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2015-Aug-03 By Cris Uy

There are so many world leaders who, in one way or another, helped advanced the 21st century to where it is now. Leaders such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, former US Secretary of State - General Colin Powell, to name a few, have been influencing how the 21st century leaders are leading today. Hence, exploring the life of many of these leaders and the leadership principles he or she adhere to will surely benefit today’s current and emerging leaders.

This article will explore on the life-philosophies General Colin Powell, a diplomat, statesman, and a military leader who impacted the life of so many young leaders of today. Gen. Powell is a multi-decorated retired four-star general and the 65th US Secretary of States serving under President George W. Bush from 2001 till 2005. He was the first African American appointed as US Secretary of States and the only black American who served as Joint Chiefs of Staff. Married to Alma Powell, they were blessed with two daughters and a son.


In Colin Powell’s autobiography entitled, “My American Journey”, he made an exposition of his leadership philosophy. From this book published in 1995, a number of authors and researchers sift through it and identified a number of leadership principles of the highest ranking military officer of that time adhere to. Powell himself presented the summary of his leadership framework during the briefing in the Outreach to the America Program, SEARS Corporate Headquarters, Chicago, Illinois. The 18 lessons of leadership he presented there is also written in the book entitled, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell” by Oren Haraari.

The following are the 18 leadership principles according to Colin Powell:

1.  Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off;

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;

3. Don’t be buffaloed by experts. Experts often possess more data than judgement. The Elite can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world;

4. Don’t be afraid to challenge the  pros, even in their own backyard;

5. Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant;

6. You don’t know what you can get away with until you try;

7. Keep looking below surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find;

8. Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Please don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds;

9. Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing;

10. Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it;

11. Fit no stereotypes. Don’t chase the latest fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission;

12. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier;

13. Look for intelligence and judgement and, most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also look for loyalty,  integrity, a high energy drive, a balance ego and the drive to get things done;

14. Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand (Borrowed by Powell  from Michael Korda);

15. Use the formula “P40-70”, in which P stands for the “Probability of Success” and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired. Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut;

16. The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise;

17.     Have fun in your command. Don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earn it. Spend time with your families. Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard;

18.     Command is lonely!


In Colin Luther Powell’s autobiography, he acknowledged the significant role of his family in molding him as a leader of character, integrity, and high moral values. His parents, both US immigrant from Jamaica, taught him the value of excellence, goal-setting, independence, and strong work ethic. He grew up embracing these values that characterize his leadership to this day. Powell as a child was not that impressive as the others. He was just like the majority of us – a slow learner, distracted, and did not know our niche and what we were created for. He tried a lot of things but could not excel in any of it. His parents were supportive of his exploration, providing what he needs to help him discover his design. In college, he shifted from one course to another because of his limitation in math, sciences, history, and languages.

His search finally ended when he saw the cadets of the Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in nice military uniform. His attraction to their uniform gave him a sense of belonging. Since he was accustomed to strict discipline at home, he realized that he was designed for the structured military system. His college grades proved that his realization was accurate. His average grade in all his subjects was C except in his ROTC classes which he got straight A’s. In his ROTC experience, he learned to lead by example, build consensus, and to make proper and hard decision. Colin Luther Powell graduated in 1958 as a Distinguished Military Graduate.

Early in his military career, Powell’s values that he learned at home were challenged and strengthened. His experience in Vietnam helped him become diplomatic and culturally-sensitive. His officers noticed his giftedness in leadership and made him an advisor on the general staff. In eight years from the time he entered into the military he was promoted several times and finally received a rank of Major. During those times he never stops studying and learning. Wherever he goes, he studies. It did not take more than 14 months before he was promoted again and moved to a position of higher responsibility with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Powell worked hard and gave more time than what is anticipated. It was during this first decade of his career that he refined his leadership skills which include negotiating skills and skill in building consensus. Powell’s passion for learning moved him to get into a graduate school.

After graduate school, Colin Powell served in the Pentagon and in the White House. His hard work, integrity, and leadership giftedness were noticed. Eventually, at the age of 42, he became the youngest general in the Army. It did not take a long time before he was given a role of National Security Advisor (NSA) and eventually became the most powerful colored person ever in the White House prior to the election of President Barrack Obama. He served as Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and later, in 2001, as US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Powell concentrated on management problems and foreign policy as his unique contribution being a Secretary of State. Using his negotiating and consensus-building skills he was able to find a solution to the international crisis with China, diffuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lower the tension between India and Pakistan, and built a coalition to address the Gulf crisis and to assist the rebuilding of Iraq.

In 2004, Secretary Colin Luther Powell announced his resignation as Secretary of State after he admitted that he committed an error in thinking that Iraq possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. After retirement, Powell has spent much of his time inspiring and empowering young and emerging leaders. Together with his wife, he established America’s Promise Alliance to respond to and resource the needs and well-being of children and youth of all socio-economic levels.

In 2003, Secretary Colin Powell presented evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to the UN Security Council. Because of Powell’s reputation for integrity, world leaders were led to supporting the war against Iraq. Living and leading with integrity was Powell’s major strategy to attract people to follow his lead. His integrity impacted people’s behavior.

Why is integrity essential in leadership? Because integrity generates trust and confidence. For example, Covey (2009) says that trust is born of character which includes integrity. Another example, Peterson (2003) claims that the foundation of any high-trust organization is the integrity of its leaders. Experience teaches us that it takes a while to build trust but it can be destroyed immediately if one is not honest. So, no matter how competent and charismatic a leader is if he is not honest and lacks integrity people will not trust that leader. When a leader is trusted, people stand ready to entrust something to him or her even those they do not completely understand. Powell’s reputation for integrity has grown up to be a powerful influence in the way for other leaders think and decide, and in the way people behave towards his leadership.


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