General Colin Powell: The Essence of Leadership

Cover Photo: Getty Images​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Cover Photo: Getty Images​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

"If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception; it is a prevailing attitude."  - General Colin Powell

The Essence of Leadership 

My name is Amy Wilkinson. I'm a White House fellow. My question is how you would define the key characteristics of effective leadership that allow you to go and be an advocate for good.

Trust. The longer I have been in public service and the more people who ask me about leadership over the years, leadership ultimately comes down to creating conditions of trust within an organization. 

Good leaders are people who are trusted by followers. Leaders take organizations past the level that the science of management says is possible. 

One of my sergeants back in the infantry school of Fort Benning almost 50 years ago, which is where I learned everything I ever got to learn about leadership was at the infantry school. And he said to me one day he said, Lieutenant, you'll know, you're a good leader when people follow you, if only out of curiosity. I've never had a better definition because what he was saying and I've seen it experience in my life. What he was saying is they trust you and you have built up that trust. How did you do it? Clear mission and statement, selfless service. People look to you and they trust you because you're serving selflessly as the leader, not self serving selflessly, and that you prepare the followers, you train them, you give them what they need to get the job done. Don't give them a job. If you're not going to give them the resources and that you're prepared to take the risks with them. 

And so they would teach us at the Infantry school, no matter how cold it is, Lieutenant, you must never look cold, no matter how hungry you all are, Lieutenant, you must never appear hungry, no matter how terrified you are. Lieutenant, you must never look terrified. Because if you are scared, terrified, hungry and cold, they will be scared. Terrified, hungry and cold. 

I've gotten away with that many, many times in the course of my career by being scared to death, cold and wanting to go to sleep. But no, let's go. Let's keep going. Let's go around this corner, if only out of curiosity, and they'll follow you into the darkest night down the deepest Valley, up the highest Hill. If they trust you. 

So the essence of leadership is about doing all that. The science and management says you can with resources. But then taking that extra step and giving it that spark, that spark comes from getting people to trust you so that they will follow you, if only out of curiosity. 

Thank you.

"The longer I have been in public service and the more of people who ask me about leadership over the years, leadership ultimately comes down to creating conditions of trust within an organization." - General Colin Powell

A Leadership Primer 

 "Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible." - General Colin Powell

Cover Photo: Getty Images

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