What’s in it for me? Unlock the secrets of leadership from a four-star general.

Have you ever stopped and wondered what makes your boss such a great leader? Is it the way they tackle daily problems? Or keep your organization in check? Or look composed in the middle of a messy situation? 

If you answered yes multiple times, you’re on to something. An effective leader is more than just one thing – they’re a combination of various traits and abilities. In this summary to It Worked for Me by former four-star general and secretary of state Colin Powell, you’ll learn exactly what these qualities are and how you can use them to achieve success in your own leadership role.

Colin Powell’s 13 rules

After Colin Powell took over as the head of the US Army’s Forces Command in 1989, the magazine Parade penned a cover story on him. This was where his 13 Rules of Leadership were born. These principles, which embodied Powell’s philosophy on leadership and management, went on to become widely celebrated and referenced in both the military and across different industries.

Let’s take a brief look at each one:

Rule #1: Remember to be optimistic, even during challenging times. Things may or may not work out in your favor, but it’s essential to keep a winning attitude. By projecting positivity, you can inspire your followers to push through difficulties. 

Rule #2: It’s only natural to get mad – but make sure not to stay mad. Learn to move past your anger. Don’t wait until you start losing control of yourself. 

Rule #3: Separate your ego from your position. This is especially crucial when you realize you’re in the wrong. If your ego isn’t tied to your position, your self-esteem won’t be affected by mistakes. 

Rule #4: Adopt a can-do attitude. Until you have enough evidence that says you can’t, always believe that you can. But that doesn’t mean you should jump in without doing your research. Keep the challenges and opposing viewpoints in mind at all times. 

Rule #5: Be mindful of your decisions, because you’ll have to face the consequences. When making a choice, carefully weigh the potential benefits and risks.

Rule #6: Challenge the adverse facts when making decisions. Instead of being hindered by these setbacks, look for ways to overcome them. Draw on your instincts and experience to find solutions.

Rule #7: Your decision is your responsibility, so don’t be swayed by other people’s opinions and desires. You can be open to their feedback and advice, but always remember that the final decision rests with you.

Rule #8: Take note of the little things, even those at the lowest levels of your organization. Although they’re small, they often make the biggest difference. You, as a leader, should personally check on them or have members of your team follow up. 

Rule #9: Don’t hog all the credit for yourself – share it with your followers. The best way to do this is through thoughtful gestures. Give your teammates a pat on the back, or tell them that you recognize their hard work. 

Rule #10: Be kind and calm in the middle of chaos. This prevents your followers from panicking, which helps you get the job done.

Rule #11: Determine a purpose for your organization. For your followers to function effectively, they need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing – and internalize it. Set this purpose, create the standards to achieve it, and then guide your followers to meet these standards. 

Rule #12: Don’t let negative voices hold you back. In life, there will always be doubters and moments of fear. Acknowledge them, and learn to move forward in spite of them. 

Rule #13: Perpetual optimism can multiply your forces. Believe that you’ll succeed, and your followers will believe it, too. But optimism alone isn’t enough – you also need to invest in training and preparation to ensure that your followers are equipped to succeed.

These 13 rules can serve as your framework for becoming an effective leader – but there’s a lot more at play, which we’ll explore in the next sections. 

The attributes of an outstanding leader

Behind every fascinating discovery, revolutionary invention, and transformative movement is a leader. They’re the driving force that paves the way for progress and ultimately shapes our world. Without their skills and intelligence, success would be nothing but a distant dream. 

But brains and common sense alone aren’t enough to make a great leader. To become truly outstanding, a leader has to push beyond their inherent talent and develop other essential characteristics. 

First and foremost, a great leader has a clear and compelling purpose for their organization. As emphasized in rule eleven, this purpose serves as the guiding light for all the subordinates. This is what keeps the whole organization functioning as one. It’s your job to establish this common purpose right at the start, and to effectively communicate it with your followers. Otherwise, you risk running into failure. 

Being a great leader also involves learning how to take ownership of your responsibilities. Once you step up to the plate, everything – including your predecessor’s problems and commitments – now falls on your shoulders. Instead of pointing fingers, the best you can do is to start tackling the challenges head-on. 

This applies not only in leadership transitions but also in decision-making. Every time you decide to do something momentous, be prepared to take charge. Colin Powell refers to this as the “pottery barn rule” – if you break it, you own it. This means learning to embrace both the positive and negative outcomes of your actions.

Additionally, you can’t be a great leader without knowing how to accept feedback and learn from mistakes. That’s exactly why evaluation is important. You can only work on improving yourself once you’ve assessed your past actions and their results. In the Army, this is called an After-Action Review (AAR). It’s not meant to grade the course of action but to learn what’s needed to improve the results. That way, you can properly train and course correct. 

Last but not least, being a great leader means understanding when to pass the torch, how to pass it, and how to let go of it entirely. It’s essential to know when your service is no longer needed – and for you to then move on to your next chapter. Some leaders hold on to their positions so tightly that they fail to see it’s time to pass the torch. 

Train your subordinates, so they can take over when that time comes. Build them up to be just as great a leader as you are. This ensures that the organization will still run smoothly the minute you step down. 

Then, when you do leave, close the door firmly behind you. Don’t try to keep up ties by accepting honorary positions with all the perks and none of the accountability. Just let go. You’ve already trained your team to carry on without you – they’ll be just fine. 

How to treat your team right

There’s no “i” in “team.” 

You’ve probably heard this expression a million times, but it remains a timeless truth. You can’t finish a large project or develop an entire product line or go to war by yourself. In all these cases, your team plays a vital part in winning. That’s why you need to know how to take care of them. 

It all starts with being kind. No matter how seemingly small their job is, every single person on your team plays an important role in your organization’s success. Make sure to treat every individual with kindness, and to exhibit empathy and appreciation. 

Alongside kindness, trust is another cornerstone of a healthy relationship with your subordinates. Trusting your team means putting your faith in their abilities and judgment. When you give them your trust, they’ll trust you in return and do their best work to support you. 

Colin Powell knows firsthand about the power of trust. One time, former President Bush was preparing for a meeting with the Mexican president. It was the State Department’s job to brief him on the affairs surrounding Mexico. 

But instead of Powell doing the presentation himself, he entrusted the task to two junior desk officers. He hadn’t yet met them in person, but he trusted their expertise and didn’t even ask for a rehearsal. 

His decision was bold, but it paid off. The briefing went off without a hitch, and the junior officers were over the moon to be part of such an important event. That’s how impactful trust can be. 

Apart from kindness and trust, a great leader also cultivates an environment of mutual respect. That means you respect your team, and your team respects you back. Respecting your team involves getting to know them. Learn their names, check their performance, and ask about their ambitions and problems. This makes them feel valued and respected. 

On the other hand, to earn your team’s respect, you have to be competent. You need to do your job as a leader, and do it well. Otherwise, your subordinates will lose confidence in you.

Taking care of your team also entails providing them the structure to succeed. There are dozens of ways to go about this, but one is to be a role model. Just like a baby animal instinctively follows its parents, your subordinates need you for guidance and advice. Share your experience and wisdom with them to help them improve. 

You also need to provide your team with the equipment and training they need – you can’t just expect them to go from zero to hero without the proper resources. So get the latest software, and make sure they’re getting the best training available. You’ll be surprised by how easily they can succeed with the right tools and knowledge. 

Finally, make it a point to give your team constructive feedback, and rectify any mistakes right away. This demonstrates that you live by the organization’s standards and expect your subordinates to follow them to a tee, too. When you address an issue immediately, you can prevent it from escalating into a bigger problem. Your feedback also gives your team the opportunity to improve early on. 

Taking care of your team is an essential leadership skill, but it takes practice. Give it your best effort, and you’ll soon see a significant impact on your organization.

How to deal with problems

Leadership comes with a constant companion: problems. Day in and day out, you’ll be bombarded with issues both big and small. Sure, you might eventually figure out all of today’s problems – but tomorrow, you’ll undoubtedly face more. There’s no escaping them. That’s just the life of a leader. 

Instead of dreading problems, try to welcome them as a sign of trust and respect from your team. When they come to you with all sorts of challenges, it signifies their trust in your ability to overcome adversity. They know you can help them get through it, which is why they’re consulting you in the first place. When your followers stop conferring with you, that’s the moment they no longer believe in you. 

But how exactly should you deal with all these problems? 

First, encourage your staff to tell you about the problem as soon as it arises. You can’t solve something you don’t know about, so it’s important to learn about an issue early on. And make sure to get the entire picture – the more you know, the better you can assess the situation.

But this doesn’t mean that it’ll be solely up to you to figure out a solution. Let your subordinates give it a go first. Your role as a leader is to provide them with initial guidance and support. This not only empowers your followers to take accountability; it also shows that you trust their decisions. 

Once your team has come up with different solutions to a problem, the next step is to help them evaluate the potential consequences of each. Some solutions may appear to be effective at first glance, but they might create new problems that are just as detrimental. Be on the lookout for these secondary problems, and make sure not to let your wishful thinking cloud your judgment.

How to handle meetings

Along with problems, a leader’s day is filled up with one other thing: meetings. A constant flow of information is essential to keeping an organization running smoothly, so learning to master meetings is a must. 

There are several kinds of meetings to keep in mind. The first one is a 30-minute sync at the beginning of the workday. This doesn’t need to involve formal presentations – you can simply chat with your team and ask them what pressing matters and issues need to be addressed that day. No one should be required to talk unless they want to share something. 

Then there are formal meetings with other leaders, where you get an outlined agenda and stacks of briefing papers. Make sure to be well-informed before joining these meetings so you don’t waste people’s time. This type of meeting typically lasts hours, so use the opportunity to raise questions and get into debates. 

Not all meetings have to be as structured, though. You can simply gather a small group of subordinates and have informal discussions. These sessions can either cover general issues for the next day or focus on a specific topic. 

Whenever you’re in a meeting, try to keep it as uninterrupted as possible to convey respect for the participants’ time. So unless it’s urgent, don’t cut off a meeting to deal with other matters. 

Last but not least, remember that the purpose of the meeting is to connect with your team – so make sure to do just that. 

Final Summary

To master leadership is to be proficient at both your job and at handling people. Being good at your job means being competent, having a clear direction for the organization, and improving yourself through training and evaluation. It’s also essential for an effective leader to be an expert at running meetings and solving problems. 

But above all, a true leader recognizes the importance of taking care of their subordinates. To do so, you need to establish three elements in your organization: kindness, trust, and mutual respect. Then, give your followers the necessary resources they need to help you work toward the common goal. 

With these pointers in practice, you’ll be more than ready to lead your team to victory.

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