It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership
by Colin Powell with Tony Koltz
Few people have the range of experiences of Colin Powell (1937-2021): from janitor of a Pepsi bottler to National Security Advisor, from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to Secretary of State. In It Worked For Me he shares stories in a conversational style, many of which include a leadership lesson. And yes, he also includes a chapter on his infamous United Nation presentation, arguably the low point of his career.
It was interesting to hear what it was like to work with Ronald Reagan. In the chapter called Squirrels, Reagan seemed detached from the dilemma Powell was explaining to him (he seemed more interested in the squirrels outside his window), but upon reflection Powell figured out that Reagan wanted his subordinates to make their own decisions. In a separate incident involving a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval forces, Reagan was very decisive in his presidential decision when the matter required his approval.
I also enjoyed the chapter called Hot Dogs, which exemplifies the human side of leadership. “Hot dog diplomacy may not be earth-moving, but it allows two people to develop a human relationship that will help sustain an official relationship in good times and bad.”
Powell talks about wandering around unannounced to see for himself what’s going on and to have serendipitous conversations with front-line workers. Powell never undermined the chain of command, but he clearly liked to stay in touch with reality and hear the unfiltered truth.
Attention to detail is a recurring theme. He explains the five reasons why you shouldn’t walk past a mistake without correcting it. He also talks about the importance of good, grammatically-correct writing. “I like short declarative sentences with lots of protein and no fat. I try to speak precisely.”
Powell talks about “force multipliers.” Examples include superior communications, greater logistics capability, better-trained commanders, and “perpetual optimism.”
The general makes no distinction between managers and leaders. “Good management gets 100 percent of a team’s designed capability.” Great leaders take their followers beyond what was thought possible. He wants his subordinates to have a life outside of work. “I am paying them for the quality of their work, not for the hours they work. That kind of environment has always produced the best results for me.”
On media interviews Powell advises, “Be sure you are always talking through the questioner or the interviewer to the audiences who really matter.” On planning he says, “No plan survives first contact with an enemy… The leader must be agile in thought and action. He must be ready to revise a plan, or dump it, if it isn’t working or if new opportunities appear.”
The book also includes a chapter on Powell’s 13 Rules:
- It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
- Get mad, then get over it.
- Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
- It can be done.
- Be careful what you choose: you may get it.
- Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
- You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
- Check small things.
- Share credit.
- Remain calm. Be kind.
- Have a vision. Be demanding.
- Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
- Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
General Powell comes across as a well-grounded guy with a lot of class. The short chapters make this easy to read in small increments of free time, but the engaging style made me want to keep reading straight through.
Powell, Colin L., and Tony Koltz. It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. New York: Harper, 2012. Buy from Amazon.com
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