#37 Is Colin Powell A Leader?

by Steven Cerri on September 16, 2007

“Should we take Colin Powell’s advice?”

I’ll bet I’ve got your attention now, haven’t I? Actually, I’m very serious when I ask “Is Colin Powell a leader?” and “Should we take his advice on leadership matters?”

There are plenty of people who think that merely asking these questions is a sign of lack of patriotism or a lack of understanding of what leadership really is. I think it’s the exact opposite.

Let me tell what started me down this path in the first place.

I was listening to NPR one day and they had a news story on leadership. Apparently one of the NPR news people had gone around the country and interviewed people who were considered “leaders”. One of the questions posed to these so-called leaders what a request for a definition of leadership. This news person quoted Colin Powell’s definition of leadership from his book. I’m paraphrasing only slightly here when I say that Colin Powell wrote: “When a leader’s men stop coming to him with their problems, the leader has stopped leading.”

The NPR news person continued for a minute to elaborate on Colin Powell’s book quote. There was the expected deference to the idea that on the battle field the leader must have the confidence and trust of his men and if those men don’t come to the leader with their problems the leader is no longer trusted and therefore, cannot lead and is no longer leading.

Whose going to argue with that? A person would have to be nuts to disagree with Colin Powell let alone disagree that trust is important in leadership. Right?

Well not quite. I’ve lead a lot of very good, very powerful, very accomplished teams, and bringing me their problems was not what my role was about. In fact it was the exact opposite. I wanted to ween then AWAY from bringing me their problems. If they continued to be incapable of making their own decisions, I would continue to be the leader of a group people who could not think on their feet and who could only get things done when they were told what to do next. If I didn’t make them capable of making their own decisions I would end up with a group of “children” who had to come to “father” to know what to do next. That, I didn’t think, was truly my role as a leader.

So this put me on another track. Actually it put me “back on track”. It put me back on the track I’ve been on for some time, and that is leadership looks different depending on the situation. Here is what I mean.

When you are a military leader, you actually can’t have direct reports thinking for themselves. You can’t have people deciding in the field that they are going to go against direct orders. (Now I know that the US military prides itself in allowing more decision-making authority to the field personnel compared to the Russian soldiers, but the bottom line is that the military can’t tolerate a high level of independent decision-making in the field… chaos would be the result.)

However, I come from the environments of the commercial and government business areas. In these environments, especially the commercial business arena, leaders expect their direct reports to think for themselves. Leaders expect their direct reports to bring their problems and their SOLUTIONS, and after some time we expect our direct reports to bring fewer and fewer problems to us and just give us the outcomes of their solutions.

So as I worked through this thought process, I went back to my previous statements made in my seminars and my university courses and that is “leadership is a function of the context”. Leadership looks different depending upon the situation, the risk, the expertise required, the time horizon, etc. Colin Powell is a military commander. As such, leadership in that environment requires that the direct reports “bring” the problems to the commander. There is little need for the entrepreneurial spirit on the battlefield.

However, in the business environment of the commercial world, a direct report who is constantly bringing problems to the boss and waiting for the boss to give “marching” orders is doomed to a short career.

In the business world, the real world of business, the true leadership answer is even more complicated than I’ve explained it so far. Because in reality, there are times when it’s important to behave like a military commander and there are times when it’s important to behave like Mr. Rogers. There are times to have your direct reports bring their problems to you and there are times when you want them to think for themselves. True and effective leadership is the ability to do both and to teach your direct reports when to do which.

All this translates into this important message: “The bottom line is that it’s important to be careful when listening to people talk about leadership. Most people don’t understand that leadership is a function of the context… except the very best leaders do! When you read a book, listen to a speaker, or get some advice regarding leadership, remember the context and the relationship between the context and the person giving the advice. Whether they know it or not, the context is driving their experience of leadership. If the context they are coming from is not the same as the context you are in, don’t trust the advice. Let me repeat that statement: “If the context from which they are deriving their advice is not the same as the context you are in, don’t trust the advise.”

So Colin Powell is a great teacher of leadership if you are a military commander. He is not a good leadership teacher if you are a product manager in a commercial printer company or an aerospace corporation program manager building a satellite. I guarantee it!

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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