Colin Powell’s Leadership Primer


Colin Powell has written a new book called “It Worked for Me”, revealing the lessons that shaped his life and career, to be published by Harper Collins in May of 2012.   Powell, of course has been a frequent speaker on the leadership circuit and it isn’t clear what new insights will be presented.  However, I came across one of his past presentations called “A Leadership Primer”, where he reveals 18 key leadership lessons.

Here are a few of my favorites:

1)      Being responsible sometimes means [ticking] people off.   There is so much written in the leadership space about servant leaders and other related topics that create an impression it is possible to be a loved and admired boss.  While we all want to be respected and liked, the bottom line is this:  as a leader, you are responsible for the well-being of the ENTIRE organization.   The larger it is, the less likely you will all agree on all things.  There comes a point when a leader must stop soliciting input and make a final decision – EVEN when it may be upsetting to some.  The notion of consensus management is fine in principle, but in many situations there is not time to reach harmonious consensus, and too much consensus that “waters down” ideas to the point of impotence is not good.

2)      Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.  We all have people we look up to, senior execs, or people with extraordinary technical skills.  Some of these might even be our mentors. We should absolutely seek to learn from them, and benefit from their hard-won lessons.  However, what worked for them in the past under different circumstances and times, may not necessarily work for us here and now.  We need to have the courage to choose our own path in a way that makes us feels right to us.  We all need to be committed to learning in a dynamic world.

3)       Never neglect details.  Great leadership is supposed to be about crafting great vision.  Other leadership books argue that we should be delegating the HOW of things liberally to our subordinates.  Powell seems to suggest that both of these notions can be traps.   Sure vision matters, but effective strategy implementation is a lot about  the details,  When we delegate to less experienced managers, who have not made many of our pasts mistakes, we risk that they will easily overlook crucial details.   That is why leaders need to take the time to consider them and challenge their team to incorporate them.

4)       You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.  This goes along with the adage “it is much easier to beg forgiveness, than to get permission”.   It calls on us to be prudent, not reckless, in taking chances when it feels to you that a situation dictates boldness and initiative.   As long as you are willing to accept the consequences for the outcome (even in case of failure) you need to have the courage to do what you think best.  That’s why they pay you the “big bucks” .

5)      Keep looking below surface appearances    Powell asserts that the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” Is the slogan for the arrogant, complacent or scared leaders.  It presupposes that just because something has not caused a problem yet,  all is well. (Just ask NASA about how they evaluated the risk of thermal tiles falling off prior to the Columbia shuttle disaster.)  Leaders need to challenge everything, all the time.

Not a bad list – you can read the full presentation here.

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Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership

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