summit stuff – wisdom from Colin Powell

Posted: August 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

The Global Leadership Summit always offers a lot of speakers and I love to look at the list ahead of time and try to anticipate who I will most enjoy.  To be honest, I didn’t expect to get all that much out of Colin Powell – not because I was silly enough to think he has nothing to say, but because he dwells in arenas like politics and the military and great power, and none of those things speaks much to me.  The limitation, you understand, is ME, not him (so don’t be all disgusted thinking I’m such an arrogant ass that I think I can’t learn from Colin Powell!) 

But happily, I was wrong.  I got  A LOT out of what he shared. 

He was interviewed by Bill Hybels, who shared that when the two of them have gone to events to honor wounded soldiers, Powell’s initial words to them were not at all what Hybels expected.  He expected words of commendation.  But Colin Powell, Hybels said, consistently asks a question:  “Were you a good soldier?”  He wanted to know why this was.  Soldiers, said Powell, are not looking for sympathy, but recognition and respect.  They want to talk about their experience.  In his question is an invitation for them to do just that.  He also does not apologize for the wounds inflicted, choosing instead to say something that seems more respectful to me:  “I know it had to be tough – thank you for your service.”  That really rang true to me – when I am sitting with someone who is working out something painful, if they just need to tell the story and have it heard, it is fairly consistently true that they are emotionally more healthy than people who are seeking sympathy and explanations.  It feels cleaner and more productive to me, respectfully listening…when I fall into murmuring sympathies, the feeling (for me) quickly falls into, “maybe I’m engaging in a sickness instead of facilitating healing.” 

He talked about the burden of leadership in this:  everything can be going well and then in the middle of the night, when no one is looking, things will get all screwed up.  The leader’s job, he noted, is to infect his/her people with optimism and to look for ways to multiply his/her team’s force. 

Here’s a stereotypical expected military phrase:  “That’s an order!”  Powell says he never uses it.  The American people, he notes (with great accuracy!) don’t respond to being ordered around.  People don’t need orders.  They need to buy into a vision.  In other settings I have heard about the differences between leaders and managers.  I’m supposing it’s managers who bark orders (not a goodwill builder!) and leaders who create and build vision, eh?

Probably most surprising to me, amongst everything that Powell shared, was about dealing with subordinates.  He was addressing the question of how one tells whether a subordinate needs to be fired, or get a second chance, and the answer was about whether or not they are following the vision.  But there was this little cast-off comment that I don’t think he meant to be the point of the story – he said something like, “I adapt to the personalities of my subordinates.”  Uhhh… REALLY?  I would have assumed at that high level for a military man, he would just demand that the subordinates flex to HIM.  But on further reflection, I see that he’s just demonstrating strong leadership.  If we don’t meet people where they are (you know…LIKE GOD DOES WITH US) then it can be hard to lead them anywhere at all..ever.

Another thing he shared that surprised me until I thought it through was this:  he wants his people to bring problems to him early – not try to work it out first.  As a world champion worker-outer, that goes against my grain.  But he points out that bringing something at the 11th hour just adds pressure and stress to everyone.  It the problem is brought to light quickly, often a solution can be found much more easily by a combined effort with one’s superior.  Makes sense, eh?

There was a lot more.  My Colin Powell page on my iPhone is HUGE.  But those were the best of my highlights from his presentation. 

More tomorrow!


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