Colin Powell

Sense of Purpose

General Colin Powell’s Advice From the Trenches

by Kate Pavao, October 2012

Colin Powell knows about leadership. During his career, the four-star general served as National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Secretary of State. In his latest book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, he shares stories from his rise to power, and reveals his personal secrets of success. Here, Powell talks to Profit about what every leader should keep in mind when it comes to dealing with staff, customers — and getting projects done.

ON LEADERSHIP: How do you inspire followers? By giving them a sense of purpose and high standards to strive for, by taking care of them and giving them what they need to achieve that purpose, and by filling them with optimism and confidence. Above all, a good leader builds bonds of trust and respect within an organization. But never forget that the real purpose of a leader is to accomplish a mission. Plans don’t get anything done. It’s the execution of a plan that gets something done.

ON INSTINCT: When you are faced with a problem, the first thing you do is ask, “How much time do I have to solve this problem?” Sometimes it’s 10 seconds, sometimes its 10 hours or 10 days. Use the time you have available to think through the problem, come up with different ways to solve it, and analyze those solutions. Get staff input — these are the experts. You don’t have to do what they tell you to do, but you are a fool not to take advantage of the expertise working for you.

After a while, you have to make a timely decision. Take in everything that you have heard, and then go with your instinct. I always say it is an informed instinct. Your instinct reflects experience that all of your subordinates do not have. Your instinct also reflects outside issues — the political situation, the public relations situation, allied relations. You’ve gathered information, now decide. And decide based on what your instinct tells you is going to be right. It’s not a guess.

ON BEDBUG LETTERS: There’s an old story that I’ve carried around in my head for 40 or 50 years now about a train passenger who wrote a nasty letter to the president of the New York Central Railroad, complaining about bedbugs. The president sends him a letter back within two days. The guy is deeply impressed, but it’s not a serious response. After he finishes reading the letter, a little note slips out of the envelope. It’s from the president of the New York Central Railroad to his secretary saying, “Send this son-of-a-bitch the bedbug letter.”

Throughout my career whenever I have to send a letter to somebody in response to a problem or a question, I always read it carefully to find out, “Are we answering the question, are we solving the problem, or our we just sending the guy a bedbug letter?” As a leader, and particularly at the top of the pile, you have to be responsive to anybody who writes to you. If someone thinks they have a problem, then you have a problem. And you have to help them with their problem.

ON MEETINGS: I developed a pretty formal set of rules for business meetings when I was National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and continued them during my tour as Secretary of State. When it’s a meeting that’s about solving a problem, I like to see it structured. I like everybody well prepared and I like to see everybody reading the papers beforehand so they are ready to present and defend their positions.

I try to keep these meetings relatively short, never more than an hour. For the first few minutes, I set out the problem that we are there to solve, and then for the next 20 minutes or so, everybody can present his or her position. Nobody interrupts you when you present so we all can hear it clearly. After that, it’s a free for all for the next 20 minutes or so. Everybody argues with each other. Don’t take anything personal — we’re not after your ego or seeking to embarrass you. We’re trying to make sure to get all the information on the table, and all points of view accommodated or listened to.

I want to make sure that when I finally summarize the meeting in the last five or 10 minutes, that I have captured not only the different positions, but where the edges are. We will come out of this meeting with a recommendation. We will not just kick the can or play slow basketball. We’re going to move. Then, in the last few minutes, I tell the people in the meeting what I am going to recommend to my boss, usually meaning the President.

Of course, there are other kinds of meetings: As Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Chairman, I always had a morning meeting to start the day with all of my principal executives. I called it Morning Prayers. It was never more than 30 minutes, and we essentially reviewed what we were doing that day and what we should be thinking about for the future. We also had fun, told jokes — nobody ever got in trouble at that meeting. I want everybody to see what I look like, how I feel, am I in good shape or am I mad at something. And I want to look around the table and see everybody. It was a way of starting the day as a team.

ON BUSY BASTARDS: A busy bastard can’t stop finding things to do. He never rests and as a result, his staff never rests. He’s always making work that expands to fill whatever time is available. The point I make in my book is: Be busy, work hard, but don’t become so busy that you cut out other things in life, like family and recreation and hobbies. And never be so busy that you’re not giving your staff and your followers enough time to do the same thing.

ON WANDERING: You’ve got to get out of your paneled rooms. Get out of there, go downstairs and see what the hell is going on in the basement. I used to love to walk around the garage. When people see the Secretary of State or CEO of an organization walking down in the basement, grabbing a hot dog in the cafeteria, or walking around the garage, they say, “Wow this guy really cares,” or “This lady really wants to know what’s going on down here.” I’ve always made it a point to show up in unexpected places. I also liked to follow certain regular patterns in my meanderings, so people know where they might ambush me and tell me something that I might not have heard otherwise.