Close Menu

Colin Powell spoke with Whitworth Today editor Julie Riddle for the fall 2018 issue, available here.

Attitude Matters

Colin Powell knows a few things about effective leadership: he served as U.S. Secretary of State, as a general in the U.S. Army, as National Security Advisor, and as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This fall he was the featured speaker for Whitworth's President's Leadership Forum.

Here, Powell elaborates on several of his "13 Rules of Leadership" (included at the end of the interview) and discusses other topics including good advice and bad ideas.

Julie Riddle: What is the best advice you've been given and how did it make a difference in your life?

Colin Powell: I'm a product of everything that's ever happened to me. I have benefited from good advice. I have benefitted from bad advice. The best advice I guess was advice I was given when I was a kid in Harlem in the South Bronx when I was growing up. My immigrant parents said to me, "You will stay in school. Don't even think about not going to school." But the thing I remember most about my parents to try to keep me on course was, "We have expectations for you. Don't disappoint us and don't shame the family." That was it – that got me through college, with my solid C average, and the Army, where they didn't accept C as an acceptable grade, so I got straight A's in my military courses.

And then throughout the Army I received lots of advice. I remember my first assignment to Fort Benning, Georgia, to learn how to be an infantry officer. You have to remember this was 1958. We had a difficult time still in the military and in society – we were a segregated nation. The Army had been desegregated by President Truman in 1948, but that only really ended finally in 1954. So when I came in, in 1958, it was really the first generation of black officers who were going into a completely desegregated environment. And I still remember my instructors at Fort Benning saying to me, "Now listen carefully. We don't care if you're black or white or green or blue, we don't care that you were born in Harlem, we don't care that your parents were immigrants. All of that is totally irrelevant to us. The only thing we care about now and the only thing you should care about now is performance and demonstrating potential. If you perform and if you demonstrate potential, you'll go up. If you don't, you won't. Do you understand?" "Yes."

It was made clear to me: don't give us excuses for inadequate performance. Do your best every single day. My ambition and goal in the Army was to do my very best every day. That was drilled into me. So when I would come home at night from the job, either as a lieutenant or as a general: Did I do my best? Was I a good soldier today? If I was, that was my satisfaction. Whether it caused me to be promoted or not promoted didn't make any difference. I just tried to do my very, very best. And that's what I tell young people wherever I go. Do your very best. Let your potential and performance take you where they're going to take you. And don't be so ambitious that you let your ambition get in the way of your potential and performance.

Julie Riddle: I was struck by the concluding page of your book It Worked for Me, in which you wrote: "For good ideas to succeed, they must have champions," and, "Bad ideas don't die simply because they are bad. You need people to stand up and fight them." Could you expand further on these two points?

Colin Powell: The way I picked that up over the years was, principally working in Washington, D.C., many, many years ago as a Whitehouse Fellow, and seeing cabinet officers and bureaucrats and political appointees work, and watching all the administrations I worked for come up with ideas. In a bureaucratic environment like Washington, you can't just have a good idea and expect it to carry itself along. I've seen some of the best ideas come along but they had no champion, and so they failed. You have to have champions, in life or in government, especially. You come up with an idea, but then make sure you can bring other people along to your idea. Otherwise, it's just your idea. You have to have people who believe in what you believe in or in what you're trying to do, and become champions of your idea. That's how ideas succeed and that's how legislation gets passed.

A bad idea can live for a long time until someone has the guts to stand up and kill it. I've faced that many times. I've watched bad programs get started and continue until finally somebody had the guts to stand up and kill it. McCarthyism was a terrible thing, a terrible idea. People did not stand up to it and it went on for several years. And then it was the lawyer who was defending the officer who was accused by McCarthy of being a Communist, and the lawyer said, "Senator, have you no shame?" And the way he said it, "Have you no shame? How could you accuse somebody like this?" It was the beginning of the end of McCarthyism, and we got rid of McCarthy. You've got to have people like that, who will stand up and say, "This is wrong." All of us will have opportunities to do that.

Julie Riddle: The last rule of your "13 Rules of Leadership" is, "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." Please talk about what that means.

Colin Powell: The history of the 13 rules is that a reporter asked me about some slips of paper I kept under my desk glass, and I read off 13 of them. They were printed in Parade magazine in 1989, and they have been repeated in both of my books.

To understand number 13, you have to look at number 1 and number 4 first. Number 1 says, "Hey, it ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning." Well, that is not a prediction, that is an attitude. It may look worse in the morning. You may be in bigger trouble tomorrow morning. I've always gone through life and commanded units and worked with my soldiers to think, "Whatever is wrong today, we will fix it and we will be better tomorrow." Always have a positive attitude about what we're doing, always be optimistic about what we're doing, always believe in what we're doing, and remember, I believe in you and I want you to believe in me. That's how an organization runs successfully.

And then number 4, if my memory serves me correctly is: "It can be done." Believe that. What you have to do with a group of human beings is always have them leaning forward, we'll fix whatever's wrong, and remember: it can be done. Well, maybe it can't be done. This is an attitude. Number 1 and number 4 are attitudes, positive attitudes that are optimistic, which gives you number 13.

Force multiplier is a term you'll only hear in the military. Say I'm planning a battle – I'm always looking for something I can add to my forces that makes them more effective than the enemy thinks they are. I have better intelligence, I have better morale, I have more supplies. These are force multipliers that make my soldiers more effective. If you can believe, if you can always believe, and if your people, if your subordinates can always believe, that multiplies the effect of your organization.

One of the questions I always get asked is: What's the difference between management and leadership? Management is getting 100 percent out of the design of an organization. Leadership is getting 125 percent out of the design of that organization. Leadership takes you farther than management thinks you can go. And you get that by inspiring people, by taking care of them. You give them what they need to get the job done, building confidence and trust with them, and they with you. And that creates perpetual optimism – it's a force multiplier, meaning it makes your force more powerful than the design of the force would suggest it is.

Colin Powell's "13 Rules of Leadership":


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


Get mad then get over it.


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


It can be done.


Be careful what you choose: you may get it.


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


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


Check small things


Share credit.


Remain calm. Be kind.


Have a vision. Be demanding.


Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.


Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.