Colin_powellI just finished listening to the Colin Powell interview from the Leadership Summit.  I was asked to be a guest blogger for a couple sessions; and the following is my post from that site.  If you want to check out the Leadership Summit Blog click HERE.

Colin Powell is by any standard a truly great leader!  That was evident in his closing statement about how he would like to be remembered:  “As someone who served well and served faithfully.  Someone who left behind a good family.  I want to go out in a state of grace.  I was a serviceman.  I was a service person. I believe in service.  All of us have a debt of service that we may never be able to repay.  I have to give back.  This is a part of leadership.”

While we all know him from a public perspective I was pretty pumped about getting to hear from him personally.  I was sure that Bill would ask the right questions that would give us a chance to get to know him better, understand what motivates him as a leader and find out where he is spiritually.  I felt like the interview delivered on the first two, but left me wanting to hear more on the latter. 

As I listened to General Powell I couldn’t help but think about II Timothy 2:3, 4 where Paul says to young Timothy, Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer.”   In many ways the “Powell Principles” that he gave us could be broken up into the same wisdom that Paul gave Timothy.  I have broken up my take-aways from this great leader into three parts:  Great Leadership Will Be Hard; Great Leadership Is About the Followers and Great Leadership Always Has a Greater Motivation.

GREAT LEADERSHIP WILL BE HARD “Endure hardship…” (II Timothy 2:3)

Powell didn’t candy-coat how hard leadership can be.  He explicitly laid out several principles that told how the challenges of leadership.  However, implicitly he told us about how to overcome those hardships.  As you review these principles you will be able to see the pain and the medication of difficulties within leadership.

  • Powell Principle:  Prepare To Be Lonely

Powell talked about how he would call Norman Schwarzkopf every day during Desert Storm– just to talk to him and to help him with the loneliness of his command.  Powell said, “I became one of the only person who he could blow off steam with.”  It was almost a paradox the way that Powell presented this principle.  He talked about how leadership can be lonely, but you need to combat the loneliness and share it with others.

  • Powell Principle:  Be Prepared to Disappoint People

Powell, said, “There will be days when you make others miserable.” Every leader knows that there come times when you know that no matter what the decision you make that someone is not going to like it – and you have decide.  That is the role of the leader.  However at the same time Powell answered Bills question by saying “Yes, it is possible to be liked and to be in charge.”  You know that Powell had to negotiate the tension between “disappoint people: and “being liked” in order to climb to the rank that he did.

  • Powell Principle:  Check Your Ego At the Door

The principle was familiar and cliché, but the way that he explained it was brilliant.  Powell said, “Keep some distance between your emotional involvement and your professional involvement.” This distance will allow you and the people you work with to show up the next day and start all over without holding a grudge.  Good stuff!

  • Powell Principle:  Reward Your Best Performers; Get Rid of Your Worst Performers.

This is hard, but necessary!  It may be particularly hard in a church setting since churches are not only a place of employment but also the spiritual family.  But despite the challenge, this is something that has to be done.  Powell explained, “When a follower is not pulling their load others on your team know it.  And if nothing is done, soon the good performers start asking, “why am I killing myself?”  Powell is right on again – if you don’t deal with the under-performers it will kill the morale of your organization.

GREAT LEADERSHIP IS ABOUT THE FOLLOWERS “No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs…” (II Timothy 2:4)

General Powell was clear that the only way his leadership would make an impact was through the soldiers that followed him.  This was obvious when he said, “The essence of all leadership is based on the foundation of ‘I trust you’.  Trust is what must exist between a leader and a follower and trust is what makes an organization high performing.”  Here are some of the Powell Principles that explain how leadership is about the followers.

  • Powell Principles:  Only People Get Things Done

I needed this one.  It’s not paperwork, it’s not e-mail, and it’s not business plans that get things done – only people get things done!  This was a principle that Powell got from Admiral Hyman Rickover  who told him “all work is done by the followers of the leaders”  Powell explained that the army has a rule that  you should take 1/3 of the time to make the plan and use 2/3 to explain to your followers how to implement the plan.  I could have used this one last week.  I was in a meeting last week where I knew the plan, but I’m not sure anyone else in the room understood it.  Why?  I forgot about the last 2/3 and that “people get things done.”

  • Powell Principle:  Leaders Promote A Clash of Ideas

This was one of the General Powell’s best insights.  He basically said, “What is the point of having people work for you if they don’t give you their best ideas.  You don’t want them sitting around waiting to tell you what they think you are thinking.  I need to take advantage of their expertise.  I want people who will clash with the boss and argue with the boss.  If you know more than me, I want to hear it.”  Now that was good, but I had heard that before.  The interesting point was what he added, “At some point I will make a decision and then I don’t want anymore.  At that point I want everyone to go with that idea like it is there own.”   Then he explains to us how he gets this done:  “I usually get that from my followers because I listen to them.”  Love it!

  • Powell Principle:  Maintain An Open Door

I loved this!  Powell told us, “I want my people to have access to me.”  I also want certain people outside the organization who I trust to have direct access to me.  Those people will tell me the truth.”  Trying to get all your stuff done and still have time for interruptions is a challenge; but if leadership is really about the people that follow you, we got to do it!

  • Powell Principle:  Probe The Organization

Powell talked about how he would walk through the barracks about the same time everyday.  He did this so soldiers would know that if they really needed to see me and/or talk to me they could.  Colin explained, “I would find out problems that none of my staff knew about.”  For leaders of larger organizations – more good stuff.  But the real leadership insight was what he did with the information. He said, “Once you get info from within the organization, you need to circle back and get others below in the loop before you take action.”  Following this process will allow leaders to discover new insights about their organization without alienating other leaders.

GREAT LEADERSHIP ALWAYS HAS A GREATER MOTIVATION “…he wants to please his commanding officer.” (II Timothy 2:4)

Powell’s last answer about how he wanted to be remembered told us what really motivated him.  “I want to be remembered as someone who served well and served faithfully.  As someone who left behind a good family.  I want to go out in a state of grace.  I was a serviceman.  I believe in service.  All of us have a debt of service that we may never be able to repay.  I have to give back.  This is a part of leadership.”  I tried to listen between the words to hear the motivation behind Colin Powell’s tremendous leadership I heard three him saying that he was motivated by at least three things.  First, he is clearly motivated by service.   Powell’s last answer about how he wanted to be remembered told us what really motivated him.  “I want to be remembered as someone who served well and served faithfully.  As someone who left behind a good family.  I want to go out in a state of grace.  I was a serviceman.  I believe in service.  All of us have a debt of service that we may never be able to repay.  I have to give back.  This is a part of leadership.”  Secondly, he was also motivated by a spirit of optimism which shows up in some of the following principles.  But an over-riding motivation that stemmed from childhood was his desire to bring honor and not shame to his family.  It was refreshing to hear him talk about a healthy sense of shame that he wanted to avoid and how that motivated him as a young man.  Here are some more of his principles that give insight into what motivates him:


  • Powell Principle:  Perpetual Optimism Is A Force Multiplier.

A spirit of genuine optimism is something that motivates Colin Powell. Powell referred to something I had never heard before, “forced multiplier”.  I am going to look into it; but he went on to explain that in the military they are taught to look for forced multiplier and that is something that multiplies the results over and over.  It was Powell that had the insight that optimism was a forced multiplier and that if a leader shows up with an optimistic “can-do” attitude it will be multiplied across the organization.  Genuine optimism is absolutely infectious. 

  • Powell Principle:  Things Always Look Better In The Morning

This was more evidence of Powell’s optimistic spirit.  He explained, “On some days I would just have to say, ‘we didn’t get it done today…tomorrow will be better.’”  To start his day he has a 30 minute staff meeting where they begin all over again.

  • Powell Principle:  Fit No Stereotypes

If you were to summarize what motivated Colin Powell to great leadership I think it goes back to his drive to be measured by his performance, and not anything else! He told the story of entering the army 5 years after Truman desegregated the army and 10 years after it was implemented.  He said, “I was told that you will be judged by your performance only…and I believed it.” 

As you think about your leadership. Is it hard?  Maybe that is the nature of leadership.  Is it more about the followers or more about you?  And what is your motivation?  Is it about “pleasing your commanding officer?”

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