Jan 05, 2022

Rules for Leadership

Reading for Lifelong Learning and Leadership: A PICPA Blog Series

James Caruso, CPABy James J. Caruso, CPA (inactive), CGMA

In my post introducing the Lifelong Learning and Leadership series, I wrote about the value of reading widely and finding insights on business and leadership in unexpected places. Personally, I derive more pleasure from this type of serendipitous discovery than from reading books explicitly dedicated to leadership. But when I heard the news of Colin Powell’s death on Oct. 18, 2021, I immediately thought of the leadership lessons I had learned from his 2012 book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.

Powell – a four-star general in the U.S. Army, national security advisor, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State – was in my mind always a model of leadership. Of course, you may not agree with certain actions, but a person must be judged in their totality. None of us are perfect, and none of Powell’s alleged mistakes diminishes what he can teach us about leadership.

Manager calmly working with her subordinateI recently reviewed the highlights I made in my Kindle from his book, which I read in 2015. I was also fortunate to hear Powell speak in-person about his 13 rules of leadership:

  • It isn’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 is a lot to unpack in each of these individual rules. My notes from the book reveal some common themes and values that connect many of the rules:

  • Maintaining an optimistic, positive, and winning attitude
  • Loyalty
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Resilience
  • Grit
  • Controlling your ego
  • Trusting your intuition
  • Ownership and accountability
  • Trust, respect, kindness (which is not the same as softness or weakness), and the value of relationships
  • Purpose, mission, and vision
  • Seeing the big picture, delegating, and not getting lost in the weeds
  • Controlling emotion, and leveraging it when appropriate
  • Accepting fear, not denying it
  • Putting contribution and service over title and position
  • Attention to detail

As I reviewed my notes, I realized that I have tried – with varying degrees of success – to follow Powell’s leadership principles. Many of his rules have appeared in various forms elsewhere, so I can’t attribute my personal leadership aspirations solely to Powell, but I did notice that some of his themes had, for whatever reason, had a disproportionate impact on my own leadership style. I don’t think I even realized it until I reviewed my notes on the book. For example, Powell’s “check small things” rule. As he elaborated, “Correcting a mistake shows attention to detail and reinforces standards within an organization … Tolerance of little mistakes and oversights creates an environment that will tolerate bigger and ultimately catastrophic mistakes … Leaders who do not have the guts to immediately correct minor errors or shortcomings cannot be counted on to have the guts to deal with the big things.” Reviewing my notes on Powell’s book reminded me of my post for the PICPA on my version of this philosophy. I don’t think I had even consciously remembered Powell’s rules at the time I wrote it. Similarly, Powell’s emphasis on contributions and service over title (“We serve where we are needed and career progression be damned”), and his recognition that “Only a few can rise to the top” and those who don’t “continue to make the place work … are no less important than the guy at the top… and contribute no less to the success of the organization,” likely influenced my later writing of “CFO as Consigliere.” Even Powell’s thoughts on the value of intuition were later reflected in this piece on creativity that I co-authored with Dr. Natalie Nixon. Although I haven’t written about them (yet), much of my reading gravitates toward Powell’s values of grit, resilience, mastery of the ego, and control of emotion. In staffing decisions, I have often reminded myself that, as Powell says, “…many times, people have strengths you need, even when that means you have to put up with weaknesses that you forever have to cover.”

Powell wrote about imparting a “sense of purpose into the heart and soul of every follower” before “purpose” became a management buzzword. Yet there is one thing I don’t believe he wrote specifically about: executive presence. That’s what I always noticed most about Powell: he had a certain aura about him. The closest Powell came to addressing this in his book was when he wrote that a leader “should always maintain an aura of unpredictable mystery,” but this was in the context of keeping a professional distance to avoid excess familiarity. Powell’s executive presence went well beyond that; he commanded attention and filled every room he entered. I’m not sure that can be taught. Surely Powell’s executive presence was attributable to his tremendous self-confidence tempered with a healthy dose of self-awareness. We should all aspire to emulate the leadership qualities of Colin Powell.

James J. Caruso, CPA (inactive), CGMA, is CFO of J. Knipper and Company | KnippeRx in Somerset, N.J., and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at james.caruso@knipper.com.

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  • MatthewStevans967 | Jan 05, 2022
    Great article Sir. The best this year and in some time. Thank you for sharing

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