<< The Body Politic

It worked for me

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

In Colin Powell’s most recent book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, published last month, the retired four-star general, secretary of state, and national security advisor shares stories about his life and provides his thirteen rules to live by.

As Powell told NPR recently, ROTC at City College of New York played a huge part in setting him forth on his successful Army career:

If there’s a theme that runs throughout the book, it’s Powell’s love for the U.S. Army–from his days in ROTC, right through to becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell says that back when he was a lost 17-year-old at City College of New York, ROTC “saved” him and kept him in school.

“I found my place. I found discipline, I found structure, I found people that were like me and I liked, and I fell in love with the Army those first few months in ROTC, and it lasted for the next 40-odd years,” Powell tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “People have asked me, ‘What would you have done if you hadn’t gone into the Army?’ I’d say I’d probably be a bus driver, I don’t know.”

Priscilla Taylor has a good review of the book in the Washington Times:

In this book, the distinguished general and former secretary of state and national security adviser distills the ideas and anecdotes that he has honed before flocks of well-fed listeners who work for organizations like the Bradford White waterheater company, Safelite AutoGlass andInternational Housewares Association (honest). Since the author provided an autobiography long ago–his rather impersonal “My American Journey”–he feels free here to muse, to list aphorisms for leaders to live by and even to ramble a bit. Gen. Powell has had an only-in-America life, and this is an entertaining read from a charming, accomplished man. (Alas, his publisher didn’t provide an index so you’ll have to read the book to see if you’re mentioned.)


In a more serious vein, though, once Gen. Powell gets his pep talk to the troops out of the way–“Thirteen Rules,” from “It will look better in the morning” to “Share credit”–he ruminates on all sorts of things. A persistent theme is how “Kindness Works” (a chapter title), in which he endorses a clergyman’s advice, “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.”

A second theme concerns how important it is for leaders to listen to the ranks. He notes without elaboration how, on three occasions during his time at the State Department, he had to act on information he had received through informal channels to remove an ambassador quietly “before formal channels woke up to the problem.”

A third theme is the importance of family or “tribe”: “Children need to be taught early in life what is expected of them and how they must never shame their family. They must be taught to mind their adults. If a kid isn’t spoken to properly, read to, taught numbers, colors, time, how to behave, how to tie his shoelaces, play nice, share, respect others, and know the difference between right and wrong, he will be miles behind by the time he reaches the second grade.”

And finally, check out this excerpt from the first chapter of the book over at MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” blog, in which Powell discusses the first of this thirteen rules:

1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.

Well, maybe it will, maybe it won’t. This rule reflects an attitude and not a prediction. I have always tried to keep my confidence and optimism up, no matter how difficult the situation. A good night’s rest and the passage of just eight hours will usually reduce the infection. Leaving the office at night with a winning attitude affects more than you alone; it also conveys that attitude to your followers. It strengthens their resolve to believe we can solve any problem.

At the Infantry School, they drilled into us constantly that an infantry officer can do anything. “No challenge is too great for us, no difficulty we cannot overcome.” Think back to Churchill telling the world that Britain will “never, never, never give up.” Or more colloquially, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

“Things will get better. You will make them get better.” We graduated believing that, and I continue to believe that, despite frequent evidence to the contrary.

A variation of this theme was also drilled into us: “Lieutenant, you may be starving, but you must never show hunger; you always eat last. You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion, but you must never show that you are cold or hot. You may be terrified, but you must never show fear. You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions.” They must believe that no matter how bad things look, you can make them better.