Born to Jamaican immigrant parents in 1937 in New York City, Colin Powell was an average student who excelled in Army ROTC at City College. Commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant of infantry in 1958, he served in Germany, Korea, and Vietnam. Appointed National Security Advisor to President Reagan in 1987, he eventually rose to the nation’s top military post: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After retiring from the military in 1993, he served President George W. Bush as Secretary of State (2001-2005). Since then he has been active as a public speaker.
Powell’s 650-page memoir, My American Journey (with Joseph Persico), was published in 1995. The present book is not so much a continuation of the narrative of My American Journey, but simply a collection of 45 short chapters that can be read in any order. They include anecdotes, war stories, meditations, advice, and a few pieces that might be catalogued under the category “Apologetics,” including a personal account of his decision not to seek high public office.
The book begins with a commentary on “My Thirteen Rules,” Powell’s directives and prescriptions to his subordinates, which have been widely reprinted and circulated:
- 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.
There are some memorable quotations in the book. “Him a lazy brute, him only work two jobs,” illustrates the legendary Jamaican work ethic. Powell delights in recounting Abraham Lincoln’s reaction to a telegram reporting that a Confederate raid had captured a brigadier general and a hundred horses: “I can make a general in five minutes but a good horse is hard to replace.”
Another section, titled “Squirrels,” celebrates Ronald Reagan’s unflappable calmness. When informed that the Japanese were buying up vast amounts of U.S. real estate, and “something has to be done,” the president simply observed, “they are investing in America, and I’m glad they know a good investment when they see one.”
A section titled “Take Care of the Troops” admonishes readers to “trust your people,” but to “never walk past a mistake.” Staffers may be dismayed to read that “the guys in the field are right and the staff is wrong.”
“Brainware” describes Powell’s efforts to drag the archaic and resistant culture of the State Department into the digital age: “Don’t tell me we only update our website once a quarter. Walmart updates their entire information system whenever there’s a transaction…”
A section titled “Reflections” begins with a review of “The Powell Doctrine” – a term that was invented by journalists, largely based on principles set down by Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense (1981-1987). In essence the doctrine states that war should be avoided, but when it cannot, force must be applied in a decisive (not necessarily “overwhelming”) manner.
Still another chapter, “The Pottery Barn Rule,” recounts Powell’s often-cited advice to President George W. Bush in 2003 regarding Iraq – “if you break it, you own it.” It turns out that Pottery Barn had no such policy, and the company was unhappy that people thought it did. Although Powell tried to clear up the confusion in interviews, the name stuck.
“February 5, 2003: The United Nations” may be the chapter of greatest interest to future historians. “I have never before written my account of the events surrounding my 2003 UN speech,” Powell writes. “I’ll probably never write another.” In the prepared speech, Powell gave a detailed description of Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction,” based on intelligence that subsequently turned out to be fabricated, distorted, misinterpreted or non-existent. Much of the responsibility for this situation apparently lies with then-Vice President Cheney and his staff, but Powell is too gracious to engage in blame gaming. He simply notes that it is “a blot on my record” that he has to live with, and that it taught him to be even more skeptical about intelligence “experts.”
Powell’s Four Rules for intelligence staffs are simple:
- Tell me what you know
- Tell me what you don’t know
- Then tell me what you think
- Always distinguish which from which.
It Worked for Me is a book of great warmth, gentle humor and profound humanity. But it never slips into sentimentality or preachiness. This slim volume offers some remarkable insight into the psychology of successful leaders. It will certainly be of interest to anyone who is a boss, aspires to be a boss, or has to work for a boss; and that includes most of us.