Leadership advice from Colin Powell

General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke to my 3 Vistage groups this week and the take-aways were fantastic. Well actually, it was a pre-recorded interview with Vistage CEO Sam Reese that we watched at home and discussed at the meetings. But still, the take-aways were excellent!

When 16 busy executives spend time to get together for a whole day away from work, the content better be good and they come to learn. Guess what? The first of 4 main points by General Powell was

No. 1: “You not only have to keep up, you have to constantly improve yourself.”

Well they do that by showing up each meeting. So we didn’t even take time to discuss that one.

No. 2 was: “Build trust through empowerment and transparency”.

“Whenever we had a challenge and I had to learn fast how to deal with it, I wanted to hear from everybody, whether you were a general or a captain.” In our Vistage meeting, we broke out into small groups and discussed how we empower our people. Do we give them opportunities to shine or maybe fail? Do we communicate clearly? Do we make sure they get recognized?

No. 3 was:  “Servant leadership – recognizing the value of the front line”.

Like most military leaders, Powell studied military leaders of the past. He shared the story of Abraham Lincoln receiving the news that he lost a brigadier general and 100 horses in a battle in the Civil War. Lincoln mourned the loss of the horses in a conversation with the telegraph operator that gave him the bad news. Lincoln said ” I can make a brigadier general in 5 minutes. It’s not easy to replace 100 horses.” Powell stated that if he took care of his people, they took care of him and fulfilled the mission. How much easier is it to lead an organization when people feel valued and are aligned with the mission? We shared how we do that in our organizations.

And finally, no. 4:  “High stakes decision-making requires mutual trust and confidence.” Powell talked about getting alignment with the chiefs of all the branches of the military when he had to cut the forces by 25%. He asked each one to suggest the cuts they would make to get to the goal. He trusted his team to make the best decisions for their reports and the military as a whole.  How do we get agreement and make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions in our organizations?

Stop and assess how you measure up to Powell’s leadership principles and make one small shift this week.