It worked for Me : In Life and Leadership – Book Review

Colin Powell with Tony Koltz

Born in 1937 to Jamaican immigrant parents in New York City, few people have the range of experiences of Colin Powell: from a janitor to National Security Advisor, from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to Secretary of State.

Along with writer Tony Koltz, Colin Powell offers warm and engaging parables with wise advice on succeeding in the workplace and beyond while revealing the principles that have shaped his life and career in his autobiography “It Worked for Me: In Life and leadership”

Powell combines the insights he has gained serving in the top ranks of the military and in four presidential administrations with the lessons he’s learned from his immigrant-family upbringing in the Bronx, his training in the ROTC, and his growth as an Army officer.

Powell graduated as a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet from the City College of New York. When he was a somewhat lost 17-year old at CCNY, Powell has said that ROTC rescued him.

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 twice in Vietnam. He applied to the army’s graduate school program and was accepted to George Washington University in Washington D.C. Powell entered the school of government and business administration and would earn an MBA upon completion of the coursework in 1972, he had been selected to serve as a White House fellow.

Powell was assigned to the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of President Nixon, and there he made a lasting impression on the director and the deputy director of the Office: Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci. Both of these men were to call on Powell when they served as Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor, respectively, under President Ronald Reagan.

He served as National Security Advisor to President Reagan from 1987 to 1989 and rose to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. He served as the first African American and 65th Secretary of State to George W Bush from 2001-2005.

Powell starts the book with what has become known as his “Thirteen Rules” and their story. They 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.

In his memoir, Powell mentions not to have ever undermined the chain of command, but he liked to stay in touch with reality and hear the unfiltered truth. He went around unannounced to see for himself what was going on and to have serendipitous conversations with front-line workers.

“Be sure you are always talking through the questioner or the interviewer to the audiences who really matter.”

– Powell advises on media interviews

“No plan survives first contact with an enemy… The leader must be agile in thought and action. He must be ready to revise a plan, or dump it, if it isn’t working or if new opportunities appear.”

– Powell on Planning

The book also discusses “Powell Doctrine,” a journalist-created term named after General Colin Powell, created in the run-up to the 1990–91 Gulf War. The doctrine poses questions emphasizing national security interests, overwhelming strike capabilities, ground forces, and widespread public support, all of which have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken. Powell’s doctrine is largely based on the Weinberger Doctrine, devised by Caspar Weinberger during his tenure as Secretary of Defense.

“If you break it, you own it”

– The Pottery Barn Rule

He also takes a dig at “The Pottery Barn Rule”, rumored to be based on Powell’s advice to George W Bush in 2003 regarding Iraq . Powell clarifies that there was no such policy and he was unhappy that the phrase was connected with them.

Towards the end, a chapter is dedicated to his infamous United Nations presentation on February 5, 2003, when he did his best to convince world leaders that they should support America’s attack on Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), arguably the low point of his career.

Powell put his credibility on the line by assuring his audience that intelligence proved Iraq was producing, selling, and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Yet, no Iraqi WMDs ever turned up after the war. Powell blames the failure on erroneous reports, overreliance on one informant, and a tight deadline.

The memoir ends with Powell emphasising the importance of people in our lives.

“A life is about its events; it’s about challenges met and overcome—or not; it’s about successes and failures. But more than all of these put together, it’s about how we touch and are touched by the people we meet. It’s all about the people. I hope that comes through clearly in the pages you have just read.

The people in my life, made me what I am.”


Colin Powell & Tony Klotz , It Worked for Me: In Life and leadership

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