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It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by…
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It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (2012)

by Colin Powell

Other authors: Tony Koltz

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It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell.
This book is another off the list of books by Secretaries of State. Colin Powell's leadership books have been recommended by many others. The first person I read who mentioned him frequently was Bill Hybels in his leadership book Axiom.
He's remarkable in that he attained the highest rank in the U.S. Army despite not having attended West Point or other school that turns out military greats-- mainly due to racial discrimination. He is not bitter, this experience just fuels his passion for funding education initiatives and his stalwart support of public education.
He has both commanded and served, and one weakness of the book is that he does not write as much on how to be a subordinate as he does on leading. But he has anecdotes no one else could possibly have. One refreshing aspect of the book is Powell's self-deprecating humor. He takes his work and his role very seriously, but never takes himself too seriously. He really does come across as down-to-earth; he claims to fly coach and such.

He begins with the "13 Rules," which actually came out of a 1989 interview with him. When the interviewer went back for some more colorful insights, Powell shared some quotes and anecdotes that he collected under his glass-top desk, and then they went viral.
It ain't as bad as you think.
Get mad, then get over it. (don't burn bridges)
Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
It can be done.
Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
You can't make someone else's choices.
Check small things.
Share credit. (but always take the blame)
Remain calm. Be kind.
Have a vision.
Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Powell explains and gives stories for many of these rules, and the rest of the book shares other insights. Here is what I gleaned, personally:

President Bush '43 really did read all the books he claims to have read. Powell writes that staffers were always sneaking weird books into Bush's personal bag on the weekends and everyone would be amused when Bush would be carrying on about some obscure study found in them on Monday. Powell regrets some aspects of his time in the Bush Cabinet but does mention AIDS in Africa and better relations with China, Russia, and others as unsung victories.

On serving under others, Powell says "If you work for the king, give the king his due...If you take the King's shilling, you do the King's work...Always give the King his due first." In other words, be loyal, do your best, and after you've satisfied your boss then you can do what you want. Do what he wants first and quickly so that you have more time for what you want to do.

Put others ahead of yourself, and always treat others with dignity. Kindness matters and pays dividends.
Don't be a "busy bastard" it's crucial to have a life, create a balance. Bosses that work around the clock create an environment that everyone else needs to as well. Then people start making up things to do even if they are not necessary. Don't do busywork.

Powell always wants as much information as possible and let him sift through it. He has developed a talent for spotting real and fake and filtering information quickly, akin to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. I'm not sure I trust that in every leader. Powell himself writes that he questions himself repeatedly as to whether his instincts failed him when examining the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate, which he relied on in making the case for war with Iraq at the U.N. He questions whether he had blinders on. He maintains he did not intentionally mislead anyone, they just didn't have the facts, and he "wishes he had answers" to the myriad questions that critics have asked. While Powell takes full blame ("always share the credit and take the blame") he does make some references to Scooter Libby and the Vice President's office for delivering a draft of his U.N. speech intended to be like a legal brief, which Powell rejected because it lacked any substantiation or even connection to what was "known" in the NIE. Rejected the draft, his staff wrote their own in 4 days.

"If a spy tells you exactly where a target is, he's out of a meal ticket" -- he points out about the failed attempt on Saddam Hussein at Dora Farms to open the Iraq War. Intelligence is helpful, but unreliable for this reason. However, Powell writes that perhaps the Administration relied too much on its own optimism and not on experts in the field on considering the consequences of invading Iraq. Powell is glad that Saddam was toppled but angry at how little attention was spent on post-war, the Bush Administration expected to stand up a fully-functioning democracy within 90 days of toppling the regime, he writes. The "Pottery Barn rule" of "you break it, you own it" was not his, and Pottery Barn has no such rule and was angry at him for it, but he likes it.

"Good leaders make good managers and good managers make good leaders." I disgree with Powell here. Some people are automatically made a leader by their authority, and they may lead in terms of personal integrity, work ethic, and more but be terrible at managing others and terrible at communication.

Powell pushed the military and the State Department on technology. He's a geek with several iPads and computers on his desk. He claims to have upgraded the State Department from 1945 to 2001, and I know that his Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (which barely gets mentioned in the book) greatly expanded the Foreign Service's capabilities. One good story on the Foreign Service: Powell once had low-level desk officers brief the President on Mexico instead of more senior officers. He knew the desk officers actually spoke Spanish, knew what was happening on the ground, and also knew they would work hard to get the info. He also knew the senior staff would be relying on junior officers reports anyway. Always rely on your "man in the field," he writes, but not necessarily your paid spy, see above.

Interestinly, Powell keeps his family at a distance from hi work life. He doesn't share stories from work or office gossip with his wife. He learned this from a commanding general who had to replace men whose wives had started to interfere in the decision-making process.

Leaders should face the facts and never shoot the messenger.

Oddly, Powell doesn't mention anything about reading material. What books does he read? For speaking engagements he researches the company so thoroughly "I could apply for a job there," but there are no books mentioned other than Clausewitz and Sun Tzu.

The famous "Powell Doctrine" of overwhelming force is not found in any military manual or course and Powell prefers "decisive force" to "overwhelming force."

He does have a helpful segment on succeeding another leader and how to hand off command to another. Hand it off and let it go. Your best ideas will go down the tube and you'll hear complaints from former employees about how much they missed you. But encourage them to stick with the new man. Likewise, give the man before you credit for doing his job, assume he did his job, take the hand you're dealt and own it yourself. Don't complain like politicians do that the current predicament is someone else's fault.

Troops only go up the hill for a leader they trust, one who has integrity and moral courage. Be that guy, and be the one who fosters trust both vertically and horizontally in your organization.

Powell developed personal relationships with world leaders and is especially proud of his friendship with Princess Di. He closes book with autobiography of his education and his current passions and activities.

Another weakness of the book is that there is not much on conflict resolution, dealing with difficult employees or bosses. Judging from Condoleeza Rice's memoir, Powell did not do a good job of resolving conflicts between himself and others in the White House, so perhaps that's a personal weakness. He also has very little marital advice outside the above.

In all, I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5.
( )
  justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |


Fabulous! I picked this book up looking for a memoir. Almost didn't read it when I realized it was supposed to be more of a manual on leadership, but I'm so glad that I did. Colin Powell is an inspiring figure in today's rancid atmosphere surrounding Washington and his book is a breath of fresh air. If I ever have the opportunity to hear him speak, I will.

Read it. ( )
  steadfastreader | Mar 18, 2014 |
Colin Powell is one of America's more popular elder statesmen. At one point, after Dessert Storm, it was thought he could become the first African-American president, but he chose not to run. After retirement from government service Powell had many career opportunities and settled on public speaking, writing, and some non-profit charitable work. It Worked for Me is a compendium of advice on leadership, the forces that shaped Powell (mostly people, starting with his family, a Jewish sporting goods shop keeper who employed him as a teenager, a high school English teacher, and various mentors in the military, as well as those soldiers he commanded). Powell's voice is folksy, kindly yet stern, and compassionate. You get a greater understanding of the man behind the uniform, a father and a devoted husband of 50 years. The book is filled with sound advice to guide one's career and life, told by someone you wish you could know more personally. ( )
  OccassionalRead | Mar 2, 2014 |


first half or so, true to the title. second half, more memoir than leadership lessons. ( )
  robynsc | Sep 2, 2013 |
Solid "leadership 101" anecdotes. ( )
  sprite | May 1, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0062135120, Hardcover)

A Note from Colin Powell on It Worked for Me

I love stories. In the course of my career I gathered a number of them that mean a lot to me. Most come from my military life. I was in the military from age seventeen as an ROTC cadet until I was a retired GI at age fifty-six. Others came from my service as Secretary of State and as National Security Advisor. Yet others came to me as I wandered through life. In this book I want to share with you a selection of these stories as well as experiences that have stayed with me over the years. Each one of them taught me something important about life and leadership. Some of the stories deal with serious aspects of my life, including some of the controversial issues I was involved in during my tenure as Secretary of State. There are also humorous stories from my life as well. I offer them to you for whatever use you may wish to make of them.

The first part of It Worked for Me explains my Thirteen Rules, which have been bouncing around since they were first published in Magazine over twenty years ago. These are rules that I have gathered over the years and to which I’ve adhered in my career.

CLP's Thirteen Rules:

It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning. Get mad, then get over it. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it. It can be done! Be careful what you choose. You may get it. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision. You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn't let someone else make yours. Check small things. Share credit. Remain calm. Be kind. Have a vision. Be demanding. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

The rest of the book focuses on everything from the importance of really knowing who you are and how to always be yourself to why I put an emphasis on knowing and taking care of others, especially those who are your followers. I go into my experience in the exploding digital realm that has reshaped the world and our lives. I talk about how to be a great manager and a great leader. I give no conclusions or recommendations, just my observations. The chapters are free-standing. You can read them straight through or jump in anywhere. Everyone has life lessons and stories. These are mine. All I can say is that they worked for me. --Colin Powell

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:59 -0400)

Colin Powell, one of America's most admired public figures, reveals the principles that have shaped his life and career in this inspiring and engrossing memoir.

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