A Leadership Primer

A number of years ago I had the privilege of listening to Colin Powell being interviewed by Pastor Bill Hybels at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I was awed by the wisdom and depth of leadership knowledge that oozed from General Powell. He had a take on leadership that I found honest and refreshing and yet he made a number of statements that caught me off guard. Some of his reasoning seemed to contradict many of the leadership teachings I had heard in the past. Yet, as I meditated on his perspectives I found many of them to be remarkably insightful and true. A couple of years ago, I came across an article on leadership written by Colin Powell and I shared these insights with my staff at our latest All-Staff Meeting.



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Here is an excerpt from a portion of the article "A Leadership Primer" by Colin Powell. To listen to the teaching through the complete article, go to the Leaders Factory Podcast and download episode #64b.


  1. Being responsible sometimes means people will get angry with you. Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions & decisions.
 It’s inevitable, if you’re honorable.
 Trying to get someone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.
 You’ll avoid the tough decisions.
 You’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted.
 You’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative & productive people in the organization.
  2. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

 Real leaders make themselves accessible and available.
 They show concern for the efforts & challenges faced by underlings, even as they demand high standards. Accordingly, they are more likely to create an environment where problem analysis replaces blame.
  3. Don’t be buffaloed by experts & elites. Experts often possess more data than judgment.
 Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.
 Small companies & start-ups don’t have the time for analytically detached experts.
 They don’t have the money to subsidize lofty elites, either.
 The president answers the phone & drives the truck when necessary; everyone on the payroll visibly produces and contributes to bottom-line results or they’re history.
 But as companies get bigger, they often forget who “brought them to the dance”:  things like all-hands involvement, egalitarianism, informality, market intimacy, daring, risk, speed, and agility.
 Policies that emanate from ivory towers often have an adverse impact on the people out in the field who are fighting the wars or bringing in the revenues. Real leaders are vigilant, & combative, in the face of these trends.
  4. Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard. Learn from the pros, observe them, and seek them out as mentors & partners.  But remember that even the pros many have leveled out in terms of their learning & skills. Sometimes even the pros can become complacent and lazy.
 Leadership does not emerge from blind obedience to anyone. Xerox’s Barry Rand was right on target when he warned his people that if you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant.
 Good leadership encourages everyone’s evolution.
  5. Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant. Strategy = execution.
 All the great ideas & visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate & empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day.
 Bad leaders, even those who fancy themselves as progressive “visionaries,” think they’re somehow “above” operational details.
 Paradoxically, good leaders understand something else: an obsessive routine in carrying out the details begets conformity and complacency, which in turn dulls everyone’s mind.
 That is why, even as they pay attention to details, they continually encourage people to challenge the process.
 They implicitly understand the sentiment of CEO leaders like Quad Graphic’s Harry Quadracchi, Oticon’s Lars Kolind and the late Bill McGowan of MCI, who all independently asserted that the job of a leader is not to be the chief organizer, but the chief dis-organizer.
  6. You don’t know what you can get away with until you try. You know the expression, “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Well it’s true.
 Good leaders don’t wait for an official blessing to try things out. They’re prudent, not reckless.
 But they also realize a fact of life in most organizations: if you ask enough people for permission, you’ll inevitably come up against someone who believes his job is to say “no.” So the moral is, don’t ask.
 Less effective middle managers endorsed the sentiment, “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘yes,’ I can’t do it.” Whereas the good ones believed, “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘no,’ I can. There’s a world of difference between these two points of view.

Questions: Which point challenges your thinking the most as a leader? Please leave your comments in the "Leave a Reply" box below. Thank you.