Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

Colin Powell, son of Jamaican immigrants, passed away today from COVID complications. He was fully vaccinated but had been suffering from some underlying health conditions. He was the National Security Advisor under President Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton. He was Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.

I was the librarian at Ft Myer when he lived in Quarters 1 at Ft Myer. Although he did not visit the library, he wife, Alma was a frequent library user. He left most of his papers to the NDU Library and frequently called the Special Collections Staff to do research from his collection. He would visit the library occasionally, where I had to privilege of meeting him.

Colin Powell’s Leadership List

Like most of our leadership lists, Powell’s rules are actually lessons themselves, gleaned from his decades in uniform.

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

There’s a silver lining in every cloud, you just have to find it. That’s not always as easy as it sounds. Things might look bad today, but if you’ve put in the effort, tomorrow will be a brighter day. It’s a state of mind; believe it and you will make it happen.

2. Get mad, then get over it.

There’s always going to be days when events—or people—push you to the edge. When you do lose your temper, don’t lose control at the same time. People always remember the leader with a bad temper, and never in a good way.

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

People who think that their way is the only way tend to experience a lot of disappointment. Things aren’t always going to go your way, that’s just a fact of life. Be humble enough to accept that fact.

4. It can be done!

Just about anything can be accomplished if you set your mind to it, have the necessary resources, and the time to get it done. Don’t succumb to the skeptics; listen to what they have to say and consider their perspective but stay focused and positive.

5. Be careful what you choose.

Don’t rush into a bad decision. Take the time to consider your options, weigh the relevant facts, and make reasoned assumptions. Once you pull the trigger, there are no do-overs. So make it count.

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

Powell was fond of connecting good leadership to good instincts. Be a leader who hones judgement and instinct. Take the time to shape your mental models. Learn how to read a situation for yourself. Become the decision-maker your people need you to be.

7. You can’t make someone else’s choices.

Never allow someone else to make your decisions for you. Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own decisions. Don’t duck that responsibility and don’t succumb to external pressures. Make your own decisions and live with them.

8. Check small things.

Success is built on a lot of seemingly minor details. Having a feel for those “little things” is essential. In a 2012 interview, David Lee Roth shared the story of how Van Halen used brown M&Ms as an indicator of whether large concert venues paid attention to the minor details critical to a major performance. Leaders must have ways to check the little things without getting lost in them.

9. Share credit.

Success relies on the effort of the entire team, not just the leader. Recognition motivates people in ways that are immeasurable. Don’t be a glory hog. Share credit where credit is due and allow your people to stand in the spotlight. It ain’t about you. It’s about them.

10. Remain calm. Be kind.

Keep calm and carry on. Kill ‘em with kindness. When chaos reigns, a calm head and a kind word go a long way. When everyone is under incredible stress, be the leader people want to follow, not the leader people want to avoid.

11. Have a vision. Be demanding.

Followers need to things from leaders—a purpose and a firm set of standards. When you see leaders fail, it is almost always for one of those two things. They either lead their followers in a flailing pursuit of nothing, or they don’t set and enforce an example for their people.

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

Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it can also paralyze a leader at the worst possible time. Learn to understand your fears and channel them in ways that you control rather than allowing them to control you. Think clearly, think rationally, and make decisions that aren’t rooted in emotion.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Optimism is infectious. Maintaining a positive attitude and an air of confidence is as important for you as it is for those around you. People will feed off your optimism. Believe in your purpose, believe in yourself, and believe in your people. And they’ll believe in you.

27 thoughts on “Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership”

  1. I am so sorry that Colin Powell passed away today. He is a man that I most admire. His words, his philosophy and his personality are an inspiration. I will always study his message as it is sound and applicable in life. Thank you Pat for posting this, it is a sad day but his words are always appreciated. All the best to you,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can still see him in front of the UN pleading for other nations to help us destroy not only a country but also an ancient civilization because Iraq had mobile WMD’s, that turned out to be ice cream vans. It is such a shame for a man who did so much should have been suckered into being a shill for Bush. Had he not, I would wager he would have been our first black president.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Don, I agree with you about him being suckered. I think he wanted to run for president in 1996 but withdrew because his wife, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, was fearful that he would be assassinated and asked him not to run. He respected her wishes and the country lost the opportunity for the man I think would have made an excellent president. He is also an example of what our immigrant population can achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Things do start getting better when you give them time. When I sleep worried or frustrated at night, the more calm I feel in the morning. Thanks for sharing these, I needed them especially when I have a ton of things to study for school 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, this is a very insightful post! “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it” is as wonderful an advice as it is a quote. I’d like that to be a motto to live by. Such wonderful points. May the man rest in peace. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

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