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18 Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of receiving a Powerpoint presentation that had been pulled together by Colin Powell on the 18 lessons that leaders need to understand.  Since that time I’ve reviewed the principles countless times, shared with others hundreds of times, and done my best to apply them faithfully.


While there may be better compendiums of lessons, this one is darn good and well worth reviewing on a regular basis.


Hopefully you will be able to put one or two of these lessons in actions to help you with your team.

General Colin Powell – A Leadership Primer

“Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.”


  • Lesson #1: Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.
  • Lesson #2: The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.  They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care.  Either case is a failure of leadership.
  • Lesson #3: Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites.  Experts often possess more data than judgment.  Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.
  • Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.
  • Lesson #5: Never neglect details.  When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.
  • Lesson #6: You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.
  • Lesson #7: Keep looking below surface appearances.  Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find.
  • Lesson #8: Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything.  Plans don’t accomplish anything, either.  Theories of management don’t much matter.  Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved.  Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.
  • Lesson #9: Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing.
  • Lesson #10: Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.
  • Lesson #11: Fit no stereotypes.  Don’t chase the latest management fads.  The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission.
  • Lesson #12: Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
  • Lesson #13: Powell’s Rules for Picking People:  Look for intelligence and judgment, and most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners.  Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego, and the drive to get things done.
  • Lesson #14: Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.
  • Lesson #15:
    • Part I: Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.
    • Part II: Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.
  • Lesson #16: The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.
  • Lesson #17: Have fun in your command.  Don’t always run at a breakneck pace.  Take leave when you’ve earned it:  Spend time with your families.
    • Corollary: surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.
  • Lesson #18: Command is lonely.

For your reference a PDF copy of the lessons can be found here:

Hopefully after reviewing Powell’s lessons you will be able to take away one or two ideas to help you as a leader.

If you have any questions about the topics covered in this article, feel free to reach out to me at any point in time.  I enjoy working with entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and families to define their goals and make sure they have plans in place they are executing to achieve those goals.

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Curt Stowers

Curt Stowers

Curtis Stowers helps individuals and families across the United States grow their financial assets, particularly in the Naperville, IL region. He is a Certified Financial Planner, holds a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering from the University of Illinois, and is the founder of F5 Financial.