It Worked for Me | Colin Powell

Summary of: It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership
By: Colin Powell


Get ready to delve into the life and leadership lessons from the remarkable career of Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who rose through the ranks of the US military to become an esteemed leader and statesman. In his book ‘It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership’, Powell shares the principles that guided his success, including his favorite leadership maxims, lessons from the military, the importance of employee development, and how to apply these lessons to various aspects of public and private life. By reading this summary, you’ll gain insights into Powell’s distinguished career and discover valuable takeaways that can enhance your own leadership journey.

Colin Powell’s Leadership Journey

Colin Powell’s journey from a working-class family in the Bronx to achieving success in the US Army is an inspiring story of hard work and leadership. Despite facing racial barriers, Powell’s determination and strong work ethic led him to become the first African-American on the bottling-machine team at a soft-drink plant. Though he couldn’t attend elite military academies due to his race and grades, he graduated from the City College of New York and served as an officer in the US Army, rising through the ranks. Powell’s story highlights the importance of always striving to do your best in any situation.

Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell

Colin Powell’s 13 leadership maxims offer valuable lessons for leaders in different capacities to exercise.

Colin Powell made history by becoming the first African-American to head a “four-star troop command”. He was put in charge of all the stateside Army forces at the Army’s Forces Command (FORSCOM). A popular US magazine published a cover story on him in August 1989, spelling out 13 of his favorite leadership maxims that have continued to inspire leaders globally.

Powell’s first maxim, “It ain’t as bad as you think,” relates to how leaders should face events and problems, regardless of their potential outcome, with positivity. A good leader never exhibits defeat, indecision, or fear. Powell’s positivity stems from his training as an infantry officer, where he learned that “No challenge is too great for us, no difficulty we cannot overcome.”

The second maxim, “Get mad, then get over it,” emphasizes the need for leaders to manage their anger. Despite having a “severe temper,” Powell learned from experience. In the early months of 2003, when the US was seeking international support for the upcoming Iraq War, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin publicly announced that France would block any military plans against Iraq. Powell kept his cool, maintained his friendship with de Villepin, and France eventually supported the US through “six straight UN resolutions” on Iraq.

The third maxim, “Avoid having your ego [too] close to your position,” encourages leaders never to personalize feedback from their assistants or staff. Instead, they should encourage their colleagues to share their ideas based on their job description. Powell’s assistant would encourage him to meet often with members of Congress who controlled the US military’s purse strings. Although Powell would often loudly shout at him, it did not deter the aide from fulfilling his duties to bug Powell again the next day. Leaders should emphasize loyalty in their subordinates, where their staffers can “disagree strongly and…execute faithfully.”

The fourth maxim, “It can be done,” highlights the importance of approaching challenges positively. Leaders should always have a mindset that enables them to overcome challenges. Negativity leads to failure. Leaders should ignore the cynics but at the same time, consider differing viewpoints. It is better to be optimistic but not naive.

The fifth maxim, “Be careful what you choose: you may get it,” admonishes leaders to take their time to reach decisions and opt for what they would be able to live with over the long term.

The sixth maxim, “Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision,” encourages leaders to trust their instincts when opposing circumstances arise. This is closely related to the seventh maxim, “You shouldn’t let someone else make your choices”. Leaders must be in charge of their own thinking and decisions and avoid ceding their independence to others.

The eighth maxim, “Check small things,” emphasizes the importance of paying attention to details. Leaders must carefully scrutinize unannounced visits to workplaces, cultivate “informal observers” and trusted allies and listen to what their staff members have to say.

The ninth maxim, “Share credit,” addresses how effective leaders award those responsible for successful projects. Leaders must acknowledge and reward their team members for their contributions. As Powell once experienced firsthand during a “change of command ceremony,” one of his Commanding Generals broke with tradition by ordering his officers to turn and salute their troops in recognition of their contributions.

The tenth maxim, “Remain calm. Be kind,” highlights how leaders must stay centered and project an air of confidence and control, no matter what emergencies they face. Leaders should maintain a “healthy zone of emotions” and display mostly calmness, but with occasional glimpses of kindness, anger, or frustration.

The eleventh maxim, “Have a vision,” dictates that leaders must create a sense of purpose and mission for their teams. Leaders must communicate their expectations and make it clear to their teams what they are expected to achieve.

The twelfth maxim, “Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers,” emphasizes how leaders can not afford to be anxious or surrender to the cynical pessimists who always assume the worst. Instead, they must prepare for the worst while trusting that their teams will prevail.

The thirteenth maxim, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” shows how staying positive, having superior logistics, and well-trained officers can enhance teams’ chances of success on the ground. Additionally, leaders must trust that their teams will prevail.

Colin Powell’s thirteen lessons provide valuable insights for leaders in different capacities, emphasizing the importance of positivity, management of anger, humility, attention to details, credit sharing, and perseverance while creating a sense of purpose and maintaining a “healthy zone of emotions.”

Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell

Retired four-star general and former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, shares leadership lessons from his time in the military and government. He believes that leaders in any organization should be in close proximity to the front line to make informed decisions and show support to their teams. Leaders should also recognize the value of every person in their organization. Powell emphasizes the importance of training and promoting from within, using the “50-50 rule” to assess a candidate’s potential. He advises leaders to avoid barking orders and instead focus on constructive criticism and attention to detail. Finally, Powell suggests four rules for assessing information and sharing accountability.

Retired four-star general and former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, shares leadership lessons from his time in the military and government. He believes that leaders in any organization should be in close proximity to the front line to make informed decisions and show support to their teams. Powell observed that “In the ‘heat of battle’ – whether military or corporate – kindness, like calmness, reassures followers and holds their confidence.”

Powell emphasizes the importance of recognizing the value of every person in an organization, from the cleaning crew to the president. He notes that military recruits learn to become soldiers during intensive basic training. At first, the recruits hate their tough drill sergeants, who never cut them any slack. But eventually, as they learn, the young soldiers come to appreciate their superiors. Powell believes leadership is all about passing on “generations of experience.” He suggests that if you show your team respect, they will extend themselves for you. As secretary of state, Powell often had junior analysts, rather than senior officers, directly brief the president. This gave up-and-coming staffers valuable confidence and experience.

Powell also stresses the importance of training and promoting from within an organization using the “50-50 rule” to assess a candidate’s potential. He notes that the military continually and diligently trains its troops, and does not hire from the outside when it needs a new commander. Instead, it has a ready source of qualified candidates within the organization. This approach instills loyalty and a sense of shared purpose in the team.

Leadership is not about barking orders, according to Powell. Instead, leaders should focus on constructive criticism and attention to detail. If a mistake occurs, “Never walk past a mistake.” Take the time to point it out in a constructive manner. Powell believes that this approach shows that leaders care and respect their team members enough to correct them. It also prevents small errors from growing into much bigger problems.

Finally, Powell suggests four rules for assessing information and sharing accountability. Leaders need solid, reliable information to make good decisions. He advocates using the following rules:

“Tell me what you know” – Substantiate and check your facts.
“Tell me what you don’t know” – Question what might be missing or incomplete.
“Then tell me what you think” – Don’t discount feelings, ideas or “wild beliefs.”
“Always distinguish which is which” – Make decisions based on “facts, analysis, opinions, hunches” and “informed instinct” but know the difference among them.

Powell’s leadership lessons are invaluable for anyone who wants to be a successful leader. His experience and military training provide unique insights into what it takes to lead effectively and inspire loyalty in team members.

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