BEHIND OPEN DOORS
SEVEN LAWS for POWER
Colin Powell, Sect. of State
H e has commanded armies and headed government agencies—
and now as U.S. Secretary of State, Cohn Powell is in every sense a world leader. Through the years, in each position of growing authority, he has followed a code of leadership that inspires confidence. trust, and admiration from both political parties.
Powell and I became friends after we both spoke at an IBM-sponsored conference in 1996. Over time and from our many discussions, I formulated a point-by-point guide to Powell’s style, a kind of Leadership 101. Surprisingly, for a lifelong Army man, many of his strategies seem to fly in the face of traditional military thinking. As I began developing these principles into a book about Powell’s innate management skills, I at first viewed the project as primarily for business leaders. But in the days following the September attacks in New York and Washington—as Powell displayed his assured, dignified, and well-prepared style—it became clear to me that everyone has a vital interest in having a clear understanding of the Powell Way. What’s more, I firmly believe that Powell’s insights are of immense practical value for anyone faced with important decisions, whether business or personal. Here are seven of his key principles.
1. Dare To Be the Skunk (Remember, the one at the lawn party)
“Every organization,” says Powell, should tolerate rebels who tell the emperor he has no clothes ... and this particular emperor expects to be told when he is naked.” As a young officer out of the ROTC program at New York’s City College, Powell headed a platoon in Vietnam—where he learned something about how not to lead, others. “We accepted that we had been sent to pursue a policy that had become bankrupt,” he wrote in his best-selling autobiography. “The top leadership never went to the Secretary of Defense or the President and said, This war is unwinnable the way we are fighting it.’... They bowed to group-think pressures and kept up pretenses.”
Powell and many other junior officers vowed that someday, when they were in charge. they would not make the same mistake. Years later, during Desert Storm, he would put that principle into practice. Almost immediately after becoming Chair-man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, Powell huddled with President George Bush’s senior staff, debating how best to respond to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. The group agreed that the United States should continue to defend Saudi Arabia from invasion. But what about pushing the Iraqis out of Kuwait? Only Powell was willing to bring up that potentially devastating question. “I guess some people suggested that that was not the correct thing for me to ask,” he says. “But I asked it.”
He went even further, suggesting that the President draw his famous rhetorical “line in the sand.” And. he recalls. “That was not a well-received statement.” In fact, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney bluntly criticized Powell. “Perhaps I was the ghost of Vietnam,” he says. “There had been cases in our past when senior leaders, military leaders, did not force civilians to make those kinds of clear choices, and if it caused me to be the skunk at the picnic, take a deep breath.” Of course, Powell is a gentleman. He’s not rude or mean. As a good leader, he patiently builds a consensus, prodding people while simultaneously listening, learning, and involving them. But in the final analysis, he says, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”
2. To Get the Real Dirt, Head For the Trenches
“The people in the field are closest to the problem,” Powell says. “Therefore, that is where the real wisdom is.” On the eve of the Desert Storm campaign, Powell solicited enlisted men and
women for advice on winning the war. “When a captain came to see me.” he recalls, “I would tell him to sit down. I’d say, ‘Talk to me, son. What have you got?’
And then I’d let him argue with me, as if he were arguing with an equal. After all, he knew more about the subject than I did. I also knew he’d tell his friends that he had argued with the Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff. Word would spread, and people would understand that when they came into my office I really wanted to hear what they thought.” And that he trusted their opinions.
Leaders who ask for straight talk from the trenches must graciously accept infor-mation and diverse opinions—even ideas they don’t want to hear. “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them,” says Powell. Such encouragement can be nonverbal. The first time I walked into his office, Powell came around his vast desk and warmly ushered me into an alcove, where we sat, almost touching, at a far smaller, round table. He explained that the table sends a message of intimacy and trust. He wants visitors to know that he genuinely wants to hear what they have to say.
3. Share the Power
“Plans don’t accomplish work,” says Powell. “It is people who get things done.” He adheres to two basic leadership premises: (1) People are competent and (2) Every job is important. “Everybody has a vital role to play,” he told his State Department staff when he took over as Secretary. “And it is my job to convey down through every layer to the last person in the organization the valuable role they perform.”
The flip side to that leadership style is more responsibility on the part of those being led, The day he was promoted to lieutenant general and placed in command of V Corps in Germany, Powell received this letter from the Chief of Staff of the Army: “If in two years you have not heard from me offering you a second position or promoting you to four 2 stars, I expect you to have your resignation on my desk.” Two years later, four-star General Powell was in the White House as National Security Adviser. “He expected me to retire if he couldn’t use me any-
more,” Powell explains simply.
4. Know When To Ignore Your Advisers
Experts, advisers and consult-ants will only get you so far. Eventually a leader must make the final decisions. In Vietnam, Powell recalls asking a Vietnamese army officer why an outpost had been put in such a vulnerable spot. The officer explained that some military experts wanted it there to supply a nearby airfield. So then, asked Powell, why was the airfield there? The officer replied, “To resupply the outpost.” “Experts often possess more data than judgment,” says Powell. “Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.” The best leaders, he believes, should never ignore their own hard-won experience.
5. Develop Selective Amnesia
Too many leaders get so trapped in fixed ways of seeing things that they can’t cope when the world changes. In the spring of 1988, Powell flew to Moscow to prepare for a presidential summit. Sitting across the table, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev delivered momentous news, saying, in effect: “I’m ending the Cold War, and you’re going to have to find a new enemy. As Powell recalls it, his initial mental reaction was, “But I don’t want to!” After investing 28 years in seeing the Soviet Union as an enemy, he realized that “everything I had worked against no longer mattered.” But he regained his footing, adjusted to the new world order, and helped guide modern U.S. foreign policy. While we all have preconceived notions, Powell says “Never let ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”
6. Come Up For Air
Powell demands excellence from his staff, but he also insists they have lives outside the office. Again, he leads by example: He has always devoted as much time as possible to Alma, his wife of 39 years, and their children, Mike, Linda, and Annemarie. “I don’t have to prove to anybody that I can work sixteen hours a day if I can get it done in eight,” he told his State Department staff. “If I’m looking for you at 7:30 at night and you are not in your office, I’ll consider you a wise person. Anybody who is logging hours to impress me, you are wasting time.”
7. Declare Victory and Quit “Command is lonely,” says Powell. And so is the decision to withdraw from the position of authority—a choice he says not every leader makes soon enough. His own retirement from the military was, in his word, “traumatic.” “One of the saddest figures in all of Christendom,” he says, “is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once removed, driving around with a base-ball cap pulled over his eyes, making his strategic choice as to whether it’s going to be McDonald’s or Taco Bell.”
Powell didn’t stay retired in 1993. Now in civilian clothes, he helps lead not only the military but the nation itself. He is equal to the task in no small measure because of the lessons he has learned and the principles he lives by. “Leadership,” he says, “is not rank, privilege, titles, or money. It’s responsibility
OREN HARARI~ author of The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell (Mc(;raw-Hill, Fcbruary 2002.) is a professor of management a the
University of San Francisco’s McLaren Graduste School of Business.
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