BOOKS: Leading from the front - The leadership principles of Colin Powell are inevitably conditioned by US Army training techniques, and are none the worse for that, says James Hanson

BOOKS: Leading from the front - The leadership principles of Colin Powell are inevitably conditioned by US Army training techniques, and are none the worse for that, says James Hanson - The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell; By Oren Harari; McGraw-Hill p

by LORD HANSON, the co-founder of the original Hanson plc. Website: www.lordhanson.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell; By Oren Harari; McGraw-Hill pounds 16.99

In a somewhat similar fashion to President Eisenhower, General Colin Powell - now US Secretary of State Powell - rose from military leadership on the world stage to high US Government office. He is a modest man, as his autobiography My American Journey (Random House) reveals. It is Oren Harari, professor of management studies at the University of San Francisco, who has decided that the General's leadership principles deserve a book of their own. It is to the benefit of those in business - and about to join the ranks of industry - who read this book.

I disagree with the slightly misleading title of the book, which is designed to be catchy rather than strictly accurate. These are not secrets; they are well-known and practised principles. When I was a young officer serving in the army for seven years through the second world war, much of my military experience was based on these principles, and they are no strangers to businessmen and women.

Powell's 18 principles, with an explanation of how they apply to business, were the subject of a magazine article as long ago as 1996.

This was reproduced all over the world and today it is still possible to find dozens of references to it on the web. It was in fact Powell's question to Harari: 'Are you aware of the stir your article is causing?' that led Harari to expand it to a short book, adding further applications to business in the process.

What becomes clear as you read is just how much of Powell's thinking is conditioned by the army. This is not surprising but it is important, principally because the military has the longest and most successful record of leadership training. Alexander, Wellington and Grant may each have been good material for leadership, but they all had years of hard junior military training to hone those skills.

The military is a regular hierarchy, different from and yet similar to that of a large business. At every level, men and women are taught to lead and inspire those below them. Harari, an experienced and accomplished writer on management, is well able to draw out general lessons applicable to business.

Britain used to rule a quarter of the globe with a navy bigger than the world's second and third most powerful navies combined, but with an army smaller than many of those on continental Europe. The American military is a huge business and the US has for years been spending more on its defence budget than any other nation in history - numbers to make even the budgets of companies like General Motors pale in comparison. Last year it was dollars 329 billion, and reports are that it will rise to dollars 400 billion this year.

The US spends more on defence than the next nine countries combined Such power is truly awesome, but it brings with it certain problems, as September 11 has demonstrated. This is called 'asymmetry', the idea that any attack creates a situation that demands leadership combining immense power with magnanimity and restraint. In other words, leadership of the calibre and experience of Colin Powell.

Secretary Powell is a successful and admirable man. His quotes leave a deep impression of quiet competence and straight-talking honesty. As the child of Jamaican immigrants, he joined the US army only a few years after it became racially integrated in 1952. The southern states of the US where he served in the early 1960s were not integrated and despite a background of indignities, he rose to be a four-star general and Secretary of State: a towering achievement of true merit, rewarded in a way of which America can be proud.

This book, as the publisher makes clear, is not authorised by Colin Powell. Harari combed the published thoughts of Powell to produce what were 18 leadership principles. The recent Enron collapse has pointed out the dangers of relying on consultants and experts, rather than good managers. Powell's principle is: 'Let leaders lead: don't become over-reliant on experts and elitists.' Another quote from the book is prescient: 'Untidy truth is better than smooth lies.'

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