“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not a bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” – Jim Rohn
Most leadership philosophies are built around a list that captures the essence of how a specific leader actually leads. My own philosophy was built around ten rules that probably soundly like something from a David Letterman episode. General Paul Funk, the commanding general of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, uses a list of around 40 rules captured in “Funk’s Fundamentals.” “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the coalition that liberated Kuwait during the Gulf War, had his own list of 14 rules on leadership. If nothing else, lists are a simple way to convey not just how you lead, but what matters most to you.
Colin Powell was no different. In his 2012 memoir, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership, Powell drew on personal collections of lessons and anecdotes to share the wisdom of a lifetime in service to the nation. The book itself is a terrific read, something you can consume in a few short hours. But the true value of the book comes in the first few pages, in the list he uses to open the book – his 13 Rules.
Colin Powell’s Leadership List
Like most of our leadership lists, Powell’s rules are actually lessons themselves, gleaned from his decades in uniform. The genius is in their simplicity; the power is in their brevity. He doesn’t waste a lot of words; he doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining them. Instead, he shares them with the same directness that came to define him as a leader.
1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
There’s a silver lining in every cloud, you just have to find it. That’s not always as easy as it sounds. Things might look bad today, but if you’ve put in the effort, tomorrow will be a brighter day. It’s a state of mind; believe it and you will make it happen.
2. Get mad, then get over it.
There’s always going to be days when events—or people—push you to the edge. When you do lose your temper, don’t lose control at the same time. People always remember the leader with a bad temper, and never in a good way.
3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
People who think that their way is the only way tend to experience a lot of disappointment. Things aren’t always going to go your way, that’s just a fact of life. Be humble enough to accept that fact.
4. It can be done!
Just about anything can be accomplished if you set your mind to it, have the necessary resources, and the time to get it done. Don’t succumb to the skeptics; listen to what they have to say and consider their perspective but stay focused and positive.
5. Be careful what you choose.
Don’t rush into a bad decision. Take the time to consider your options, weigh the relevant facts, and make reasoned assumptions. Once you pull the trigger, there are no do-overs. So make it count.
6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
Powell was fond of connecting good leadership to good instincts. Be a leader who hones judgement and instinct. Take the time to shape your mental models. Learn how to read a situation for yourself. Become the decision-maker your people need you to be.
7. You can’t make someone else’s choices.
Never allow someone else to make your decisions for you. Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own decisions. Don’t duck that responsibility and don’t succumb to external pressures. Make your own decisions and live with them.
8. Check small things.
Success is built on a lot of seemingly minor details. Having a feel for those “little things” is essential. In a 2012 interview, David Lee Roth shared the story of how Van Halen used brown M&Ms as an indicator of whether large concert venues paid attention to the minor details critical to a major performance. Leaders must have ways to check the little things without getting lost in them.
9. Share credit.
Success relies on the effort of the entire team, not just the leader. Recognition motivates people in ways that are immeasurable. Don’t be a glory hog. Share credit where credit is due and allow your people to stand in the spotlight. It ain’t about you. It’s about them.
10. Remain calm. Be kind.
Keep calm and carry on. Kill ‘em with kindness. When chaos reigns, a calm head and a kind word go a long way. When everyone is under incredible stress, be the leader people want to follow, not the leader people want to avoid.
11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
Followers need to things from leaders—a purpose and a firm set of standards. When you see leaders fail, it is almost always for one of those two things. They either lead their followers in a flailing pursuit of nothing, or they don’t set and enforce an example for their people.
12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it can also paralyze a leader at the worst possible time. Learn to understand your fears and channel them in ways that you control rather than allowing them to control you. Think clearly, think rationally, and make decisions that aren’t rooted in emotion.
13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
Optimism is infectious. Maintaining a positive attitude and an air of confidence is as important for you as it is for those around you. People will feed off your optimism. Believe in your purpose, believe in yourself, and believe in your people. And they’ll believe in you.