For years I kept General Colin Powell’s “Rules” on a worn, type-written sheet of paper somewhere on my desk. His Rules had been published in a news magazine article, and I thought they were fabulous, so I typed them up and added a few of my own to the bottom. Over the years, I developed my own “Rules” that gradually replaced “Colin Powell’s Rules” even though that worn piece of paper still adorns my desk.
I’ve found these rules to be very useful to me, and I’ve regretted it every time I’ve violated them. The eleven rules listed below are my guidelines for relating to other people and to my work and reminders about leading my organization. In the coming weeks, I’ll take each in turn and discuss it. In the mean time….here they are!
- Have a direction and know what it is. Go there.
- Don’t spook the herd. Emotional demonstrations are always counter-productive and stifle initiative.
- Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.”
- “Can’t” never gets anything done. Keep it out of your vocabulary.
- The first report is usually wrong. Be patient and ask questions.
- Asking the right questions is usually better than knowing the right answers.
- The other team is not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy; don’t confuse the two.
- Be curious. Ask “Why?” a lot. Keep asking until you understand.
- Walk the horses. No one can go full throttle all the time.
- Drink your water, eat your lunch, and make new friends.
- Check your “moral azimuth”…if you’re doing something that you wouldn’t want posted on the Internet, it’s probably illegal, immoral, or fattening.
6. Asking the right questions is usually better than knowing the right answers.
There’s an old saying in the Air Force that colonels rarely ask questions to which they don’t already know the answer. I never really understood that saying until I became a colonel, then the light came on.
Everyone wants to show the colonel how smart they are, and further, few senior people like to be told what to do; they really want the colonel to let them do their thing. The same is true of VPs and their directors in the private sector. The skills that got an executive to a senior position aren’t necessarily the skills that make that senior executive successful.
I’ve found it useful to coach a solution out of a subordinate in most cases than to merely direct a solution. In fact, many times I’ve regretted giving direction to a problem rather than asking questions because even though it was efficient in problem solving, I ended up wounding the pride of a subordinate leader unnecessarily. When I’ve used questions to lead a subordinate to a solution, even when I knew in advance where we were probably heading, I’ve been more successful.
The thing is, by the time an officer rises to the rank of colonel, that officer is expected to be a strategic leader not a tactical one. That means it’s far better to stimulate thought among subordinates than to direct the answer to a specific problem. It’s easy for any senior leader to know the answers…chances are most have seen it all… it’s much more productive to help subordinates come to the right solution on their own.
At some point we all get a pink slip. We change jobs, we get transferred, we retire. If we truly care about the organization we work for, and the people we lead, we’ll make sure the people who replace us are ready for the job and worthy of the responsibility.