Lessons from a Frontlines Leader

He didn’t enter this world with a royal pedigree.

He was born in Harlem. His parents were Jamaican immigrants. He grew up on the rough streets of South Bronx. He got into mischief. Skipped school. His grades were average at best. He worked at a bottling plant.

Then he joined the Army. In the crucible of combat, he learned to excel. He learned to lead. As a lieutenant, he was wounded leading a patrol in the jungles of Vietnam. While there, he earned a Bronze star, Purple Heart, and a chestful of medals.

But that’s not all. In Korea, he learned to handle the inequity black soldiers faced overseas, and the daunting challenges of being a young battalion commander. While guarding the infamous North Korean border, he learned to guide and inspire disgruntled soldiers in an environment plagued by drugs, racism, and lack of discipline.

With each posting, he grew exponentially as a leader until one day he was put in charge of the world’s mightiest military force.

That man, of course, was General Colin Powell. Sadly, he passed away on October 8, 2021 from complications due to COVID. As a tribute to him, I’m posting this blog.

He never stopped leading. Or learning.

Through a series of triumphs (as well as missteps), Powell rose to four-star General, National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mastermind of Desert Storm, Secretary of State, and finally, the man who many wanted to draft as a presidential candidate. This kid from the Bronx received eleven U.S. military decorations, a dozen more from foreign lands, and two Presidential Medals of Freedom.

While serving his country for 45 years, Powell utilized his battle-tested leadership skills in climactic, high-stakes dealings with power brokers like Bush, Clinton, Schwarzkopf and Gorbachev. From the Pentagon to Panama, he personified honor and integrity.

It takes a special kind of leader to earn the respect of friends and foes alike. For a glimpse of how that works, let’s take a look inside his leadership playbook.

Advice doesn’t get any better than this.

His contributions were global. His legacy is huge. So what can we as less-exalted leaders learn from this iconic trailblazer?

To pass the torch to future leaders, Powell condensed a lifetime of keen observations into what he called his “thirteen rules of leadership.” The list was most recently published in his 2012 memoir, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.

Outwardly simple (that’s the genius, in my view), these thirteen rules apply to leaders in any realm — business, politics, military, whatever. Executives, entrepreneurs, volunteers and parents would do well to study this remarkable baker’s dozen.

I realize many of us may have already seen this classic advice at some point, but in honor of this great man’s passing, let’s review his rules together. After each of Powell’s pearls of wisdom, I offer brief commentary…

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
    In Annie, the plucky orphan sings, “The sun will come out tomorrow.” That’s great advice. Although it’s dark and stormy now, it can’t rain forever. But don’t just sit there — when leaders put in the effort, they can rise above the storm. Stay positive.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
    We all get angry. People and events will inevitably push us over the edge. But when you lose your temper, don’t lose control. Tantrums in a leader are a sign of weakness, not strength. Overcoming one day of anger will eliminate 100 days of regret.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
    We will all make mistakes now and then. We will all fail at a task. We will all use bad judgement. That’s normal. Learn to see every failure as a learning opportunity instead of a personal disaster. Pride goes before a big fall. So stay humble.
  4. It can be done!
    Skeptics can impede us. But the biggest obstacle we have to overcome is our own mind. That inner voice saying it’s “impossible” wants to distract you. Stay focused. If you’ve got the time, the skills, and the willpower, you can do just about anything.
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
    Life is all about making choices. Do your best to make the right ones, but when you don’t, try to learn from the bad ones. Don’t rush, consider your options, get wise counsel. Especially when it’s not a choice between right and wrong, but good and great.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
    Be ready to make bold decisions (and big mistakes). Courageous leaders don’t make choices by taking a poll to see what’s popular. They’re willing to buck the odds, ignore the experts, and defy the prevailing opinions — all to follow their own good instincts.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
    A strong leader will step up and push into a tough situation. They won’t waffle and try to duck the responsibility. They won’t give in to pressure and conform to the majority if the majority is wrong. Make your own calls, and be willing to live with the results.
  8. Check small things.
    When you do small things right, big things happen. Good leaders always sweat the details. Mother Teresa led a huge revolution in the way we view caring for the world’s poor. How? She said, “Be faithful in small things; it’s in them that your strength lies.”
  9. Share credit.
    Even Colin Powell couldn’t win a war by himself. Military victories are a team effort. That’s true in sports, business, and life in general. So spread the glory around. Shine the spotlight on others. The greatest self-discovery is finding “it’s not about me.”
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
    It’s been said the true test of leadership is how well you function during a crisis. When circumstances are chaotic and everyone else is panicking, the leader with a steady hand and a kind heart will win the day. Keep calm and carry on, as the English say.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
    Creating a vision is not enough. Casting a vision is not enough. A successful leader must be able to passionately, relentlessly, drive it through to completion. Those under your leadership must be able to tap into your conviction and energy to get the job done.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
    Fear of failure leads to making “safe” decisions. Fear of conflict leads to weak decisions. Giving into fear can emotionally immobilize a leader at the very time people are looking to them for strong guidance. Don’t let fear stop you from thinking clearly.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
    Good leadership is being positive in a negative situation. A leader’s personal optimism is contagious. It sparks courage, creativity, and boldness. When a leader sincerely believes in their purpose and people — then acts like it — so will their followers.

Applying the wisdom of an officer and a gentleman.

Like it or not, we’re all leaders and role models to some degree.

Studies show the average person influences 10,000 people in their lifetime. And wherever there are people, there are problems. When faced with a problematic situation, we can either push in or we can opt out.

We can ignore the pressing issues or we can address them. We can be passive or we can be proactive.

In combat, ignoring a problem can be deadly. In business, ignoring a problem can be costly. Same is true for volunteer groups, churches and families.

General Powell stressed this point: “Leadership is solving problems. 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 or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

Catch that? A failure of leadership.

You and I may never serve at the White House or the Pentagon. We may never lead troops in a firefight or testify before congress. But in our own sphere, let’s apply what we’ve learned from Colin Powell’s life — let’s never stop solving problems.