Coram Deo ~

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It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell

powellIt Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell with Tony Koltz. HarperCollins Publishers. 304 pages. 2012. Audiobook read by Colin Powell.

75-year old Colin Powell has led an incredible life. He was born to Jamaican immigrant parents in 1937 in New York City. He was an average student at best at City College of New York (CCNY), who excelled in Army ROTC. Powell’s love for the U.S. Army resonates throughout the book. Powell has said that when he was a lost 17-year old at CCNY, ROTC saved him and kept him in school. He states:
“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 was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant of infantry in 1958, and served in Germany, Korea and Vietnam. He was appointed National Security Advisor to President Reagan in 1987 and eventually rose to the top military post, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He retired from the military in 1993 and served as Secretary of State to George W. Bush from 2001-2005. Today, he lists he vocation as “public speaker”.
Powell previously wrote a 1995 memoir My American Journey in 1995. This book is less a memoir than a collection of recollections over 45 short and fast moving and interesting chapters. Most of the stories are from his 40 years in the military, though some are from his time in government, in particular his infamous 2003 speech at the United Nations about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Of that situation, he writes that it is the first and probably last time he will address it in print.
Powell starts out the book with what has become known as his “Thirteen Rules” and the story about them. The rules are:
• It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
• Get mad, then get over it.
• Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
• It can be done!
• Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
• Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
• You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
• Check small things.
• Share credit.
• Remain calm. Be kind.
• Have a vision. Be demanding.
• Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
• Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
He addresses what has become known as the “Powell Doctrine”, a term that was invented by journalists and largely based on principles from Caspar Weinberger, President Reagan’s Secretary of State. The doctrine can be summarized as saying that war should be avoided, but when it has been determined that you will go to war, force must be applied in a decisive manner.
In another story he recalls what was known as “The Pottery Barn Rule”, based on Powell’s advice to George W. Bush in 2003 regarding Iraq. Powell stated “If you break it, you own it”. Somewhat humorously, Pottery Barn had no such policy and was not happy that the phrase was connected with them. Although Powell tried to clear up the confusion for Pottery Barn, the name has stuck.
He covered his four rules for intelligent staffs, which can be applied by leaders in any field:
• Tell me what you know.
• Tell me what you don’t know.
• Then tell me what you think.
• Always distinguish which from which.
He includes themes such as kindness, how import it is for leaders to listen to their people and the importance of family. He has an interesting section of the book on celebrity and his friendship with Princess Diana. He also makes brief mention of his Episcopalian faith a few times.
There are some stories toward the end of the book that I feel could have been left out, such as what he likes and dislikes in a hotel room and the gifts he received and gave other dignitaries. These were interesting, but not up to the quality of the rest of the book
The stories Powell includes are all about people – those he respects, those who have helped him, and sometimes just ordinary people like the sidewalk hot dog vendors he loves to frequent in New York City. The result is a portrait of a leader who is reflective, self-effacing and grateful for the contributions of those he has worked with and come in contact with. In the end Powell writes:
“It’s all about how we touch and are touched by the people we meet. It’s all about the people”.
I listened to the audiobook, which was very well read by Powell. Highly recommended.

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