True leadership is recognized universally, regardless of bipartisanship, differences in style and strategy and desired outcome. True leadership is recognized by everyone, and we would be hard pressed to find anyone that would not recognize it in Colin Powell. Oren Harari does a thorough job portraying that character in his book, “Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell“. Harari wrote this book without collaboration with Powell; he used direct quotes from Powell and based his stories on a previous relationship he held with the General. This book is not a biography, a book by Powell, or intended as a tribute to him. It is rather the depiction of the character of true leadership which Powell fully embodies.The writing is clean, crisp, sensible, and interesting, even to a reader with limited knowledge of operating procedures in the US military or government. Each chapter is a self-contained lesson, which makes it more of a leadership manual than chapters in a story. I read it cover to cover, and would not recommend otherwise if you should wish to take away the best of what Powell leadership has to offer, especially because his leadership style is unusual as a military leader. He is unusual in that he listens with the same attention to his superiors as to those who serve under him, and he processes the information with the same care and consideration from both sources.
I wonder sometimes if reading books on leadership is over-rated. What do I want to accomplish from reading this book anyway? Is it so that I become a great leader or recognize great leadership? Perhaps we do it most when we lack it most, and at the time of the reading of this book, I was desperately looking for role models in a leadership position. I was coming to the realization that it is impossible for people to be their best and to produce their best work under a management that is impossible to respect and in the absence of a leadership which is much sought after.
Harari outlines an uncut version of Colin Powell- the good, the bad and the very ugly of his leadership without any fluff – he is off to a lively start in Chapter 1: “Know when to piss people off”. Powell believes the idea of total harmony is naive in an organization where you ask for effective leadership. That you cannot please everyone, and that should be far from your purpose. As Powell advises, having consensus is important but not the same as putting decisions to a vote. I admire his style: He gathers all the information, listens to all the concerns, and while everyone takes part in the process, the ultimate decision AND responsibility for that decision lies with the leader. It needs to be made by the leader – and that is why we select great leaders so that we allow them to make those difficult decisions for us.
“When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this state, stimulates me. But once a decision is made, the debate ends”.
In one whooping phrase, he dispels a key to loyalty, entrusting his staff, valuing the opinion of individuals, and establishing respect for authority.
The creativity of the leadership style is commendable – it means not just breaking the barriers of standard operating procedures, but also finding effective means to run one’s team. The most notable is his invention of The Phone – a private line which no one but he is authorized to answer in order to receive first-hand information at a moment’s notice. He refused to let a well-intended staffer summarize the intelligence from the field. He wanted the intelligence and quality of his information at its best. He was always connected to his people and the direct source of information through The Phone.
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.
Along the same lines as the quality of information are two other aspects, the fine balance between which is the key to successful decision-making for a leader:
- The details in the information: Does detail matter to the leader? Do leaders need only to know the big picture for sake of efficiency?
- The amount of information: How much information is sufficient to enable a leader to make the right call? Do we need to know everything first?
First: It is too common for executives to ask for that Exec Summary – the 3 bullets that summarize an entire quarter’s worth of accomplishments and failures – most of the glory magnified and most of the problems shoved under the rug masterfully by the power point wizards who pull them together. It is entirely the responsibility of that executive to know the necessary details, and I agree with Powell’s approach to information analysis.
Next: The lack of information leads to excuses for indecision too often in corporations. An executive wants to query everyone’s opinion, and ask for more information. Powell warns of missing the window of opportunity to make a decision, and often times in military situations, the opponent will have already closed that window – and sometimes, no amount of information is holistic, a decision must be made with the information at hand, and a leader must know when and how.
One of my favorite parts in this book is Powell’s translation of leadership to responsibility. Not glory, popularity, wealth, or infamy. Simply responsibility. Leadership is hard work and lonely, and it is in serving people that he finds the glory of it all. Responsibility must be carried on strong shoulders, and true leadership is no easy task. Powell’s principles and foundation are compelling. He referenced Winston Churchill at one point, a well-known quote by which he himself has led: “Success is measured in your ability to maintain your enthusiasm between failures”.
Above all, integrity is synonymous with true leadership, and with Colin Powell. With motto such as “Do not let who you are be so wrapped up in what you do”, and a unique leadership style that has been esteemed by those who agree or disagree with his decisions, he has fostered great leadership, and Harari presents those golden nuggets to us in this book.