Revisiting Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

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October 18, 2021:

I was saddened today to learn of the passing of Colin Powell. I extend my condolences to his wife, children, and family. May his wise words forever challenge leaders to give their best to those they serve.

With Respect,


Truth is Timeless

The truth never goes out of style! Years ago, I came across Colin Powell’s Thirteen Rules of Leadership and I had the feeling that one gets when he is re-acquainted with words of wisdom that he had buried in his mind and forgotten as he went about his busy life.  (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.)

Wisdom is Timeless

As I reviewed Colin Powell’s list then, his rules (in the bold letters) were and 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 lived a purposeful life.  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!

Colin Powell's Leadership Rule 1: It Ain't as Bad as You Think! It Will Look Better in the Morning! Share on X

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 your organization or even in your life.  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” will lead from whatever position they hold.  For them, a position is 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! You are affected by the company that you keep.

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.

Colin Powell's Leadership Rule 7: You Can't Make Someone Else's Decisions! You Shouldn't Let Someone Else Make Yours! Share on X

Rule 8: Check Small Things!

While leaders live in the “big picture” world they should never forget the importance of the details and they should ensure that the details get the attention they deserve. 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 a leader cannot achieve success on their own.  The success of leaders is built on the talents of the women and men working with them to achieve the vision.  Without them, leaders would not be successful.  So, if you’re a leader, 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 or she cannot keep his or her composure in times of difficulty.  It is hard for a leader to garner loyalty from others if he or she treats others 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! Further, there will always be those who do not support a leader or have his or her best interests at heart no matter how hard the leader tries to work effectively with them.  To lead others effectively, tune out your fears and the uninformed naysayers.  You will be more successful.

Colin Powell's Leadership Rule 12: Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers! Share on X

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 he or she is successful.  He or she is a force to be reckoned with and he or 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!

Video: Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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