Revisiting Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

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The truth never goes out of style! I ran across Colin Powell’s Thirteen Rules of Leadership today and I had the feeling that one gets when we are reacquainted with words of wisdom that we had buried in our mind and forgotten as we go about our busy lives.  (For me, it was like remembering the wisdom of my grandmother who never wasted words and always said so much in the few words she spoke.)

As I reviewed Colin Powell’s list again, his rules (in the bold letters) are full of emotional intelligence and general wisdom for any leader. (My thoughts are in the plain text.)  For anyone in leadership, they are worth remembering and applying.


Rule 1: It Ain’t as Bad as You Think!  It Will Look Better in the Morning!

These are the words of a man and of a leader who has lived a few years.  It is true how many events that seem so devastating have in them the seeds of renewal if we look for them.  Give it some time and perspective.  You can deal with it!  You have made it this far!

Rule 2: Get Mad Then Get Over It!

OK, you’re mad–maybe even righteously so! So, instead of letting anger destroy you, use it to make constructive change in the organization.  Acknowledge and accept that you are angry and then use your anger in an effective manner for your own benefit and the benefit of others.

Rule 3: Avoid Having Your Ego so Close to your Position that When Your Position Falls, Your Ego Goes With It!

Your position is what you do to live, it is not who you are.  Leaders that have “their egos in check” can lead from wherever they are.  For them, the position was just a means to an ends–not the ends itself.  You can always lead!

Rule 4: It Can be Done!

Leaders are about making things happen.  They continually ask, Why Not, when faced with the improbable.  While one approach may not work, it can be done another way.  Find the other way to make it happen!

Rule 5: Be Careful What You Choose! You May Get It! 

Don’t be rash with your decisions. You will have to live with your decisions, and many decisions have unintended consequences. This also includes the people you choose to associate with. Choose them wisely too!

Rule 6: Don’t Let Adverse Facts Stand in the Way of a Good Decision.

Whoever said leadership was easy! If they did, they were not truthful. Leaders sometimes have to stand alone (or with the support of only a few) on what they know to be right. They have to make difficult, right decisions that may cost them some relationships. Fortunately, the truth has a way of surfacing with time. Leaders we now admire such as Dr. Martin Luther King and President Abraham Lincoln had plenty of people who hated them in their times. Make the right decision, take the heat, and let time and good results prove you right!

Rule 7: You Can’t Make Someone Else’s Decisions!  You Shouldn’t Let Someone Else Make Yours!

While good leaders listen and consider all perspectives, they ultimately make their own decisions and take responsibility for their choices.  If it does not feel, seem, or smell right, it may not be right.   Make your own decision about what is in your own best interests. Accept your good decisions.  Learn from your mistakes.

Rule 8: Check Small Things!

While leaders live in the “big picture” world they should never forget the importance of the details and ensure they are attended to. It is often the small things, or little foxes as King Solomon put it, that ruin the best laid plans. Don’t forget the details!

Rule 9: Share Credit!

It is probably our American culture but “leader worship” seems engrained in us.  The CEO’s get all of the attention and most of the credit for a company’s success. While leaders are indispensable to success, the truth is the leader did not achieve all that success by himself.  His success is built on the talents of the women and men working with him to achieve the vision.  Without them, he would not be successful.  So, share the credit with others!  Some of it rightfully belongs to them anyway.

Rule 10: Remain calm!  Be kind!

It is hard for a leader to inspire confidence and resilience in others if he cannot keep his composure in times of difficulty.  It is hard for a leader to garner loyalty from others if he treats them badly. Remain calm and be kind and your team will climb mountains for you!

Rule 11: Have a Vision! Be Demanding!

Lost sometimes in the language of inclusion, employee participation, servant leadership, motivation, etc. is the fact that leaders are demanding when it comes to fulfilling the vision.  Effective leaders do not accept poor performance and mediocre results.  They hold people accountable for their performance.  It is talented people working diligently that achieve success.  Be clear about what needs to be done and hold people accountable for fulfilling their roles and responsibilities.

Rule 12: Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers!

Fear can be paralyzing and there will always be those who do not support a leader or have her best interests at heart no matter how hard she tries to work effectively with them.  Tune out your fears and the uninformed naysayers.  You will be more successful.

Rule 13: Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier!

There is something to be said for the leader who refuses to accept defeat and continues to adapt as necessary until she is successful.  She is a force to be reckoned with and she will positively impact others.  Remain optimistic and your leadership effectiveness will multiply.

Colin Powell’s short rules are full of wisdom and application.  They remain powerful lessons for any leader. These rules encourage leaders to manage their emotions effectively, have a realistic sense of who they are as a person, model the behavior they want from others, take tough stands as appropriate, and treat their teams with respect. We can all do well with these 13 rules!

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