The Zombies Ate My Brains

Rescuing what might remain of the grey matter.

“A Leadership Primer”

Colin PowellAs a student in an Effective Supervision course, I was asked to comment on General Colin Powell’s statements as they relate to the day-to-day “battleground” of the workplace. With the exception of one or two, I believe that the lessons are absolutely pertinent to effective supervision.

1. Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.

We are talking about people here, so it is inevitable that at some point, a decision or policy is going to upset at least one member of an organization. If a supervisor makes it his mission to please everyone, then he will become ineffective. It is an impossible goal in the first place, and will eventually lead to frustration and discouragement. The manager will be perceived as false and a lack of respect will follow.

2. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

Having an open door policy is one thing, but it needs to be accessible and meaningful. It is important to cultivate an environment where it is expected that there will be setbacks and errors and outright blunders. Again, we are talking about people, and people are imperfect. It is these imperfections that lead to new ways of being and doing and essential to creativity.

3. 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.

It is the supervisor’s job to represent and advocate on behalf of the corporation when he announces new policies and directives. However, it is also his responsibility to see that the people “on the front lines” are not overburdened or handicapped by so-called “expert” or “elite” mandates.

4. Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.

It is important to continue personal and professional growth and part of that comes by learning from others who have more experience. At the same time, it is critical that one not follow blindly, and to challenge what you perceive to be dated or ineffective policy.

5. Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.

Plans and goals are just as important as to how they are carried out. “The devil is in the details” – in other words, whatever needs doing, needs doing thoroughly and with efficiency. Powell also claims that in order to prevent tedium and distraction, things need to be shaken up a bit in order to keep people alert and engaged.

6. You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission.” Don’t shackle yourself by a perceived notion that someone in the organization is going to say “no.”

7. Keep looking below surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find.

Here I disagree with Powell, likely only in his choice of words. I whole-heartedly support his message that even though things are running smoothly today, it doesn’t mean they will tomorrow. It is important to be proactive and remain vigilant in order to detect problems before they arise. However, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Tweaking and fiddling for the sake of tweaking and fiddling when a process is working just fine is not a good use of resources. (I wish some software companies would listen to this!) Plus there is potential for over-tweaking something into a breakdown.

8. Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.

Powell is not diminishing the importance of organizing and planning, rather he is emphasizing the requirement to find, develop, and retain the right people for the job.

9. Organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing.

Org charts and titles are meaningless in terms of the allegiance a supervisor can muster from his staff. Rather, “pizzazz, drive, expertise, and genuine caring for teammates and products” will.

10. Never let your ego gets so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”

Not so sure about number 10. At first I thought it was a continuation of number 9. Don’t allow yourself to identify with your job title. By way of explanation, Powell claims, “Effective leaders create a climate where people’s worth is determined by their willingness to learn new skills and grab new responsibilities, thus perpetually reinventing their jobs.” Okay… I get that it’s important to encourage and coach anyone who wishes to grow, learn, and change. But to base their worthiness on it? Maybe I’m missing something…

11. Fit no stereotypes. Don’t chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission.

An effective supervisor has several management strategies to follow and employs them deftly and appropriately. It is best to remain flexible in how you deal with work situations rather than to stick rigidly to one strategy. There is a time for micro-managing, and there is a time for giving an employee free rein. The adroit manager knows the proper time.

12. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

And this is another that I cannot get behind, 100%. I guess I am one of his “grim realists”. Sure, I’d rather be around an optimistic person instead of a pessimistic one. But unrealistically optimistic? Yeah, not so much.

13. “Powell’s Rules for Picking People:” Look for intelligence and judgment, and most critically,a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego, and the drive to get things done.

I agree, “It’s a lot harder to train someone to have integrity, judgment, energy, balance, and the drive to get things done.” If he can recognize these traits during a job interview, an effective supervisor will pick the candidate with these attributes. I’m not so sure I have the talent to do that, and I would guess that many others in supervisory roles don’t have that talent either. Maybe that’s my grim realist talking! But perhaps that’s WHY selection of a new hire is more often based on the length of the resume and not so much on personality traits. Too much smoke and mirrors at the interview stage!

14. “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.”

KISS – keep it simple, sweetie. Don’t obfuscate. Or use big words (Busted!) Plus speak with clarity and firmness.

15. Part I: “Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.”
Part II: “Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut

I LOVE this one. I have a tendency to go with my gut. But if my intuition is not responding, then I might find myself stymied by “analysis paralysis”. Powell offers a formula. Do not wait until you have gathered all of the information you need to make an informed decision. “Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.”

16. The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.

Number 16 can be considered an extension of number 3 where the supervisor protects the staff from ivory tower mandates. However, I’m not sure how much use a supervisor will get from this one – it will take a fundamental “paradigm shift” (BUZZWORD ALERT!) before the financial accountability and power is transferred to the “people who are bringing in the beans from those who count the beans.”

17. Have fun in your command. Don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earned it: Spend time with your families. Corollary: surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.

Work is only one aspect of life. If a supervisor, or anyone else for that matter, devotes a disproportionate amount of time to work, then home life, fun life, not to mention physical and mental health will suffer. Maintain balance.

18. Command is lonely.

With leadership comes responsibility. At the end of the day, no matter who or how many the supervisor involved, any decisions are ultimately his, and he alone bears the responsibility.

The full presentation entitled “A Leadership Primer” is available for download.


Categories: Continuing Education, Work, work, work

Tags: , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Gen. Powell’s autobiography expands on these statements, and details the real-life situations that formed his theories. It’s a long read, but really helped form my leadership points of view. But my favorite leadership quote comes from Patton: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”


  2. Thanks for this. I shall put his autobiography on my reading list.


  3. Powell has great advice. He should have followed it when Bush was using him as a mouth piece telling the world about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction..



  1. Decisions, decisions | The Zombies Ate My Brains

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