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Honoring a leader: Remembering the life and leadership lessons of General Colin Powell

By Marty Cayton, posted 1 month ago
In memory of Colin Powell, first Black U.S. secretary of state and four-star general, 1937-2021. Photo provided by U.S. Department of State. 

Editor's note: The Publisher's Note below was written for the upcoming issue of Greater Fayetteville Business Journal, coming out this Friday.

This evening as I sit down to write my Publisher’s Note for the October 22nd issue of Greater Fayetteville Business Journal, I pause to honor General Colin Powell. In my comments from the September 24th issue, I reflected on one of General Powell’s leadership lessons from a presentation he gave twenty years ago. In tribute to him, I am dedicating this column him to share his eighteen lessons on leadership.

Colin Powell's Leadership Primer

LESSON ONE: "Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off."

LESSON TWO: "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."

LESSON THREE: "Don't be buffaloed by experts and elites. Experts often possess more data than judgement. Elites can become so inbred that they produce haemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world."

LESSON FOUR: "Don't be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard."

LESSON FIVE: "Never neglect details. When everyone's mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant."

LESSON SIX: "You don't know what you can get away with until you try."

LESSON SEVEN: "Keep looking below surface appearances. Don't shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find."

LESSON EIGHT: "Organization doesn't really accomplish anything. Plans don't accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don't much matter. Endeavours succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds."

LESSON NINE: "Organization charts and hence titles count for next to nothing." 

LESSON TEN: "Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it."

LESSON ELEVEN: "Fit no stereotypes. Don't chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team's mission."

LESSON TWELVE: "Perpetual optimism is force multiplier."

LESSON THIRTEEN: "Powell's Rules for Picking People -- Look for intelligence and judgement 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."

LESSON FOURTEEN: "Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand."

LESSON FIFTEEN: Part I: "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." Part II: "Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut."

LESSON SIXTEEN: "The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise."

LESSON SEVENTEEN: "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."

LESSON EIGHTEEN: "Command is lonely."


God bless you and yours,


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