Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell

By Gino Blefari

“Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.” – Colin Powell

This week my travels found me starting Monday with my typical WIG calls, the Berkshire Hathaway Energy weekly call, then traveling to Palm Springs for the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Marketing Forum, which I just left today.

Elsewhere in the country, this week we sadly lost Colin Powell. He was the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, the youngest-ever chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, a four-star U.S. Army general with combat duty in Vietnam and a national security advisor, and for decades, his leadership has had a profound impact on our nation’s foreign policy.

He was 84 years old when he died.

I had a chance to meet Colin Powell in 1999 when he was delivering a keynote at a conference I was attending. My impression of him from that meeting was that he was both humble and down to earth.

Here are a few lessons we can learn from Colin Powell:

Always be optimistic. He once said, “I have always tried to keep my confidence and optimism up, no matter how difficult the situation.”

Remain humble and encourage your team to maintain your humility. Powell was famously known for asking his commanders to argue against his viewpoints, so he could weigh all his options. He said, “Disagree with me, do it with feeling, try to convince me you are right, and I am about to go down the wrong path … You owe that to me; that’s why you are here.”

Praise your team. Powell believed team members require recognition and a sense of worth “as much as they need food and water.” In other words, celebrating the big and small wins is key to the health and happiness of your team.

Be a problem solver. Powell wrote: “Leadership is solving problems … The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.” Another lesson from this sentiment is that an empathetic and caring leader who not only solves problems but also listens to them when they arise will always inspire the team more powerfully than one who simply solves the issue at hand.

Trust your gut instincts. Powell believed that during challenges, a leader should collect as much information as possible to know as much as possible about the dilemma and then use their instincts to decide. The quality of a leader is in part determined by their ability to take the knowledge they’ve gathered and experience they’ve acquired, couple it with what their instinct tells them to do and do it. He once wrote: “This is when you look deep into your own fears, anxiety, and self-confidence. This is where you earn your pay and position.”  

Follow the Thirteen Rules. In the August 13, 1989, edition of Parade Magazine, Powell published his now-famous Thirteen Rules. They are:

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done.
  5. Be careful what you choose: You may get it.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

So, what’s the message? In Powell’s words: “I have learned from most of the people I’ve met, and I have tried to inspire the people I have led … Life and leadership can’t be about me. They have to be about us.”

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