Leadership is the
art of accomplishing more than the science of
management says is possible...a leadership primer
of eighteen lessons from General Colin Powell,
Chairman (Ret), Joint Chiefs of Staff and former
U.S. Secretary of State.
1: "Being responsible sometimes means pissing
involves responsibility to the welfare of the
group, which means that some people will get angry
at your actions and decisions. It's inevitable, if
you're honorable. Trying to get everyone to like
you is a sign of mediocrity: you'll avoid the tough
decisions, you'll avoid confronting the people who
need to be confronted, and you'll avoid offering
differential rewards based on differential
performance because some people might get upset.
Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult
choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by
treating everyone equally "nicely" regardless of
their contributions, you'll simply ensure that the
only people you'll wind up angering are the most
creative and productive people in the
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."
If this were a
litmus test, the majority of CEOs would fail. One,
they build so many barriers to upward communication
that the very idea of someone lower in the
hierarchy looking up to the leader for help is
ludicrous. Two, the corporate culture they foster
often defines asking for help as weakness or
failure, so people cover up their gaps, and the
organization suffers accordingly.
Real leaders make
themselves accessible and available. They show
concern for the efforts and challenges faced by
underlings, even as they demand high standards.
Accordingly, they are more likely to create an
environment where problem analysis replaces blame.
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."
and start-ups don't have the time for analytically
detached experts. They don't have the money to
subsidize lofty elites, either. The president
answers the phone and drives the truck when
necessary; everyone on the payroll visibly produces
and contributes to bottom-line results or they're
history. But as companies get bigger, they often
forget who "brought them to the dance": things like
all-hands involvement, egalitarianism, informality,
market intimacy, daring, risk, speed, agility.
Policies that emanate from ivory towers often have
an adverse impact on the people out in the field
who are fighting the wars or bringing in the
revenues. Real leaders are vigilant, and combative,
in the face of these trends.
4: "Don't be afraid to challenge the pros, even in
their own backyard."
Learn from the
pros, observe them, seek them out as mentors and
partners. But remember that even the pros may have
leveled out in terms of their learning and skills.
Sometimes even the pros can become complacent and
lazy. Leadership does not emerge from blind
obedience to anyone. Xerox's Barry Rand was right
on target when he warned his people that if you
have a yes-man working for you, one of you is
redundant. Good leadership encourages everyone's
5: "Never neglect details. When everyone's mind is
dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly
execution. All the great ideas and visions in the
world are worthless if they can't be implemented
rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and
empower others liberally, but they pay attention to
details, every day. (Think about supreme athletic
coaches like Jimmy Johnson, Pat Riley and Tony La
Russa). Bad ones, even those who fancy themselves
as progressive "visionaries," think they're somehow
"above" operational details.
good leaders understand something else: an
obsessive routine in carrying out the details
begets conformity and complacency, which in turn
dulls everyone's mind. That is why even as they pay
attention to details, they continually encourage
people to challenge the process. They implicitly
understand the sentiment of CEO leaders like Quad
Graphic's Harry Quadracchi, Oticon's Lars Kolind
and the late Bill McGowan of MCI, who all
independently asserted that the job of a leader is
not to be the chief organizer, but the chief
6: "You don't know what you can get away with until
You know the
expression, "it's easier to get forgiveness than
permission." Well, it's true. Good leaders don't
wait for official blessing to try things out.
They're prudent, not reckless. But they also
realize a fact of life in most organizations: if
you ask enough people for permission, you'll
inevitably come up against someone who believes his
job is to say "no." So the moral is, don't ask.
Less effective middle managers endorsed the
sentiment, "If I haven't explicitly been told
'yes,' I can't do it," whereas the good ones
believed, "If I haven't explicitly been told 'no,'
I can." There's a world of difference between these
two points of view.
7: "Keep looking below surface appearances. Don't
shrink from doing so (just) because you might not
like what you find."
"If it ain't
broke, don't fix it" is the slogan of the
complacent, the arrogant or the scared. It's an
excuse for inaction, a call to non-arms. It's a
mind-set that assumes (or hopes) that today's
realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy, linear
and predictable fashion. Pure fantasy. In this sort
of culture, you won't find people who pro-actively
take steps to solve problems as they emerge. Here's
a little tip: don't invest in these
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."
In a brain-based
economy, your best assets are people. We've heard
this expression so often that it's become trite.
But how many leaders really "walk the talk" with
this stuff? Too often, people are assumed to be
empty chess pieces to be moved around by grand
viziers, which may explain why so many top managers
immerse their calendar time in deal making,
restructuring and the latest management fad. How
many immerse themselves in the goal of creating an
environment where the best, the brightest, the most
creative are attracted, retained and, most
9: "Organization charts and fancy titles count for
next to nothing."
charts are frozen, anachronistic photos in a work
place that ought to be as dynamic as the external
environment around you. If people really followed
organization charts, companies would collapse. In
well-run organizations, titles are also pretty
meaningless. At best, they advertise some
authority, an official status conferring the
ability to give orders and induce obedience. But
titles mean little in terms of real power, which is
the capacity to influence and inspire. Have you
ever noticed that people will personally commit to
certain individuals who on paper (or on the
organization chart) possess little authority, but
instead possess pizzazz, drive, expertise, and
genuine caring for teammates and products? On the
flip side, non-leaders in management may be
formally anointed with all the perks and frills
associated with high positions, but they have
little influence on others, apart from their
ability to extract minimal compliance to minimal
10: "Never let your ego get so close to your
position that when your position goes, your ego
goes with it."
Too often, change
is stifled by people who cling to familiar turfs
and job descriptions. One reason that even large
organizations wither is that managers won't
challenge old, comfortable ways of doing things.
But real leaders understand that, nowadays, every
one of our jobs is becoming obsolete. The proper
response is to obsolete our activities before
someone else does. Effective leaders create a
climate where peoples worth is determined by
their willingness to learn new skills and grab new
responsibilities, thus perpetually reinventing
their jobs. The most important question in
performance evaluation becomes not, "How well did
you perform your job since the last time we met?"
but, "How much did you change it?"
Lesson 11: "Fit no stereotypes. Don't chase the
latest management fads. The situation dictates
which approach best accomplishes the team's
Flitting from fad
to fad creates team confusion, reduces the leader's
credibility, and drains organizational coffers.
Blindly following a particular fad generates
rigidity in thought and action. Sometimes speed to
market is more important than total quality.
Sometimes an unapologetic directive is more
appropriate than participatory discussion. Some
situations require the leader to hover closely;
others require long, loose leashes. Leaders honor
their core values, but they are flexible in how
they execute them. They understand that management
techniques are not magic mantras but simply tools
to be reached for at the right times.
12: "Perpetual optimism is a force
The ripple effect
of a leader's enthusiasm and optimism is awesome.
So is the impact of cynicism and pessimism. Leaders
who whine and blame engender those same behaviors
among their colleagues. I am not talking about
stoically accepting organizational stupidity and
performance incompetence with a "what, me worry?"
smile. I am talking about a gung-ho attitude that
says "we can change things here, we can achieve
awesome goals, we can be the best." Spare me the
grim litany of the "realist," give me the
unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any
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
How often do our
recruitment and hiring processes tap into these
attributes? More often than not, we ignore them in
favor of length of resume, degrees and prior
titles. A string of job descriptions a recruit held
yesterday seem to be more important than who one is
today, what they can contribute tomorrow, or how
well their values mesh with those of the
organization. You can train a bright, willing
novice in the fundamentals of your business fairly
readily, but it's a lot harder to train someone to
have integrity, judgment, energy, balance, and the
drive to get things done. Good leaders stack the
deck in their favor right in the recruitment
14: "Great leaders are almost always great
simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate
and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can
understand the KISS principle, "Keep It Simple,
Stupid." They articulate vivid, over-arching goals
and values, which they use to drive daily behaviors
and choices among competing alternatives. Their
visions and priorities are lean and compelling, not
cluttered and buzzword-laden. Their decisions are
crisp and clear, not tentative and ambiguous. They
convey an unwavering firmness and consistency in
their actions, aligned with the picture of the
future they paint. The result: clarity of purpose,
credibility of leadership, and integrity in
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
II: "Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range,
go with your gut."
Don't take action
if you have only enough information to give you
less than a 40 percent chance of being right, but
don't wait until you have enough facts to be 100
percent sure, because by then it is almost always
too late. Today, excessive delays in the name of
information-gathering breeds "analysis paralysis."
Procrastination in the name of reducing risk
actually increases risk.
16: "The commander in the field is always right and
the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved
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.
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
Herb Kelleher of
Southwest Air and Anita Roddick of The Body Shop
would agree: seek people who have some balance in
their lives, who are fun to hang out with, who like
to laugh (at themselves, too) and who have some
non-job priorities which they approach with the
same passion that they do their work. Spare me the
grim workaholic or the pompous pretentious
"professional;" I'll help them find jobs with my
18: "Command is lonely."
Harry Truman was
right. Whether you're a CEO or the temporary head
of a project team, the buck stops here. You can
encourage participative management and bottom-up
employee involvement, but ultimately the essence of
leadership is the willingness to make the tough,
unambiguous choices that will have an impact on the
fate of the organization. I've seen too many
non-leaders flinch from this responsibility. Even
as you create an informal, open, collaborative
corporate culture, prepare to be lonely.