Need to Know

It Worked for Him

It Worked for Him: General Colin Powell’s management advice from the trenches

By Kate Pavao

Book Cover

Colin Powell knows about leadership. During his career, the four-star general served as national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. secretary of state. In his latest book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (Harper, 2012), he shares stories from his rise to power and reveals his personal secrets of success. Here, Powell talks to Profit about what every leader should keep in mind when it comes to dealing with staff, customers—and getting their projects done.

On leadership: “How do you inspire followers? By giving them a sense of purpose and high standards to strive for; by taking care of them and giving them what they need to achieve that purpose; by filling them with optimism and confidence. Above all, a good leader builds bonds of trust and respect within an organization. But never forget that the real purpose of a leader is to accomplish a mission. Plans don’t get anything done. It’s the execution of a plan that gets something done.”

Work hard, but don’t become so busy that you cut out other things in life, like family, recreation, and hobbies. And never be so busy that you’re not giving your staff and your followers enough time to do the same

On bedbug letters: “There’s an old story I’ve carried around for 40 or 50 years about a train passenger who wrote a nasty letter to the president of the New York Central Railroad, complaining about bedbugs. The president sends him a letter back within two days. The guy is deeply impressed, but it’s not a serious response.

After he finishes reading the letter, a little note slips out of the envelope. It’s from the president of the New York Central Railroad to his secretary saying, ‘Send this son of a bitch the bedbug letter.’

Throughout my career, whenever I have to send a letter to somebody in response to a problem or a question, I always read it carefully to find out, ‘Are we answering the question, are we solving the problem, or are we just sending the guy a bedbug letter?’ As a leader, and particularly at the top of the pile, you have to be responsive to anybody who writes to you. If someone thinks they have a problem, then you have a problem. And you have to help them with their problem.”


percentage of respondents who report a leadership skills gap in their organization (Source: The CARA Group)


On wandering: “You’ve got to get out of your paneled rooms. Go downstairs and see what the hell is going on in the basement. I used to love to walk around the garage. When people see the secretary of state or CEO of an organization walking down in the basement, grabbing a hot dog in the cafeteria, or walking around the garage, they say, ‘Wow, this guy really cares,’ or, ‘This lady really wants to know what’s going on down here.’ I’ve always made it a point to show up in unexpected places. I also liked to follow certain regular patterns in my meanderings, so people know where they might ambush me and tell me something that I might not have heard otherwise.”

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