How Colin Powell Translated his Political Life into a Book of Leadership Lessons

Colin PowellI am not a political person. I get most of my political news from twitter, mixed in with conversations about #Catfish, #Scandal, #CommunityManagement and #shitblackgirlssay. I get a little more serious about politics on some Sunday mornings as I catch up by watching Meet the Press with Dick Gregory. What I don’t know, I learn there.

That being said, I was surprised when after browsing four aisles of books at the library, I stopped at Colin Powell’s book: “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.” They had it propped up on a stand – something they do to market “featured books of the week.” It worked. I checked it out, and to my surprise, it wasn’t a book about politics. While he used many examples from his military and White House days, this is simply a book from a man sharing lessons he learned on the job over the years. There were many great examples and stories in the book – here are a handful that stayed with me:

Get Mad, then Get Over It.

Getting mad makes you human. Get mad, if it’s appropriate communicate that anger in a respectful way, then get over it. Blowing up and holding grudges will get you nowhere.


Avoid Having Your Ego So Close to Your Position that When Your Position Falls, Your Ego Goes With It.

Sometimes we believe in an idea so much that when we fail to sell it, we take it personally. Hey, you win some and you lose some. If you lose one, that doesn’t make you a loser, it just means this time around your idea wasn’t the winner. Back to rule #1 – get mad, then get over it.

Check Small Things.

“Success ultimately rests on small things, lots of small things. Leaders have to have a feel for small things – a feel for what is going on in the depths of an organization where small things reside. The more senior you become, the more you are insulated by pomp and staff, and the harder and more necessary it becomes to know what is going on six floors down.” Walk around, talk to people, make them comfortable, and stay connected.

Share Credit.

“When something goes well, make sure you share the credit down and around the whole organization. Let employees believe they were the ones who did it. They were. Send out awards, phone calls, notes, letters, pats on the back, smiles, promotions – anything to spread the credit. People need recognition and sense of worth as much as they need food and water.” And if the shit hits the fan it’s your fault, not theirs. You are responsible. Figure out how it happened, fix it, and keep things moving.

Busy Bastards

The “Busy Bastards” – as Colin calls them, are people who create work for the sake of creating work, just to appear busy. You’ve seen them: they never leave the office. They come in on weekends. They come in at the crack of dawn and start flinging emails left and right. And if they manage a team, they alter everyone else’s schedule and work pattern because people are trying to work on their time. “I pay my employees for the quality of their work not the quantity,” says Colin. He expects his staff to work normal hours and get home at a decent time. He wants them to have a life outside the office. This is an interesting topic that can trigger lots and lots of conversation and sentiments because people and leaders have different ideas about it. I don’t know where you stand, but I’m with Colin on this one.

Potential Matters Too, Not Just Performance.

“Past performance alone does not adequately predict someone’s future performance…The leader must understand his subordinates, an imperative that includes identifying, training, watching, mentoring, encouraging, and evaluating the next generation of an organization’s leaders.”

Never Walk Past a Mistake.

Just because you act like something didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it disappears. Colin encourages us to call out mistakes immediately and make on-the-spot-corrections. This not only shows attention to detail and reinforces standards, it also encourages others to have the moral courage to speak out when they see something wrong happening.

Tell Me What You Know , and Tell Me Early

When things go wrong, the first instinct is often to hurry up and fix it. Once it’s fixed you can either share the news with your organization’s leaders and tell them to fret not because it has been handled. Or, you can keep mum. What they don’t know won’t hurt them, right? Colin says, “Wrong.” He advised his staff to follow the following outline when delivering news:

  • Tell me what you know
  • Tell me what you don’t know
  • Then tell me what you think
  • Always distinguish which from which

And don’t wait to share bad news – share it immediately so everyone can come together on determining a solution.

The Indispensible Person

“I have run into too many people in public life who think they turn the sun on each morning. If not for them there would be no light and heat.” He said a mouthful right there. The bottom line is, the person who you think is indispensible, because without them nothing can be done, may actually be holding your team back. With them jumping up to do everything, others on the team start to fall back/slack off. Do what you will with that piece of information.

 Be Gone.

“When you’re done pumping, let go of the handle.” Many people retire or leave a company for other opportunities but refuse to let go. Whether it be through honorary, emeritus or similar positions, or by holding on to relationships with people at the former organization for the sake of staying in the loop, they find ways to stay connected. Once you leave a company you have no loop to stay in, and you should let go. Don’t let go of the meaningful friendships and relationships you developed, but do let go of the ones you hold on to for the sake of still being involved.

Many leadership books talk about leadership in general. Colin’s book on leadership kept me engaged because he tells real life stories from out in the battlefield, from boot camp, from our White House – stories that put you right there in the moment with him, and show examples of how the lessons he’s sharing played out in real life. Reading through his examples made me think about how his lessons can also play out in my real life.


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