11 Priceless Colin Powell Quotes

If you were a fly on the wall of my high school 20 years ago, you’d see me walking to class with a copy of Colin Powell’s My American Journey. And why Powell’s 600 page autobiography and not, for instance, a car magazine or the latest Pearl Jam album? Because I’m a leadership nerd, that’s why…and still am.

I already had my sights on a career in the military, but this book seized my attention. Powell recounts his memorable career from Vietnam Captain to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and in plain language delivers poignant leadership lessons relevant for every profession. It’s not an overstatement to say that it became a foundational resource for my leader development…my leadership bible.

Although I underlined text on nearly every page of My American Journey, here are the quotes that have had a lasting effect on my career and have shaped my own leadership journey.

powell

“All work is honorable.
Always do your best because someone is watching.”

This advice was incredibly influential early in my career. Powell’s point isn’t that there is always someone over your shoulder to check your work and micromanage you into excellence. He means that every job, especially in the military, has significance and that influence carries well beyond that single activity. If Soldiers see a leader slack on the mundane matters, they won’t have confidence that he can competently lead them into combat.

“Never get so close to your position that
when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”

My favorite Powell quote! This advice, more than any other, has helped me keep a pragmatic emotional attachment to the course of my career. Not only is it unwise to align one’s personal identity with a rank or position (after all, it’s the Army’s unit, not yours), the immutable fact is that the military career is highly competitive. Attaching your ego to milestones like promotion and job selection can easily cause you to miss the influence opportunities you have right in front of you.

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things,
you develop the habit in little matters.”

Many books have been written about the role of habits…but Powell nails it here with a simple sentence. Our profession demands excellence, which is nothing more than a consistent string of small actions done properly. The principle is the same for airborne operations or managing personnel files.

“Control enthusiasm in the face of victories, large or small.”

This quote set the tone of my personal behavior as a leader. I would remember it through multiple deployments, when the highs and lows of combat required steady leadership. It taught me the concept that followers will take their cues from the leader and to maintain composure and cognition when things are going your way, and when they’re not.

“Dig up all the information you can, then go with your instincts.”

There will never be enough information to guarantee a perfect decision. Powell strikes an insightful balance with this advice, which is applicable to combat, career moves, and everything in between. Rather than try to think your way through complex problems, it’s better to trust that internal voice. The subtle magic is that by digging up all the information you can, you feed and inform your instincts.

“Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites.
Experts often possess more data than judgment.
Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed
to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.”

There are entire industries of researchers and analysts ready to tell you how to do your job. There are even people in your unit who cite their expert knowledge as vindication for telling you something can or can’t be done. They may have data and schooling, but they don’t have your perspective as the leader. Take their advice with a grain of salt.

“There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

The “credit others” mindset is fundamental for impactful leadership. If something goes well and people notice, they already know you’re the leader and played an important part in the success. You don’t need to remind them. Instead, take every opportunity to highlight the work of those who aren’t in the spotlight. People respect leaders who make them feel valued, and that value is much more important than an outsider’s opinion.

“Never neglect small details, even to the point of being a pest.
Moments of stress, confusion, and fatigue are exactly when mistakes happen.
And when everyone else’s mind is dulled or distracted,
the leaders must be doubly vigilant. Always check ‘small things.'”

Powell talks about this through the book, citing one example where he stopped a buddy from rappelling out of a Huey on an unattached rope. Attention to detail saves lives and gets the mission done. Nothing sets this climate better than a leader who walks the line to check and reinforce the basics. And in the fog of war and late hours of exhaustion, that leader must remain vigilant for small mistakes that can have disastrous consequences.

“You don’t step on enthusiasm.”

We don’t hear this often, but it’s important for leaders to nurture their followers’ passion for the service and desire to contribute. The best way to do this is to encourage them when they show initiative and enthusiasm. Even if their ideas are underdeveloped or not quite realistic, guide them into more productive areas without crushing their spirit. No one likes to get excited about an idea only to hear that it’s not relevant.

“Never believe the first thing you hear.”

A universal principle. This advice applies to everything from reports on enemy activity to Soldier discipline problems. Not only is there always more to the story, there are more perspectives to consider. Rarely should leaders act on a single piece of information, especially in the military when the activities routinely involve risk to life or contact with an enemy.

“Leadership is solving problems.
The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day
you have stopped leading them.”

Perhaps the most important leadership principle in My American Journey and a fundamental tenet of servant leadership. This advice helped me realize that the constant stream of “Soldier problems” leaders face throughout the day isn’t a distraction from leadership…that is leadership. Leaders help followers identify hazards, navigate obstacles, and learn to avoid them in the future. Leadership is resourcing answers for the formation on their path to accomplishing the mission.

And I’ll close with a bonus quote, which I’d be remiss for leaving out:

“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

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  • Michael W Smith

    I received my first 3 star coin from General Powell I was on the color guard for his Change of Command for V-Corp in Germany June 1986, between him and General Wetzel. General Powell took the time to meet with the color guard following the ceremony, spoke with us for 30 minutes while other Commander’s waited. General Powell’s aid informed him of the others that were waiting on him. General Powell said “they can wait, I’m speaking to the soldiers that make it happen everyday”. I really wish he would have taken the opportunity to run for President, he would have definitely made a difference in our middle East situation.

    • That’s really cool. Exactly the type of leader we all admire and appreciate. Thanks for sharing!

  • Joy Witter

    I am a leadership nerd too. General Colin Powell has influenced me and I have always gone back and search for his leadership presentations and without a physical mentor, I have grown as an aspiring great leader.

    • That’s great to hear! Good on you for seeking out content to continue growing without a physical mentor present. Thanks for commenting!

  • Don

    Personal favorite: “It will look better in the morning.”

  • JEFFofTX

    My favorite:

    “Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.” Regarding the Iraqi Army in 1991.

  • jack anderson

    My favourite (not seen here ) is; “the purpose of war is to get our teenagers to kill more of their teenagers than their teenagers kill of our teenagers”.