GLS | Gen. Colin Powell: It Worked For Me

Posted on August 8, 2013


(Live blogging notes. Please forgive typos and errors.)


In my view, leadership is getting more out of people than science and management says you can. You do so by having a vision that goes toward a purpose. You get that by believing in yourself, having the courage of convictions, inspiring people to reach beyond themselves.

There’s no such thing as an unimportant person in an organization. You must constantly show them how they’re important in the organization. The leader conveys, not just the purpose of the organization, but more importantly, how everyone in the organization has an individual purpose. It is the collective importance of the individuals in your organization that gives the whole its purpose.

Trust is the glue that holds an organization together and the lubricant that moves it forward.


Soldiers don’t want sympathy. They want their service to be recognized and respected.

You have an obligation to reach down, reach back, reach across, to help someone up.

It’ll look different in the morning.

Yeah, it may not. The reason I use that is because a day could go very bad. But I always go to bed thinking, it’ll be better in the morning. It’s not necessarily a prediction, but an attitude, a perspective. The reason why it’s going to be better, is because we’re going to make it better.

Successful leaders really infect their people.

Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

No matter how bad things are, we’re going to fix it. When we have a bad day, we’ll have a great day the next day. We never try to get too down, and we never try to get too up. People look to the leader for confidence, for reassurance, to solve problems. People don’t respond to “that’s an order.” People want to understand what’s going on. So, you have to persuade people that it is in their best interest. Then, they’ll give undying loyalty.

Get mad, but then get over it.

Mad is a bad attitude. You can’t stay mad, or the whole organization is in trouble.

How do you know when to fire someone and when to give them a second chance?

I always try to adapt to the personality of my subordinates. I’m a leader, but there aren’t any human beings who are identical. I need to find out the strengths and weaknesses, to build on their strengths, and compensate for their weaknesses. When there is a shortcoming, we counsel. On occasion, there is a subordinate who can’t get into purpose or buy into the vision. I can’t get them to move with me, or people who just don’t want to do anything. The first ones to know about it are the others. Other followers don’t like it when someone isn’t following, and you as a leader have to have the guts to make that decision. Leaders solve problems. If you don’t solve problems, the worst effect is that your people think you don’t care.

When you see an aspiring leader, what characteristic do they manifest that would worry you?

Ego. Brilliant people who get the job done, but somewhere along the way, no one taught them humility or consideration of others and you can see it. They start to think that they turn the sun on in the morning, and I can’t work with them.

Have you ever had to take someone aside and say, “I don’t think you’re cut out to be a leader / going to make the grade?”

Look at their past performance which is an indicator of their future potential, but you also have to intuit when they have a potential that has not been yet realized.

Time to get off the train.

Everyone needs to know when that is, and some people don’t know when that is, so sometimes you need to throw them.

What leader on the world stage did you have enormous respect and admiration for?

I won’t single out anyone because that would be a disservice to the others. I’m a product of everything that has ever happened to me, best and worst. You did mention Neslon Mandela. He was asked, “Don’t you want to get even with these people?” He answered, “If I felt that way, then I’d still be in prison.”

Tell me early.

Problem solving is what leaders do. But tell me about the problem early. If there is time, then I want to use as much of the time to study it. That means you have to create an environment that allows it. I probed the organization.

What has God done, taught you, about Himself, or you, since we were last together?

I’ve been born and baptized an Episcopalian, and I attend St. John’s Episcopal in Virginia. I’ve learned — because I’ve been so fortunate — to spend a large part of the remainder of my life to serve young people.

You’ve sat in your church your whole life. There are tens of thousands of pastors here, what would you like to say to them.

Challenge me. People welcome challenge, and want to be challenged.