Book Review: “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership” by Tony Koltz and Colin Powell

This book consists mainly of Colin Powell’s stories about life and leadership. I enjoyed listening to the self-recorded audiobook and then reading the ebook version. Lots of lessons learned in easy-to-remember anecdotes. They are not new breakthrough leadership techniques but definitely more memorable.

First, he started with his 13 rules:
1. It ain’t as bad you think. It will look better in the morning. He cited the Minnesota Fats in the movie “The Hustler,” “Fast Eddie, Let’s play some pool” – you may be down but you’re not out until you admit it.
2. Get mad, then get over it. Control your temper.
3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, you ego goes with it. Decouple your position or what you’re arguing for from yourselves and see the merits of both sides.
4. It can be done. Be an optimist but not be stupid.
5. Be careful what you choose: you may get it. Don’t rush into things.
6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision. Based your decision on the best data you can collect and make informed decision.
7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours. “Wear your own T-shirt.”
8. Check small things. “Drop in and wander around.” Don’t be fooled by the “fresh paint” (cover-up).
9. Share credit, take the blame, and quietly find out and fix things that went wrong.
10. Remain calm. Be kind.
11. Have a vision. Be demanding. Have a sense of purpose. “Great leaders inspire every follower at every level to internalize their purpose.
12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
13. Perpetual optimism of a force multiplier. Believe in yourself, your purpose and that you will prevail and demonstrate confidence.

Part 2: Know yourself, be yourself
Always do your best, someone is watching. “If you take the king’s coin, you gave the king his due.” “Be loyal to your superior and the mission given.”

The street sweeper: about the street sweeper that got promoted to driving the sweep truck with a big smile. Are we more blessed than that guy? He questioned himself. It’s not the position but how he is valued by his family and community.

Busy Bastards: Don’t be a workaholics – have a life outside the office. Don’t try to generate make-work. I’m surprised that Powell tinker with Volvo engine – his favorite hobby.

Kindness works: Show kindness in depth with passion and expect nothing in return. There are no trivial jobs in any successful organizations. “Kindness is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of confidence.”

I’m all caught up. Find problems to solve, not manage.

Where on the battlefield? Travel when necessary. Commander should be where he can exercise the greatest influence and be close to the point of decision.

Spheres and pyramids: Evaluate candidates by 50-50 rule. Score 50% on their previous record, and 50% on their potential to do even better on the next level. If you hit the wall of the pyramid, find satisfaction there.

Potential, not just performance. “Leaders need to watch all of their subordinates; work with all of them, encourage the hotshots, but invest in the others.” “The leader must never forget that he may end up working for one of them.”

Part 3: Take care of the troops
Trust your people. They will follow you because they trust you. Focus on building trust in a team.

Mutual respect. Respect for leaders must be earned. Know your followers. Have competence and preserve a zone of privacy, a place form himself that his followers can’t enter. “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

We’re mammals. The adult elephants took care of the teenager delinquent elephants. Leaders passed on generations of experience. Give purpose, structure to the team and hold standards.

Never walk past a mistake. Make on-spot corrections. Tolerances of little mistakes and oversights creates an environment that will tolerate bigger and ultimately catastrophic mistakes.

The guys in the filed are right and the staff is wrong. The clients are the leaders on the line and their troops. Problem solving went both down and up.

It takes all kinds. Good managers are good leaders and good leaders are good managers.But great leaders get 110, 120 ,150% of what anyone though was possible. They are unafraid to take charge, inspire their followers who are willing to follow.

Part 4: Fast Times in the Digital World
Brainware. Permanently changing brainware is a far greater challenge than bringing in new hardware and software.

Tell me what you know. This is a jewel: “Tell me what you know (corroborated facts). Tell me what you don’t know. Then tell me what you think. Always distinguish which from which (place in different buckets – facts, opinions, analysis, hunches, instinct).”

Tell me early. Don’t hide the bad news. Powell recalled the Abu Ghraib prison issue that wasn’t handled properly as a result of hiding the bad news from the top.

Beware first reports. Take a deep breath and let a hot potato cool a bit before picking it up.

Five audiences. Consider five prominent audiences when giving press conferences for his government role: 1. The reporter asking the question (least important.) 2. The American people who are watching and listening. 3. Political and military leaders in more than 190 foreign capitals. 4. The enemy who’s watching and listening carefully. 5. The troops. “They got to pick the question. You get to pick the answer.” Answers to the final audiences. You’re the only one at risk! 30 minutes is long enough. Never give on-the-record interviews at a meal. Start talking or repeat the question while you’re thinking.

Part 5: Getting to 150%
What I tell my new aides. Tell your subordinates what you expect of them. Powell’s rules are good ones to follow. I like “Don’t rush into decisions – make them timely and correct.” “Speak preciely.” “I will develop ways to getting to know what’s happening.”

One team one fight. Work as a team – avoid infighting.

Compete to win. Set your people up for success.

Swagger sticks. No need to resort to authority.

They’ll bitch about the brand. People will bitch about something regardless. Once they have the beers machine, they’ll bitch about the brands of the beers.

After 30 days, you own the sheets. If you don’t complaint or find faults, you own it after a grace period. Don’t be like the 3-envelopes joke (blame me, re-organize, and then prepare another 3 envelopes for your successor).

Mirror, Mirror on the wall. Use AAR (after-action review) or postmortem as a training tool. High-performing, successful organizations build cultures of introspection and trust and never lose sight of their purpose.

Squirrels. Don’t bring problems to your boss what you can solve and he doesn’t have to. So he can deal with the nuts that were left for the squirrels like Reagan did to Powell.

Meetings. Decision meeting that started out with 5-min description of the issue and current state. 25 minutes of positioning by each member, 25 minutes of food fight, and then final summary of merit and de-merits and reach a conclusion.

The indispensable person. Lincoln was more concerned with losing 100 horses than the general. The indispensable resource may not be the leader. Leaders need to be ready to replace anyone who’s no longer up to the task.

Time to get off the train. “Go in with a commitment to selfless service, never selfish service, get off the train before someone throws you off… Spent a moment watching the old train disappear, then star a new journey on a new train.”

Be Gone. “After your turn at bat, head for the dugout, the bullpen, or the parking lot.” Don’t linger.

Part 6 Reflections
Powell Doctrine or Principles of War: mass, objective, offensive, surprise, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, and simplicity. “Objective” and “Mass” is the cornerstone of the Powell Doctrine.

The Pottery Barn Rule: you break it, you own it.

2/5/03 – the date Powell gave the infamous Iraq WMD speech to the UN. Always try to get over failure quickly. Learn from it. Study how you contributed to it. If you’re responsible for it, own up to it.

Parsely Island. Leaders must be problem solvers.

Pizza and Milk. It’s the pizza restaurant manager that impressed the foreign teenagers than all the dignitaries.

Cousin Di. Powell described his friendship with Lady Diana. “Use the influence it gives you for worthwhile purposes… Don’t make your public life your full-time occupation, and hide frequently from the madding crowd.”

Speaking is my business. Powell told some stories on his speech trail, driving the big truck. But he mostly enjoyed observing the Americans in motion.

On the road. Powell vented his likes and dislikes about traveling and the hotel services – like having big letters on the amenities.

Gifts. Gift receiving as a government officials could be a real drag. $250 or less or you may have to buy it. The portraits tended to reflect the cultures of the giver countries.

Best and worst. Powell reflected the people who influenced him throughout his life. He talked about success and failure. “Fear and failure are always present. Accept them as part of life and learn how to manage these realities. Be scared, but keep going.”

Hot Dogs. The hot dog immigrant owner who refused to get paid and thank him for the wonderful life he has been paid. It’s like like him that gives Powell his optimism for this country. Even Hu Jintao bought his hot-dog diplomacy.

The gift of a good start. Powell recounted his start at CCNY (City College of New York) instead of the expected West Point Academy. It’s the “Harvard of the Poor.” I couldn’t believe Powell was only a 2.0 (C) student. He strongly believe in giving the kids a good start like he was given.