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Lessons in Leadership from Colin Powell

One of my favourite set of leadership lessons from Colin Powell, in this vlog I choose three that resonate with me.


Hi, Russell Stratton, Leadership Champion at Bluegem Learning, working with companies like yours to transform average bosses into great leaders. With the theme of leadership in mind, I wanted to focus on some work that was done by Colin Powell on his 18 lessons in leadership. Now for those of you who don’t remember, Colin Powell was former chief of staff of the United States Military, and was also part of the George W. Bush administration. One of the things that Colin Powell had done in one of his sort of post military life, a series of lectures, was to drill down really into the essence from his experience of what were the lessons that he had from his career in the military, of what makes a great leader, and what helps that leader be really effective in managing the people that they’re working with.

He comes up with 18 lessons. I’ve picked three of those that I think will have particularly resonated with me, that I wanted to share with you today. One of the first one he talks about is that you can’t be a leader without ticking some people off. Now he doesn’t use the word ticking, he uses a little bit more robust language from his military background, but you get the gist of it. The basic idea was, is that when you’re in a leadership position, sometimes you’re going to be asked to make decisions, operational, perhaps there on a personnel level, which aren’t going to be popular with the people that are working for you. The reality is, is that you’re not there to be peoples friend. Yes, you want to be engaged with your workforce, you want people to get on with you, hopefully they like you. But ultimately it’s not being their best buddies. You’re not going on a golfing holiday with them.

There will be times when you have to make hard decisions that aren’t always going to be popular with everybody. As I say to leaders that I work with, expect that in any moment in time, there’s one person in your team who doesn’t particularly like you at that moment because of a decision that you’ve had to make. But that comes with the territory of being a leader. One of the other points that Powell made that resonated with me, was the thought that where as he puts it, “When soldiers stop coming to you with their problems, then you as the leader have a problem.” If we substitute in there the word soldier for employee or staff member, it still makes sense to us here in the business world. If people in your team don’t feel that they can come to you with issues that they have that are work related, or perhaps it’s something happening from the outside of work, and feel that they can talk to you, then you have an issue.

If they’re not talking to you, who are they talking to? Perhaps it’s their colleagues, perhaps it’s somebody outside of work. But they obviously don’t feel they can come to you as their leader, and actually have that conversation. There’s a piece in there about making sure that we have that person-ability, we have that openness, empathy, and genuineness about us. That people feel that they can come and talk to us about what’s worrying them, and that we can help them in finding a solution.

The third thing that resonates with me from Powell’s 18 lessons in leadership, is the one where I’ll paraphrase him, that what we should do is look to … delegate responsibility for decision making as close to the frontline as possible, and not try and second guess people. For as he calls it, “A rear-echelon position.” If we think about what that means in business terms, what he’s saying is, “If we can delegate responsibility to the people who are actually doing the job on the frontline in the business,” whether this is customer facing, or they’re at the job site, or they’re the person that’s actually on the production line. Rather than necessarily trying to second guess them with information from head office that normally be days, or weeks, or months after the event. Let’s try and push that down to people in the frontline, get them to make decisions in the here and now about what they can and can’t do.

I’ll give you a quick example. Southwest Airlines in the US have this where they delegate responsibility to their customer service representatives. If a customer comes up and has a problem, the delegated authority is that individual customer service representative, who could actually make the decision to resolve that problem for the customer in the best way possible up

to a certain monetary value, without having to refer to one of their superiors. Think how empowering that can be for your team if people can actually make decisions about the job that they know best, rather than having to refer it up the train to head office, to get sign off on something.

I’d like to hear your comments on those thoughts of Colin Powell, three of his lessons in leadership. Feel free to comment on the box below. Share this content with others. Any comments that you do make, I respond to personally. If you’re interested in reading more about Powell’s work, then feel free to come onto our website at, because there’s a fuller article on the blog that covers all 18 of these lessons. If you’re interested in me working with your team to see how we can improve leadership skills in your organization, then get in touch.

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