By the time then-Secretary of State Colin Powell took the lectern at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, to make the case for a second invasion of Iraq, I was already in Kuwait preparing for that invasion. Planning had been underway for more than a year, and when I read about it in Stars & Stripes the following day, we were putting the finishing touches on the grand scheme of maneuver that would take us from our remote desert staging bases to battle positions on the periphery of Baghdad. As I read through the article, I remember thinking that the subject of WMDs really hadn’t come up at all during the entire planning process, save for the occasional warning about the ubiquitous SCUD missile threat, which raised the specter of chemical weapons.
Had Powell taken his own advice that day—“Never believe the first thing you hear”—he might have avoided what he later called a “blot” on his record. The intelligence was, at best, questionable; at worst, it was contrived and lacked any true semblance of confirmation. But, like any good leader, he acknowledged his mistake and recognized it is a personal failure. That ability for self-reflection defined Powell throughout his military career and continues to be the truest measure of him as a leader of character. We all make mistakes, but the best among us learn from them and share those lessons so that others may learn, as well.
A Voice of Reason
Like most lieutenants of my generation, I saw Powell’s photograph on the “command wall” in the headquarters, first as the commander of Forces Command and later as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. During the Gulf War, his presence was a moderating influence among the “giants” that brought Operation Desert Storm to decisive—and quick—conclusion. But it wasn’t until 1995 when I read his autobiography, My American Journey, that I truly developed an appreciation for him as a leader. Even today, my copy of that book—as well as his 2012 memoir It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership—is filled with highlighted passages and margin notes. And following the White House’s announcement to leave Afghanistan, Colin Powell said, “I’d say we’ve done all we can do… It’s time to bring it to an end.” His words are both powerful and profound. Powell continues to be a voice of reason in a sea of chaos.
Powerful Words from Powell
Powell’s words—the lessons of decades of service to the nation—resonated with me. They still do. There are countless lists, not unusual for someone so quotable. But there are ten that stand out more than others, that capture the essence of leadership from the first experience to the last.
1. “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.”
I used to joke that there were times when I felt like Oprah in camouflage. But a sign of good leadership is the trust others have in you to bring you their problems; not to solve those problems for them, but to help them find their own solutions.
2. “Great leaders are always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everyone can understand.”
There were many times in my career that I was accused of being a reductionist thinker. Despite the intent of those words, I took them as a compliment. A good leader will cut to the chase of a problem, eliminating the five-dollar words and useless jargon and acronyms. Simplicity is, after all, a principle of war.
3. “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.”
Every big thing is comprised of a lot of little things. Ignore the little things and the big ones never happen. Dream big but think little.
4. “Never get so close to your position that when the position goes, your ego goes with it.”
Any leader worth a damn is going to take risks and fail from time-to-time. If your ego is so fragile that you can’t stomach failure, you might want to let someone else be in charge. Or find a different line of work.
5. “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.”
This was a lesson also passed on by my father, who went from being a dirt-poor high school dropout working the railroads during the Depression to a very successful engineer and civil servant. A solid work ethic can make any dream possible.
6. “Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.”
Every time I was accused of not taking myself seriously enough, I responded with those last five words. Always keep a sense of humor. You’re going to need it.
7. “You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”
My mantra through three decades of military service: “Sometimes, I’d rather beg forgiveness than ask permission.” Risk and failure are always part of the equation. Don’t hide from them, embrace them.
8. “Dig up all the information you can, then go with your instincts.”
Leading ultimately comes down to making decisions, and you’re never going to have all the information you need. Never make a decision in a vacuum. Talk to people. Get a sense for the full context. Then make the best decision possible with the information available to you at the time.
9. “Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.”
If there is a corollary to the first quote on this list, it’s this one. While you may not always enjoy people bringing problems to you, it’s far better for them to bring them to you while there is still time and opportunity to resolve the situation.
10. “There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
As the battalion’s logistics staff officer as a junior first lieutenant, this was a lesson shared with me early and often by my executive officer, Joe Frankie. Humility starts with one word: we. Everybody knows you’re in charge, so don’t start every sentence with “I.”
Bonus Round: Personal Favorite
Finally, there is one quote that didn’t make the short list but is still very personal to me: “If you take the pay, earn it. Always do your very best.” If you always give your best effort, you’ll never have to wonder if you could have done more. You’ll know. That can be reassuring even in the darkest moments.