Colin Powell was one of those rare breeds; a political figure known, not for grand schemes or visions or even for scandals, but for his integrity.
Powell was the first African American appointed as the U.S. Secretary of State and the first, and as of 2021 the only, to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As chief military strategist, he developed what became known as the “Powell Doctrine,” an approach to military conflicts that advocates using overwhelming force to maximize success and minimize casualties.
He also gave us what became known as the Pottery Barn ethic; if you break it, you own it.
Powell appeared before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 to present evidence that Iraq had concealed an ongoing weapons development program. Powell’s reputation for integrity helped convince many in Congress and the country that Iraq posed an imminent threat.
This “evidence” proved to be exaggerated, if not outright false.
But here again, Colin Powell did something extraordinary for politicians; he admitted his mistake.
After his retirement, Powell remained vocal on political topics, openly criticizing the Bush administration on a number of issues.
In September 2006, Powell joined moderate Senate Republicans in supporting more rights and better treatment for detainees at the Guantanamo detention facility.
In October 2008, Powell made headlines again when he, a long-time Republican, announced his endorsement of Democratic Barack Obama for president.
He died of complications from COVID-19 on Oct. 18. He was fully vaccinated and had multiple underlying immune compromises and had been treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He was 84 years old.
As we mentioned in a previous column on the Tacoma Daily Index, Colin Powell lived by a collection of short phrases that served him well. These are leadership principles that I used in many of my classes precisely because they were so universally applicable.
From business to military, and from family life to international politics, these principles will serve you well. (The italics are my comments).
Colin Powell’s 13 Commandments
1. It ain’t as bad as you think! It will look better in the morning.
Disasters and catastrophes are inevitable. Very few will bring about the end of your career, reputation, relationship or life. If bad things happen, don’t make rash decisions and get some sleep. A little perspective makes a world of difference.
2. Get mad then get over it. Instead of letting anger destroy you, use it to make constructive change.
Holding on to anger and resentments will hurt you far more than any other person. Channel that energy toward constructive productivity. Go out of your way to de-escalate a tense situation. You never know what a restored relationship will open up for you.
3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it. Keep your ego in check, and know that you can lead from wherever you are.
In other words, keep the issue, the issue. All too often in today’s political climate, every issue has become weaponized with egos and reputations so front and center that we rarely even remember what the issue originally was.
4. It can be done. Leaders make things happen. If one approach doesn’t work, find another.
Believe it or not, politicians (and most leaders of every sort) take something like a vow of service. Their job is to actually get things done.
And, as we have seen in history, even our own, when people work together, they can accomplish remarkable things.
5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it. Your team will have to live with your choices, so don’t rush.
In work, relationships, investments or even major purchases (like that dream car or vacation) the reality is unlikely to match our well-cultivated fantasy. Lower your expectations and make the best of what you have.
6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision. Superb leadership is often a matter of superb instinct. When faced with a tough decision, use the time available to gather information that will inform your instinct.
Don’t be afraid of contrary points of view. Being “right” might cost you. What is right is far more important than who is right.
7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours. While good leaders listen and consider all perspectives, they ultimately make their own decisions. Accept your good decisions. Learn from your mistakes.
From the school yard to the boardroom, nothing is more powerful than taking responsibility.
8. Check small things. Followers live in the world of small things. Find ways to get visibility into that world.
In the real world, there is no such thing as “little things.” Every contact makes a difference.
9. Share credit. People need recognition and a sense of worth as much as they need food and water.
The better you make others look, the better they will make you look.
10. Remain calm. Be kind. Few people make sound or sustainable decisions in an atmosphere of chaos. Establish a calm zone while maintaining a sense of urgency.
There is no excuse for pettiness or cruelty. Order and respect could be your best investment.
11. Have a Vision. Be Demanding. Followers need to know where their leaders are taking them and for what purpose. To achieve the purpose, set demanding standards and make sure they are met.
Don’t settle. Expect the best from everyone. Keep your vision in view.
12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers. Successful organizations are not built by cowards or cynics.
Listen carefully to those who have the courage to disagree with you or tell you things that you may not want to hear. They may be the most important people on your team. If everyone agrees with you all the time, they are redundant. The proverbial “yes-men” are not your friends.
13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. If you believe and have prepared your followers, your followers will believe.
Humans are capable of astounding and beautiful things. Vision and courage are contagious. People love being part of something larger than themselves.
Each one of these principles speaks to durable underlying universal guidelines and assumptions about leadership, progress, group cohesion and purpose.
Morf Morford is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index.