13 Rules for Leaders
Colin Powell's legacy, and a staple of PowerPoint presentations the world over.
If you served in the U.S. military during the 1990s and early 2000s, somebody probably introduced you to General Colin Powell's “13 rules of effective leadership.”
Powell, who died in October 2021 at age 84, had a compelling and complicated legacy:
first Black officer to be a four-star general commanding troops,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and eventually
Secretary of State during President George W. Bush's first term.
For many, his biggest legacy was the way he pushed inaccurate intelligence in support of the invasion of Iraq. For others, however, he's likely to be remembered as much for his oft-repeated 13 rules as for his accomplishments and controversies.
Here are the 13 rules, which Powell first compiled for a magazine profile in 1989, and later revisited in print many times.
Rule No. 1: It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
A wonderful rule to start with, since it encourages you to strip anxiety and fear from your decision-making. Even if a situation you have to deal with really does turn out to be bad, it's best not to let fear of the facts lead to inaction before you even get started.
As Powell wrote in his 2012 book, It Worked for Me: "This rule reflects an attitude and not a prediction."
Rule No. 2: Get mad, and then get over it.
Anger is part of the normal range of human emotions. Better to feel it, acknowledge it, and let it go before it negatively affects your decision-making.
Rule No. 3: Don't become so attached to an argument that if it fails, your ego goes with it.
This rule is important to keep in mind for yourself, but it's also important to remember that it works (or doesn't work) for others, too. Find ways for other people to save face during disputes, because that can make it a lot easier for them to agree with you when appropriate.
Rule No. 4: It can be done.
There's a trap people fall into: Allowing negative emotions to lead them to a negative conclusion, and then crafting arguments to back up that conclusion.
Instead, reverse those forces. As Powell wrote: "Always start out believing you can get it done until facts and analysis pile up against it. Have a positive and enthusiastic approach."
Rule No. 5: Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
Here's another military saying you probably heard if you served during the past 30 years: "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast."
In short, if you take the time to think things through methodically, you make fewer mistakes in the long run, and wind up closer to your ultimate goals.
"Nothing original in this one," Powell later wrote. "Don't rush into things."
Rule No. 6: Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
This rule is about realizing that almost all important decisions have to be made without complete information; if you wait until there is complete information, you'll likely wait until it's too late to decide.
Recognizing your humanity, and that you will make some mistakes, paradoxically can make this uncertainty more tolerable, and allow you to trust your informed instincts.
Rule No. 7: You can't make someone else's decisions. (And don't let others make yours.)
I think it's fairly easy to imagine this rule coming into play during negative circumstances, as when you're being pressured to do something you don't think is right.
The harder test -- and the time to remember this -- is when arguably positive things are being dangled in front of you, but they don't align with your goals and values.
Rule No. 8: Check small things.
Don’t let your optimism, excitement, or sheer busyness lead you to assume things are working out.
Rule No. 9: Share credit.
Why? To manage your ego, and to keep yourself attuned to the fact that people are emotional beings. It’s natural -- if sometimes counterproductive -- for them, like you, to be motivated by emotional needs as much as any other category of need.
As Powell wrote: "People need recognition and a sense of worth as much as they need food and water."
Rule No. 10: Remain calm and be kind.
Anxiety breeds anxiety; calm begets calm.
Rule No. 11: Have a vision.
Why is this so important? For your own sanity and effectiveness, of course, but also because people have a deeply felt emotional need for purpose. If you're a leader, part of your job is to articulate a vision that is worthy of their efforts.
Rule No. 12: Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
Fear is natural and sometimes useful, but the point here is to acknowledge the fear and then try to remove the emotion from decision-making.
Same thing with the people who say you can't accomplish what you want to accomplish: If they have valid points, consider them, but don't let their volume unduly influence you.
Rule No. 13: Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
This is the rule that I think gets repeated most often in military circles.
Your optimism can become contagious, thus leading others to believe that things can be done, or that the problem isn't surmountable, or that fears need not be counseled.
Bonus Rule: The rules conflict. That's a good thing.
Powell's legacy was legitimate, but it was complicated by his 2003 presentation to the United Nations in support of the invasion of Iraq.
In fact, as I read over this list, I think it seems that he followed Rule 13 about perpetual optimism at that time, to the detriment of Rules 5, 7, and 8, about being methodical, not allowing yourself to be pressured into decisions, and checking small things.
Still, sometimes the most useful rules are the ones that conflict and force you to make difficult decisions. For hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors, to say nothing of millions of others who read and hear these rules, this simple list will be a big part of Powell's.