Colin Powell’s 12 Lessons in Leadership

Colin Powell is one of my heroes.

Smart Lemming posted a summary of his lessons in leadership, and some of these really hit a chord with me.

I learned that #1 (Never be afraid to make people mad) is crucial. Most of my life I’ve been what’s know as an individual contributor or a “Worker Bee.” I’ve never led people before. I’ve seen evidence of Powell’s caution about “Trying to be nice to everybody will only invite mediocrity and compromise your goals as a leader.” But on the other hand I’ve seen the consequence of the opposite extreme of consistently being ‘not-so-nice.’ These consequences include:

  • Lack of willingness in others to partner with you or even ‘trust’ you
  • Borgia-like internal relations amongst your team members or within your entire organization if leaders with this tendency become the norm

I believe that perhaps leaders should temper #1 and develop the intuition and skill of knowing when to use that “Not-so-nice” card. Though I would agree that it may be necessary to be “not-so-nice” regularly on a temporary basis, as long as your people know why and there’s a really good reason for doing so.

# 2 – The [day] soldiers stop bring their problems to you is the day when you have stopped leading them. In some groups that this might be the case. It’s often seen as a weakness to bring up problems. Or bearers of bad news, usually are chastised for not bringing up-beat news. In some dysfunctional groups there is also the unspoken law that if you bring up a problem, then you own it. It’s easier to do this than have the leader guiding his team to prioritize the problems and then work together to solve them as a team.

# 7 – Keep looking below surface appearances: “Don’t assume that today’s realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy, linear, and predictable fashion.” In order to achieve order in business we often assume that we need to develop crisply organized schedules and procedures and goose-step to them as precisely as possible. I’ve been a part of too many projects that always assumed the best-case scenario and not planned for likely contingencies. What’s up with that? Maybe it ties into that whole idea of always having to paint a rosy picture for management. I do notice in the corporate world, that sometimes the guys who talk like weathermen forecasting great weather usually get the ear of management and upper management. Refer to image of the guy in suspenders from Creating Passionate User’s post (When only the glib win, we all loose). He looks like he talks like a weatherman.

Are you ‘weatherman’ or ‘reflective Asian guy?’

It’s easy to read this top 10 lists and think… okay now I know what it takes to be a ‘great’ leader, but it takes courage and ‘chops’ to really live this way. I have to ask myself sometimes… am I just happier being a worker bee? Do I have what it takes to be a decent leader let alone a great one. In some societies (maybe Lion prides) I’d be instant prey for saying (writing) this aloud, but I do think that it’s a question any leader should ask themselves every now and then to take account of what they’re good at and what they need to work on.

Just a thought from the peanut gallery.


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