The Powell Principles

The Powell Principles 17 August 2020

General Colin Powell (U.S Army) was considered one of the finest leaders of his generation. Below are 24 lessons from this inspirational leader.

Promote a clash of ideas….the ultimate goal is to inspire people in the organisation not just to voice problems, but also figure out ways to solve problems

  • Encourage a noisy system
  • Look for great ideas…wherever they come form
  • Speed communication through technology

Be prepared to piss people off….leadership can’t be a popularity contest.  Leaders who care more about being liked then being effective are unlikely to confront the people who need confronting.

  • Make performance and change top organisational priorities
  • Reward your best performers, and get rid of non-performers
  • Encourage creative disruption

Establish trust….trust is essential for influence and credibility.

  • Never underestimate the trust factor
  • Encourage communication
  • Be a servant leaders

Walk the talk….demonstrate personal integrity, setting high standards of conduct for your employees.

  • Practice empathy and selflessness
  • Curiosity is a key leadership ingredient
  • Use influence, not authority

Pick the right people….hire, place and promote talented individuals with the following qualities: intelligence and judgement, a capacity to anticipate, loyal, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego and the drive to get things done.

  • Hire talent and values, not just resumes.
  • Seek value alignment
  • Hire people who compensate your on weaknesses.

Listen….ideas get exchanged faster and more reliably.

  • Use every means to encourage communication
  • Maintain one pure line of communication
  • Use symbols to encourage communication

Be vigilant in details….master the details before you launch a campaign.

  • Master the details then execute
  • Stay in touch with the little things
  • Avoid “analysis paralysis”

Be a disorganiser…what are we doing, right or wrong, and how can it be improved?

  • Look below the surface
  • Fight complacency
  • Dig, dig, and dig some more

Check your ego at the door….don’t let ego distort the organisational agenda

  • Don’t become a prisoner of your position
  • Change before you are forced to change
  • Reinvent your job before it’s too late

Let change lead growth….build a direction and foundation for sustained growth and expansion in the organisation.

  • Encourage those around you to learn new skills
  • Replace the old missions with new ones
  • Unlearn lessons –  look beyond yesterday, and today

Seek consensus (but don’t be ruled by it)….provide people with the necessary resources to compete in the new game.

  • Earn a personal commitment from every member of the team
  • Don’t push harder or faster than the organisation will allow
  • Seek consensus, but be prepared to move ahead decisively

Fit no stereotypes….flexibility is all important.

  • Be ready to change on a dime
  • Beware packaged solutions
  • Don’t limit your toolbox of management techniques

Simplify….effective leaders take the abstract and complex and render it into something that is graspable and straightforward.

  • Define the game clearly, and expect everyone to play it.
  • Make sure the mission reaches every part of the organisation
  • Let overarching goals drive daily behaviour

Let situation dictate strategy….the landscape changes, therefore, the effective leader is ever vigilant, ready to shift strategy and tactics as the situation warrants.

  • Avoid “one size fits all” solutions
  • Be flexible
  • Don’t fight the last war

Push the envelope….it’s all about the individual spirit. It’s about what makes a job worth doing and –  to some extent – what makes a life worth living.

  • Don’t look for “no’s”
  • Live the old adage: “No guts, no glory”.
  • Don’t punish for failure

Close with the enemy….make sure that the goals are understood and endorsed by the people who need to endorse them. Make it clear these goals will be pursued.

  • Execution is the key
  • Pick your battles
  • Remain flexible

View people as partners….if you believe your people are high performers and if you convey that belief to them, they are likely to be high performers.

  • Ignore hierarchy
  • Depend on people, not plans…plans accomplish nothing
  • Spend at least 50% of your time on people

Challenge the pros….a good leader pushes back and challenges.  (The pros are people with authority and status)

  • Tolerate rebels
  • Emphasise respect while disagreeing
  • Challenge the pros to get better solutions

Don’t rely on charts and titles….leadership is less about authority and titles and more about influence. Organisational charts and titles count for nothing.

  • Respect authority, but don’t be cowed by it
  • Use charts as a guideline, but be ready to abandon them
  • Remember that titles are just titles

Trust those in the trenches….they can make decisions and take actions that are faster, more informed, more flexible, and better fitted to local conditions. And this means they will make better, smarter, timelier, and more appropriate decisions.

  • Take advantage of the intelligence of those in the field
  • Use the internet to ensure access to information
  • Stay involved and supportive

Make optimism a top priority….optimism transforms doubters into believers. People resonate with positive messages.

  • Spread optimism around the organisation
  • Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers
  • Make optimism fuel for bold action

Have fun in your command….successful leaders view fun in the workplace as essential to innovation, risk taking, team spirit and performance.

  • Work hard and play hard
  • Create a fun environment for others
  • Minimise unnecessary stress

Strive for balance….leaders who do not buffer themselves and their people from the pressure to work constantly cannot remain effective in the long haul.

  • Take leave when you’ve earned it
  • Don’t clock for hours’ sake
  • Don’t always run at breakneck speed

Prepare to be lonely….at the end of the day, after a leader has listened, collaborated, delegated, and empowered, it’s time for him or her – nobody else – to make the decisive and critical decisions.

  • Accept responsibility
  • Lead by example
  • Know when to exit

Colin Powell quotes:

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

“A good leader surrounds himself with people who complement his skills. Only an honest and fair assessment of your abilities will allow this to happen.”

Acknowledgement: The Powell Principles: 24 Lessons from Colin Powell, a Legendary Leader. Oren Harari. McGraw-Hill Professional Education (c) 2003





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