Interview with General Colin Powell

Interview with General Colin Powell

Former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, reveals why business leaders should look at the military to learn a disciplined approach to decision-making and to resourcing organizations.

The Focus: General Powell, decision-making is a core ingredient of leadership. What are the core ingredients of good decisions?

Colin Powell: Good and solid analysis and a formal way of looking at a problem. In the army, all combat officers are taught the “Estimate of the Situation”: When you are faced with a problem – take that hill, or in business maybe grow your market share – the first thing you do is to make an analysis of your environment. Who is defending the hill? Who has got the greater market share? You start with an estimate of your strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent.

The Focus: That sounds like the famous Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, who said that it is crucial to know yourself …

Powell: … better than you know your enemy. Correct. That is step one. The second thing is to define what you are trying to accomplish. What is the “who, what, when, where, and why?” And only when you have got a clear statement of what you want to achieve, do you ask yourself how you are going to achieve it. In the military we are taught never to go for a single answer, no matter how obvious that might be. Always find different ways to accomplish the mission. Then run a counter-analysis and list the advantages and disadvantages. When you have done that, you are ready to make a decision.

The Focus: When the decision has been made, can the leader turn away and focus on the next issue?

Powell: He’d better not, because the real test is not so much making decisions as executing them. In the army we are drilled into execution and then supervision, to make sure everything goes the way you planned it. But there is another thing that we do in the military, that I think perhaps isn’t done enough in corporate life: As soon as you have made that decision, you start on the contingency planning. Because there is, as we like to say, a thinking, breathing enemy out there, who is not going to let you do just what you want. Even the greatest of all strategists must occasionally take into account the presence of an enemy. In the military we also learn principles of war which also work in a corporate setting: How do you concentrate as much of your force as possible on a critical point and take a risk elsewhere? In business that translates into focusing your investment on marketing, sales, or R&D, whichever will give you the greatest return. I have found that leadership is leadership is leadership. It applies whether you are in government or in corporate life or in non-profit life.

“There is no more important task for a leader than to pick people.”

The Focus: Even the best leaders are sometimes only as good as their teams. How do you pick the best people?

Powell: Actually, there is no more important task for a leader than to pick people. To make sure you have the very best people working for you. Because you can’t get it all done yourself. The best leaders are not afraid of picking people who are better than they are and who may one day replace them. This is something else that is drilled into us in the military: Make sure you know who your replacement is, in case you become a casualty. So you have to have depth within an organization.

The Focus: How do you make sure that your people have the courage to tell you when you’re wrong?

Powell: When I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I would still have junior officers brief me. Usually these people knew more about the subject we were discussing than I did. I had to make sure that they felt confident enough to tell me everything they believed. That didn’t mean I would automatically do what they said, because they couldn’t be aware of the other aspects that I had to consider.

The Focus: The toughest decisions are when you’re short on information. How do you cope with that?

Powell: My own experience is that you get as much information as you can and then you pay attention to your intuition, to your informed instinct. Sometimes what my analytical mind says to me is not what I’ll do. Generally you should act somewhere between P40 and P70, as I call it. Sometime after you have obtained 40 percent of all the information you are liable to get, start thinking in terms of making a decision. When you have about 70 percent of all the information, you probably ought to decide, because you may lose an opportunity in losing time. In the military, we are also taught to only use one third of the available decision-making time, so that our subordinates have time to go through their own decision processes when they learn what we want them to do.

“Sometimes what my analytical mind says to me is not what I’ll do.”

The Focus: Based on your experience in various leadership roles, what are the key elements of leading people?

Powell: Leaders have followers. The primary role of a leader is to convey to those followers a sense of purpose, vision, and mission. I have seen many organizations where there is this sense of purpose in the headquarters but it never gets cascaded down to everybody within the organization. The best leaders are those who break that mission down into the organization’s constituent parts, so that everybody understands their role and how it all builds into the whole.

The Focus: And how do you make sure everybody gets the message?

Powell: One important element of leadership is taking care of the troops. First you train the followers to accomplish the mission. Second, you resource them: Make sure that they have the tools to do the job. Third, you reward them: You give them medals or bonuses. I prefer medals: they give you bragging rights. Finally, you discipline them. An organization that is not facing up to people who are not getting the job done, is going to have difficulties.

The Focus: In the military, discipline is a functional element. But how can you discipline a business organization?

Powell: We are not trapped in what the science of management says we can do. We are capable of doing what the art of leadership says is possible. The great leaders that I have worked with are people who have a good sense of empathy with other people. They can walk a factory floor, or walk through a battalion and smell if there’s something wrong. You have to create circumstances where your first-tier leader knows what you are trying to accomplish, because he is the one who’s going to get it done. One day when I was a brigade commander in the 101st Airborne Division, I gave a soldier a ride. It surprised me a little that he didn’t recognize me until I introduced myself. Then he told me they were getting ready for an inspection and had been working really hard. “I’ve got a great sergeant and a great lieutenant,” he said, “and I am going to make sure that they come out fine.” Now I knew I had done my job, by making sure that he had great superiors – whether he knew who I was or not. I have always admired the Linking Pin theory of management specialist Rensis Likert. It says that in every organization there are leaders who link the lower level to the upper level. What makes somebody an effective link as a leader is that he conveys down everything that above wants and he conveys up everything that below needs.

The Focus: That soldier had to work hard to meet his targets. Are ambitious leaders better leaders?

Powell: I have never seen a good organization where the standards weren’t high, usually above what the followers thought they could accomplish. The troops may whine and moan, but when they meet the standard, there’s a sense of pride. Nobody wants to be in a mediocre organization. You don’t have the same energy flowing through.

The Focus: You already mentioned how important it is to know your enemy. Was the U.S. analysis of Saddam Hussein correct?

Powell: I don’t think anyone would disagree with the conclusion that Saddam was a terrible dictator. He had gassed his own people and his neighbors. He had killed thousands of people, and he had started a couple of wars and destroyed his country. Our failure was that our intelligence community thought he had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. That was a mistake. There is fallibility in human intelligence and in human decisions.

The Focus: Should the available information have been checked more thoroughly?

Powell: The information that the intelligence people used was a combination of satellite information, signals intelligence, and human intelligence. We are not sure to what extent Saddam was trying to convey an incorrect picture to us. We are not sure to what extent Saddam’s own people were conveying an incorrect picture to him. But this body of evidence was believed not only by President George W. Bush. President Bill Clinton used that same body of intelligence before bombing Iraq in 1998.

The Focus: What are the main differences between decision processes in the military and in politics?

Powell: I think that military, corporate, and non-political organizations are pretty much similar. Politics is different, because the mission is always to get the necessary votes. A good politician goes through everything I have described in terms of mission and vision, and resourcing, but at the end of the day politicians have to make compromises in order to achieve consensus. How often have we seen politicians take a principle position only to give it up three days later? That is what makes democracy so fascinating.

The Focus: What can business leaders learn from the military?

Powell: A disciplined approach to decision-making and to resourcing organizations. One thing the military does far better than business is train its own leaders. I can’t go to IBM and hire a battalion commander. They don’t have any. So the only way is to bring someone in 15 years earlier as a lieutenant and train him to be a battalion commander. In my 35 years in the army I was in school for 6 years. I think corporations should take a look at whether they are investing enough in the development of their human capital. Are they really willing to send people off to improve their leadership skills – and not just their technical skills?

The Focus: Is leadership something that can be taught and learned?

Powell: I think leadership is both a trained thing and a natural gift. Some people naturally have a sense of empathy and an understanding of how to bring their followers to do things. They become great politicians. But I think you can improve on that natural ability with training and exposure to great leaders of the past and to management theories. I went to graduate school as a lieutenant colonel after I had been in the army for 12 or 13 years. I learned so much from all the great management theorists. It gave me a greater understanding of my army experience and showed me the gaps in my knowledge.

The Focus: Are there fundamental differences in the way decisions are made in different countries? Is there a typical American way of making decisions?

Powell: Well, that is what we are accused of all the time – of doing things the American way. But my experience is quite different. When I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I worked with the Nato Military Committee. The Head of the Luxembourg Armed Forces had equal standing with me, and I had to respect that. He was the leader of the armed forces of a sovereign country. I had to make sure he never thought that I was looking down on them, merely because they had less power than we did. With that kind of approach you can develop bonds of trust. I tried to do the same thing with my colleagues when I was Secretary of State. There is no question about the fact that we had very serious disagreements with my German, French, and Russian colleagues over the Iraq war. But I never stopped talking.

The Focus: It was an approach that won you many friends in Europe.

Powell: How can we be enemies when there is so much that pulls us together? But in general I found that I had to work with each one of my foreign colleagues in a way that was consistent with their system. Some are democracies, some are not. I found it necessary to understand what their political needs were. Another rule I have is: Don’t let your ego get tied up in a policy dispute. Otherwise, if things don’t go your way, you can end up breaking a relationship with somebody with whom you can’t afford to break. It was with this in mind that, shortly after the Iraq war started in March 2003, I went to Berlin and told the German people: We have a disagreement, but we are allies and we are friends.
The Focus: Are there any decisions you regret?

Powell: Well, I regret that the presentation I made at the UN turned out to be wrong. It was wrong on the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but pretty much right on intentions and capabilities. Everybody makes bad decisions. I am sure I have made my share of them over 40 years of service. Or I have made good decisions and have been overruled. The real challenge, when you are overruled, is to remember who the boss is and don’t take it personally. One of the great stories is that of George Marshall, hero of World War II and Secretary of State, who argued against the recognition of Israel in 1948. He went to President Truman and said, “Don’t recognize Israel, look what it is going to do in the Arab world.” When Truman recognized Israel the next day, Marshall’s staff said: “Are you going to resign?” But he said: “Are you mad? Am I the President? It was his decision.”

The Focus: That also means that it’s always lonely at the top.

Powell: Yes, decision-making is lonely. Also, being in charge sometimes means making people mad. Some days you have to overrule even the best advice, because you think it is not right. And, almost invariably, whoever doesn’t win the argument is going to be unhappy. But if everybody trusts one another, then the person who didn’t prevail will faithfully execute the decision as if it was their idea.

The Focus: Isn’t it also a problem for leaders that subordinates mostly tell them only what they want to hear?

Powell: That indeed is very dangerous. And that’s why the army sends all its future generals to what we call “charm school.” As soon as you are a general, people think that you know everything. You think yourself that you have become omniscient and omnipotent. Be careful, because people want to do everything they can to please the general, and you need to guard against this.

The Focus: What should a leader do when his mission refuses to align with his personal system of values?

Powell: That question comes up all the time in the military and the answer is you have to comply, you have to obey – or you’d better resign and leave. But that is also the mark of a great leader – somebody who, in the presence of inner conflict, will do the right thing. Great leaders are those who are able to look reality in the face, however painful it may be, and deal with it.

The interview with Colin Powell was conducted in Washington by (from right) Wilhelm Friedrich Boyens, Egon Zehnder, Hamburg, Ulrike Mertens, The Focus, and John Grumbar, Egon Zehnder, London.

Colin Powell

1937 - Colin Powell is born in New York City on April 5, the son of Jamaican immigrants, and grows up in the South Bronx.
1958 - Powell earns a bachelor’s degree in geology from City College of New York. As a second lieutenant he joins the U.S. Army.
1963 - In the Vietnam War, Powell acts as advisor to the South Vietnamese Army. He steps on a booby trap and is wounded.
1969 - During his second tour in Vietnam, Powell is again injured in a helicopter crash, but nevertheless rescues two of his comrades.
1976 - Powell completes his military training at the National War College.
1983 - Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger makes Powell his military attaché.
1989 - In April, Powell is promoted to general and in September he becomes the twelfth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
1993 - After serving for 35 years, Powell leaves the military.
1995 - Powell’s autobiography My American Journey becomes an international bestseller. Powell embarks on a career as a public speaker and company director.
1997 - As Founder Chairman of the nonprofit organization “America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth” Powell aims to help improve the situation of children and adolescents in the USA.
2001 - In mid January Powell is sworn in as the first ever colored U.S. Secretary of State.
2003 - Addressing the UN Security Council in February, Powell presents supposed evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. The weapons are never found. Powell later expresses regret that his presentation was based on mistaken information from the U.S. intelligence community.
2005 - In January, Powell steps down from the government and retires from active politics. In July he becomes a limited partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.

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