it-worked-for-meFormer Secretary of State Colin Powell offers leadership advice through storytelling in this collection of anecdotes and true tales.  Each short chapter derives a lesson from an incident encountered in his military and political service, and occasionally from private life.  Often chatty and rarely preachy, the text is as enjoyable as it is informative.

An admitted people person, Powell’s advice concentrates largely on motivating, respecting, and taking care of “the troops,” which he notes can be anything from an Army platoon to sales managers, students to family members (or research assistants!).  He sums up his guiding principle early on: “Kindness connects you with other human beings in a bond of mutual respect.  If you care for your followers and show them kindness, they will reciprocate and care for you.  They will not let you down or let you fail.  They will accomplish whatever you have put in front of them.”  At the same time, he advises, don’t neglect your own development, because “Troops—followers—will only go up the hill for leaders who have character, integrity, and moral and physical courage.”

One of Powell’s specific lessons hinges on the importance of mutual respect.  He illustrates this with several stories, including one about his stint as a battalion commander in Korea in the 1970s.  Because he had laid the groundwork by knowing his soldiers (through talking to them and by keeping a notebook of observations on each one’s performance, conduct, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses), socializing with them, and earning their trust, when he had to drag them to a pointless lecture on extremely short notice, he heard this from a subordinate: “The troops are fine.  They know you needed them there and you would never have come up with such a nutty thing.  They are with you.”

There’s also the lesson to examine solutions with an eye to the secondary effects rather than just the immediate payoff, embodied in a half-baked idea to install beer machines in Army barracks to keep DUIs down.  Powell writes that he was for the idea (if only to quell the “bitching” from the troops who wanted the machines right then) until a sergeant pointed out that “putting machines in the barracks won’t end the bitching.  They’ll just start to bitch about the brand of beer in the machines, except they will be drunk when they bitch.”

Those are only two of the many stories and lessons included in the book.  Powell’s wit, sometimes gentle and other times trenchant, makes this essential leadership book both fun and funny.

It Worked for Me: Lessons in Life and Leadership
Colin Powell with Tony Koltz
New York: Harper-Collins, 2012

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