and making contingency plans to deal with either possibility.”

A great lesson for everyone and not just for leaders.  Usually when we plan, we erroneously assume there will be no hitches and expect things to go smoothly.  But reality is totally different. There is no such thing as a plan that will not meet obstacles.  Management guru Shane Lopez would say, “The skill of high-hope people when it comes to planning is the ability to anticipate obstacles and create multiple pathways to each and every goal.  This kind of skill is rooted in two core beliefs:  there are many paths to goals and none of them is free of obstacles.”