Colin Powell Leadership Lessons

The legendary four-star general’s battle-tested leadership tactics are inspiring, surprising and astonishingly successful.

Few leaders have achieved such a meteoric rise as Colin Powell. Born to Jamaican immigrant parents in Harlem in 1937 and raised in the South Bronx, he joined the US Army as a second lieutenant and ultimately attained the rank of four-star general, amassing many awards and honors during tours of duty that included Vietnam, the Persian Gulf (where he spearheaded Operation Desert Storm) and Panama. 

Key Takeaways
  • During decades on the front lines of business, the military and government, Colin Powell developed a unique definition of leadership.

  • Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.

As the Army’s Forces Commander, he oversaw more than a million regular, reserve and National Guard troops, then took on even greater responsibility as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George Bush. Colin Powell also served as the nation’s 65th Secretary of State and holds a MBA from George Washington University.

During decades on the front lines of business, the military and government, Powell developed a unique definition of leadership: “the art of routinely accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.” Here are more Colin Powell leadership lessons; timeless words of wisdom from one of the most admired and effective leaders of our time: 

1.“Have a vision. Be demanding.”

Great leaders have a powerful sense of purpose that provides guidance and direction throughout the organization. An example Powell cites of a mission statement that has inspired a remarkably successful company is that of Google: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Along with establishing goals, set high, but achievable standards. Motivating people to make extra effort in pursuit of a shared purpose is the secret of building a winning team, he wrote in his memoir, It Worked for Me: “The focus should always be on getting better and better.”


2. “Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.”

Learn from the experts, but don’t be intimidated by them. Ideas that sound promising in theory may not work in practice—and that’s where a leader’s perspective and gut instincts come in. Challenging experts with tough questions spurs them to think more creatively and step up their game.

3.“Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved."

Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.” Powell’s rules for making excellent hiring and promotion decisions: “Look for intelligence and judgment and, most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego and the drive to get things done.”

“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
4.“Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

Great leaders don’t just look at the big picture. Often, small things can make the difference between success and failure, as exemplified by the familiar adage beginning, “For want of a nail…” It’s particularly crucial to have a feel for what’s going in the depths of the organization—not just in the executive suite. In the Army, Powell frequently made surprise inspections. “A maintenance shop with dirty mechanics, parts strewn around, and no senior officers lurking told me more about the state of maintenance than any formal quarterly report.”

5.“You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”

Powell’s point is that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Therefore, true leaders don’t put their plans on hold, waiting an official stamp of approval before taking action. Unless they’ve explicitly been told that they can’t do something, they forge ahead—boldly, but not recklessly.

6.“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.”

A common mistake is creating a culture in which employees are afraid to ask for help or own up to mistakes. While true leaders uphold high standards, they also show genuine concern for the challenges followers face. Therefore, they encourage respectful disclosure of mistakes, and provide tools to analyze the root cause, such as the “5 Whys” methodology developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries. The technique involves asking “why?” at least five times to delve into factors that contributed to the error and learn from it.

7.“Have fun in your command. Don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earned it: Spend time with your families.”

A corollary: “Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.” To be effective, both leaders and followers need to relax, recharge, and renew their enthusiasm for achieving their goals.

8.“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

A leader’s zeal, confidence and optimism are contagious, even amid challenges. Encouraging followers to believe in their ultimate success motivates the entire team to get the hard things done, make that extra effort, and strive to be the best.

Guest contributor Lisa Collier Cool is a past president of American Society of Journalists and Authors, a bestselling author, and winner of 19 journalism awards.