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The Legacy of Colin Powell: 13 Important Leadership Rules

By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics

Secretary of State Colin Powell (1937-2021) impacted not only the military and Americans, but also inspired generations of leaders through the way he led. Powell was a rare and distinguished pioneer; his achievements include serving as the first African American four-star general of the U.S. Army, the Secretary of State under President George Bush, Jr., and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Over the course of his career, Powell developed a set of 13 essential rules for leaders to remember. These leadership rules are in his 2012 memoir, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.” They are essential principles to follow for anyone pursuing leadership, either personally or professionally.

Related link: Executive Leadership Training Improves Communication, Active Listening Skills

Powell’s 13 Leadership Rules

1. It ain’t as bad as you think! It will look better in the morning.

It’s important to understand that time is powerful. Bad situations may not look that same way after sleeping on it. Taking some time to step back from a situation and regroup is important. There’s also evidence to support that sleep can provide a more balanced perspective, help you organize your thoughts and be more informed about decisions.

2. Get mad, then get over it.

There are six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. Of those emotions, anger is often most misunderstood.

It’s important to understand when you are expressing powerful feelings, you tend to make bad decisions. So get angry, get over it and move on.

3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

Understanding your ego is a big part of emotional intelligence. Knowing how to separate yourself from what you’ll gain from an activity can be the vital difference between a positive or negative outcome.

So many times, people with big egos pick the outcome that makes them look the best in their own minds. This course of action tends to be less rational, and it fosters a “know it all mentality” where you consider yourself invincible.

4. It can be done.

How many times have you talked yourself out of doing something? Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

This way of thinking is basically a self-fulfilling prophecy that means you can achieve your chosen goal if you focus your time and energy on it. However, it starts with believing in yourself and your capabilities.

5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.

Another way of expressing this way of thinking is the idiom, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” Choices are powerful; however, they are made in the moment based on the information you have at that time. Some choices are bad and can be prevented, so making wise choices is essential.

6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.

Adverse actions can be detrimental to any decision; they can be disadvantageous, untimely and unlucky in the long run. If you have a strong internal instinct, trusting your gut is the best way to choose a course of action.

If it does not feel right, don’t do it. This line of thought means setting aside fear, anxiety and other emotions to make the best decision.

7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.

Life is a series of decisions; some of those decisions are easy and others are hard. While you can ask for advice, the ultimate choice to make is yours.

It’s often hard to solicit advice from someone who will not benefit or profit from the decision you make. All too often, advice is given based on personal experiences, which can be outdated or not apply to your situation. In addition, most advice is given based on how that person will benefit if your decision favors him or her.

8. Check small things.

The idiom “The devil is in the details” means that something that seems simple may be more complicated than you think. Small problems can morph into larger problems if they are not checked and monitored. Each of us needs to understand how to handle even the small details for key activities in our lives.

9. Share credit.

Of the 13 leadership rules, this is the one that is most often overlooked. No man or woman is an island – you need to be connected to others to live, work, and thrive.

Acknowledging those people that helped you get a job done is essential. Sharing the credit does not lessen your contribution; on the contrary, it enhances your contribution by highlighting the team effort needed to get work done.

10. Remain calm. Be kind.

Any situation can quickly escalate if emotions lead the way. Instead, understand that rational decisions are best made when you are calm.

Showing empathy to everyone is a basic expression of kindness. It can foster relationships and help you see a situation from another person’s point of view.

11. Have a vision. Be demanding.

Each of us needs a reason to get up every day. Having personal and professional goals means developing a vision and then developing the road map to reach that vision.

Having a goal ultimately leads to feeling more fulfilled with your life choices. It’s easy to get sidelined if you do not have clear goals for your life, so each of us need to be relentless as we move toward our personal and professional goals.

12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.

Naysayers, also known by the more modern term haters and trolls, are prevalent in today’s society. More often than not, their comments are inflated out of proportion or out of line. It’s important to understand that your inner fears should not drive important decisions, so know your weaknesses and address them head on.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Positivity breeds positivity and shuts down the paranoia that comes from negativity. The goal is to communicate your thoughts in an optimistic manner to encourage those around you to feel the same way.

Good Leaders Have Many Characteristics

Secretary of State Colin Powell was the epitome of leadership throughout his years of service to the American people. His 13 leadership rules are timeless and contain useful advice to follow.

Related link: Colin Powell: Legacy Matters

Good leaders are defined over time. They are not perfect; they often make mistakes. However, they learn from those mistakes, make adjustments and move forward with better insight.

Colin Powell’s 13 leadership rules highlight that good leaders have many characteristics. They use a methodical approach to make decisions and work through problems. Also, they listen to others to gather feedback, give accolades as needed and put their egos aside for the greater good.

Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP, is an award-winning author, presenter, and professor with nearly 30 years of experience in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STE(A)M). She is the creator of the Professor S.T.E.A.M. Children’s Book Series, which brings tomorrow’s concepts to future leaders today. A global speaker, STE(A)M advocate, and STE(A)M communicator, she holds a B.S. in Meteorology and an M.S. in Meteorology and Water Resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in Public Administration from Nova Southeastern University. She is a faculty member in Transportation and Logistics for the Wallace E. Boston School of Business and specializes in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in transportation, education, and technology.

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