Colin Powell: Former secretary of state’s ‘13 Rules of Leadership’ and other famous quotes

Statesman whose legacy was complicated by pivotal role in making case for Iraq War otherwise known for trailblazing military career and love of aphorisms on strategy and personal conduct

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 18 October 2021 12:13 EDT
Colin Powell death: Former secretary of state dies from Covid complications aged 84

Colin Powell, the first black American to serve as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and US secretary of state, has died of Covid 19-related health complications at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland aged 84.

A Vietnam War veteran and four-star general, Mr Powell was also the first Black national security adviser when he served Ronald Reagan in that capacity between 1987 and 1989, before becoming chairman of the joint chiefs under George HW Bush and then Bill Clinton between 1989 and 1993.

But, for many, Mr Powell will inevitably be best remembered around the world for his tenure as secretary of state under George W Bush between 2001 and 2005, a period that saw him become one of the faces of the quixotic War on Terror in response to 9/11.

Mr Powell himself admitted in September 2005 that the Bush administration falsely accusing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of hoarding weapons of mass destruction, a charge based on faulty intelligence that led to a disastrous and bloody war, constituted a “blot” on his reputation, telling interviewer Barbara Walters: “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Nevertheless, the soldier-turned-statesman remained a hugely respected figure within American military and Republican circles, despite his outspoken disapproval of the Donald Trump era.

His famous “13 Rules of Leadership”, which first appeared alongside a 13 August 1989 profile of him in Parade magazine and subsequently provided the opening chapter for his 2012 memoir, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership, remain widely quoted.

The book itself contains detailed elaboration on each point from the author but here are his 13 dictates in outline.

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done!
  5. Be careful what you choose.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Perhaps less well known, but no less pithy, are the aphorisms included in Powell’s first autobiography My American Journey (1995), which recounts his early life as the son of Jamaican immigrants growing up in 1940s Harlem, New York City, and the day he joined the US Army in 1958.

The following selections preach positivity, moderation, pragmatism, restraint and attention to detail as key principles for personal conduct in both military and civilian life.

  • “All work is honorable. Always do your best because someone is watching.”
  • “Never get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”
  • “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.”
  • “Control enthusiasm in the face of victories, large or small.”
  • “Dig up all the information you can, then go with your instincts.”
  • “There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
  • “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.’”
  • “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.”
  • “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

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