18 Leadership Principles from Colin Powell

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There is an excellent book by Oren Harari, which was recognized as one of the top 10 business books by the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine, and also made the New York Times, BusinessWeek and WSJ bestseller lists shortly after being published. The book is entitled The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. In it Harari, who teaches management at the Graduate School of Business in the University of San Francisco, talks about “the principles and words that formed the basis of Powell’s leadership philosophy” and how Colin Powell’s principles can be applied by modern-day leaders to improve their efficiency. The framework of Powell’s leadership philosophy rests on 18 lessons/principles that Harari wrote about in his article Quotations from Chairman Powell: A Leadership Primer.

Deeming these 18 principles to be extremely important, and applicable in nearly every leader’s work, I am hereby including them all:

1. “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

2. “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

3. “Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites. Experts often possess more data than judgment. Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.”

4. “Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.”

5. “Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

6. “You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”

7. “Keep looking below surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find.”

8. “Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.”

9. “Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing.”

10. “Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”

11. “Fit no stereotypes. Don’t chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission.”

12. “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

13. Powell’s Rules for Picking People: “Look for intelligence and judgment and, most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego and the drive to get things done.”

14. “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” (borrowed from Michael Korda)

15. “Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired. Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.”

16. “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.”

17. “Have fun in your command. Don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earned it: Spend time with your families. Corollary: Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.”

18. “Command is lonely.”

I have printed these out and hung the list next to my desk. Love ’em!

4 thoughts on “18 Leadership Principles from Colin Powell

  1. Yes, Murray, that one is funny. But the point is really incomplete without Harari’s elaboration (and I apologize for not clarifying the lesson behind this one which can be taken the wrong way). He writes:

    “Too often, the reverse defines corporate culture. This is one of the main reasons why leaders like Ken Iverson of Nucor Steel, Percy Barnevik of Asea Brown Boveri, and Richard Branson of Virgin have kept their corporate staffs to a bare-bones minimum – how about fewer than 100 central corporate staffers for global $30 billion-plus ABB? Or around 25 and 3 for multi-billion Nucor and Virgin, respectively? Shift the power and the financial accountability to the folks who are bringing in the beans, not the ones who are counting or analyzing them” (The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, p. 260).

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