Earlier I discussed two of my four favorite traits of former US Secretary of State and Four-Star Army General Colin Powell. The four traits I admired upon reading his autobiography were his humility, flexibility, raw leadership gifts and problem-solving skills. The fact that he used these skills consistently from the battlefield to the boardroom makes his story even more applicable.
Today I’ll look at Powell’s gifts for problem-solving and leadership – especially in the area of communicating for effect. Again, I suggest that Change Agents and Change Leaders can probably gain a lot from Powell’s example.
3. Powell as Problem-Solver: While serving as a platoon leader in Viet Nam, young Colin Powell was responsible for keeping his men alive and accomplishing a mission. Many times that mission was made nearly impossible by political complications and logistical failings. Just as many times, he found creative ways to achieve his goal. He developed a confident and optimistic approach that was focused on listening to his men, caring for them deeply and always keeping the intended outcome in mind. He later said:
“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Up-Down + Left-Right: The key to solving complex problems is to balance the need for factual details – (the source material to generate potential solutions) – with the need to see the problem holistically (and thus avoid making strategic errors.) While most leaders have routine access to the strategic direction of the group by virtue of their position, Powell demonstrated as a Lieutenant and as a General that the key to getting at the details is the direct relationship you have with the troops. Your front line employees know the little things that are hard to see from the executive suite. And they will be far more apt to share this information with you if they trust you. We could all benefit from getting to know those on our team – even if it’s outside our comfort zone to step into their world.
4. Leaders Communicate: Finally, one of the General’s most prized leadership traits was his ability to break down seemingly complex challenges into manageable parts, then rally the troops to focus on their role in getting the collective “big thing” done. It was the essence of his leadership gift.
His style was to listen first, talk second and manage by the facts. He regularly asked his people to bring back better, more practical analysis of military challenges as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and global political issues as Secretary of State. He considered the counsel of his staff when forming the solution, but always insisted that it was the leader’s role to decide.
It’s one thing to find or create a solution to a complex problem with the help of others. Its another thing to get your people to follow you as the team implements that solution. While this Soldier/Diplomat’s approach to creating a solution was typically an exercise in listening and judgment, his execution style relied heavily on simple, clear communication. Powell captured his approach to the leader’s communication challenge in this way:
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”
This ability to summarize complex solutions to thorny problems in easy-to-understand ways is sometimes captured by the acronym “K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid”. I think the General said it a bit more eloquently. To be known as an excellent communicator as well as a great listener would be an admirable goal for each of us involved in making change happen. These twin skills also appear to be critical to being a great leader of soldiers, diplomats and just about any team.
Question for Chatter:
- Have you ever worked with a leader who kept you in the dark – or made things sound more complicated each time they tried to communicate? What effect did this have on execution?