"It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership" is a book written by Colin Powell, a retired four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Secretary of State. Published in 2012, the book provides valuable insights and lessons from Powell's extensive military and public service, and political career, as well as his personal life experiences.
The book is divided into short chapters, each focusing on a specific lesson or principle that Powell has learned throughout his life. These lessons cover a wide range of topics, including leadership, personal development, teamwork, decision-making, and communication.
Powell shares anecdotes and stories from his military service, where he held prominent positions such as National Security Adviser and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He reflects on the challenges he faced and the strategies he employed to overcome them, offering practical advice and guidance to readers.
The book emphasizes the importance of integrity, honesty, and ethical conduct in both personal and professional life. Powell emphasizes the significance of leading by example, cultivating strong relationships, and fostering a sense of responsibility and accountability.
Powell's book also touches on the importance of diversity and inclusion, highlighting the value of different perspectives and backgrounds in achieving success. He discusses the need for effective communication and the power of listening, as well as the importance of adaptability and continuous learning.
Throughout the book, Powell shares personal stories that reveal his values, principles, and the lessons he learned from his experiences. He provides practical advice and actionable tips that can be applied in various aspects of life, including business, politics, and personal relationships.
"It Worked for Me" serves as a guide for leaders and individuals seeking wisdom and guidance from one of the most respected figures in American history. Powell's insights and lessons are presented in a straightforward and relatable manner, making the book accessible to a wide range of readers.
This book, and my reaction to it especially, really surprised me. I cried through the last 4 chapters of this book, and it's not because they were written in a particularly moving way. For my entire adult life I've looked at militaries with disdain, and distanced myself from people involved in them. It will probably take me some time to work my way through the reasons, but they seem significant. I'll come back to this post, enough times as necessary to work through and share why.
Now I'm no stranger to the military, having been raised on military bases, and having gone to Va Tech on a military scholarship to be in their Corps of Cadets. On day one of training I "came to my senses" and realized I was cut from a different cloth from the people surrounding me. They loved authority and social structure and guns. I loved freedom, creativity, music, and was too intellectually wild and curious to feel fulfilled following commands. Unfortunately I needed to spend the next 6 months in the corps or I wouldn't be allowed to continue the school year as a civilian.
That experience was dreadful and somehow "out of body", but formative, and thankfully, not particularly traumatizing. The whole thing felt silly mostly. I left wanting nothing to do with organized social structures. This probably significantly impacted my next 2 decades of intellectual and geographic exploration that was intensely self-directed. At the time this felt right. Being my own boss, listening to my own inner voice, following my own curiosities and finding my own way through the big bad world, controlled by ingrained and often illusive interests, felt natural and good.
However as I get older, I can see that I unknowingly forwent many of the positive, life-affirming, life-defining benefits of being an "institutional being". I may have to unpack this in a separate area. But the short of it is that it is clear to me now, and made clearer by this book and other "virtual mentors" I've tried to study, that long-running membership in organizations provides opportunities not afforded by any other means. Namely, earning the respect of respected people, and developing influence with influential people, provides a pathway to access leadership positions in the structures that determine the shape, nature, and quality of the world we live in. Being an insider means you come pre-vetted. This is obviously positive if you have demonstrated value and potential, and negative if you have demonstrated the contrary. But outsiders must earn their place with difficulty, and find alternative means to generate the trust and respect that comes from long-established relationship in the network of souls that are gatekeepers to access and membership of the worlds influential institutions.
Secretary Powell's life story is just unexpectedly moving for me. His is truly a "dream life story" of some kind. I'm not overly sentimental or proud of what people call the "American Dream". In my travels I've found that all people have roughly the same dream, especially poor people. It's just the human dream. They want access, they want success, they want hope and self-actualize. Secretary Powell was born to immigrant parents, went to free public university (City College of NY, not West Point, the Citadel, the Naval Academy, etc) and fell in love with an institution (the Army) that was able to see his worth, and provide him with mentors, and institution-level pathways that lead upward to greater and greater responsibility and impact.
Seeing just how powerfully this structure facilitated his development and provided paths and opportunities for him that lasted his entire professional (and continued in to his personal career of public speaking) I felt sad, disappointed, jealous, and even some degree of self-criticism. It's undeniable I felt the way that I did when I was younger, and was uninterested and in many ways unfit for an institutional lifestyle. I don't know that I could have done things differently.
It does seem to me at this moment in time that I didn't have mentors around me at the time who could help make sense of the complex interconnected structures that govern much of our experience on the planet. I could be remembering inaccurately, however. Perhaps some people tried and I wasn't responsive. I was still processing years of childhood trauma.
There was definitely one high school teacher, Mr. Scarborough, who tried to help me focus and explain the potential he saw in me. Unfortunately his beside manner was for me at the time too gruff, too bossy, and too exasperated to allow what he was really saying to penetrate.
And so it is at the ripe age of 48 that I am coming to appreciate the value of institutional membership, and more importantly the alignment of institutional goals and personal goals.
I'm currently working for a startup (Threadable Books) that wants to support my development as an engineer, as a manager, and as a member in the software development community. This was an intentional requirement that I was able to verbalize during our interview process. Their enthusiastic "yes!" to this value had a lot to do with my accepting this role over other offers.
In the last 3 months of employment with them they have supported me by financing my attendance at professional conferences, helping with office setup, co-working, online education, and the acquisition of many books that will empower me to grow into a better engineer, a better manager, startup founder, and team leader. It's truly a great feeling that so many of my personal goals overlap with the needs of the company. It's a great feeling that eases the sensation of being at "work". It's a symbiosis.
Institutions, which I was somehow surprisingly scornful of in my youth, may truly be the only way society improves. Great institutions outlast individuals, have their own resources and capital, and progressively improve processes and internal mechanisms for achieving success and purpose over time. It is a deep regret of mine that I did not understand earlier in life the immense power of finding strong and healthy institutions to align with. That kind of symbiosis is probably one of the strongest powers on the planet.
Some of these ideas had be developing on their own in my mind, but "It Worked For Me" was able to develop them much further, in much shorter time, and powerfully.
One concept that crystallize while reading this book is just how much the size of the US military enabled someone like Secretary so simply keep progressing to the "next level". In one chapter he makes an extended metaphor that the Army (and all institutions) can be envisioned as a pyramid of spheres, with each layer having fewer and fewer layers on the way to the apex.
The larger the institution the more layers there are in the pyramid. This translates to comparatively more opportunities to progress and at smaller increments. Each layer provides an opportunity for mastery of the skills required to thrive at that layer, and the structure for that mastery to be seen (through a fine-grained review process) and rewarded.
In the military, sometimes the reward for achievement is the opportunity for more training before progressing to the next level of responsibility. What a powerful opportunity and privilege! Seeing this I felt true envy and disappointment. I love education, but obviously bearing arms and firing on command is not behavior I'd engage in simply for free education and training. But I love learning so much, there is a palpable temptation there.
It is a consolation knowing that at least on some level, the mandate at the heart of the military (some militaries) is public service and public protection. The line is blurred too often, and crossed too often, but it is a consolation. Still part of me, especially while reading this book, wished I could have found a way to thrive living like a soldier.
On many levels, it reveals itself to be much like a video game, where you continue being provided for, getting new challenges, training, equipment, mentors, and the opportunity to progress to the next level. It's not surprising that first-person shooter games are enormously popular.
But I don't play those games, and can't stand to watch them. I can't abide the thought of them honestly. I'm not cut out to thrive in a chain of command. But the perks seem pretty amazing for those with a certain disposition! I can't help feeling regretful that there aren't any obvious equivalents in areas that I feel actually ethically and constitutionally disposed to.
Giving this more thought it does make sense that a/the government would want to materially and administratively support those people who choose to dedicate themselves to public service. The military is a form of public service in the end. That said, there are many forms of public service that the government has no hand in supporting in this same way (offering training, mentorship etc).
What is more baffling is that those who make up the ranks of our elected officials, congress- men and women, senators, etc, are not materially supported by the government while preparing to run or hold office. In fact those offices require no certification or pedigree of any kind to be qualified for office. Winning a simple popularity contest is the unique qualification. Is it a wonder then that our military is so much more effective than our policy-making bodies?
The timing of reading this book coincided with some clarity that was forming in me about my relationship with the idea of leadership. Starting in High School teachers in my school started making comments about my leadership potential. These comments were not entirely positive, and often took the form of entreaties to stop "wasting" what to them seemed like leadership potential. People followed my lead, they would say. And when I was a clown, it amplified others' inclinations to be a clown, etc.
It was true at that time and for decades after, I had no formal interest in what is often termed "leadership". It's safe to say that I didn't see its true potential and was too preoccupied with my own internal traumas, conflicts and imbalances to have any interest in spearheading any kind of initiatives outside the walls of my own skin. Regardless, I did happen to embody a number of characteristics of "leaders" whether I wanted to use them or not: a sharp mind, uncommon confidence, sensitivity to others' emotions, a strong presence, a strong sense of justice, impact on the people around me, ease in fast-moving or stressful situations, voracious appetite for knowledge and skills, etc. As I've gotten older, and at long length worked through the majority of my internal struggles, I find that these characteristics are still present, more developed, and positions of leadership are regularly offered to me.
It also became clear that taking responsibility for these "characteristics" of mine was increasingly not optional. I was having impacts on people and organizations that I interacted with. Because I wasn't intentionally cultivating or tracking the impact of my energy, its effects were scattershot -- ranging from exceedingly positive to potentially emotionally damaging.
I've known that one day I would have to find a way to integrate this energy into a fully developed value system and life purpose, and focus it intentionally. It wouldn't be fair to imply that I hadn't been aware and trying to do my best. Live purpose is no simple feat. I have been thinking a lot about this recently more than ever. I would like to make the intention of leaning into my own leadership potential and maximizing my positive impact in the world. It also feels like a lot of responsibility. There is an internal still voice encouraging this, and I have grown to trust it. Recently through my experiences helping and mentoring early-career software developers in Africa, and the Middle East, I felt a surge of something strong realizing just how easy it is to give and make a difference.
There are many ways to embody leadership and have impact. I feel excited to be embarking on a phase of life where I am studying, talking and reading as much as I can fit into my schedule about it. That was my personal development context that led me to read this book. It's clear that there are many ways to be a leader, and quite a few anti-patterns one discovers when reading about historical figures that have had great impact. One thing is clear: there are destructive leaders who are simply out for narcissist and egotistical ends, and there are (fewer) constructive leaders, who are motivated by more holistic and social ends.
I suspect that among the many "destructive" and "narcissistic" leaders that have come before, a large portion of them believed themselves to be of the positive variety. So in these early phases of committing to developing leadership skills, it's important to go deep into my own heart and motivations to make sure they are as healthy as possible. I feel this deeply, and have for quite some time. It's fair to say that it's delayed my full commitment to developing as a leader as much as any other factor in my life. But as important a consideration as it is, it shouldn't be an indefinite obstacle to getting the ball rolling. No one is perfect, and I am confident that my commitment to healthy motivations will allow me to continually introspect and improve.
Reading "It Worked for Me" by by General Powell corroborated just how important it is to not only to NOT content myself with going it alone, but to cultivate relationship, networks, and spaces where I can go "together", where I can be seen, be assessed, be held accountable, be mentored, and grow as a leader with input from institutions and other experienced leaders.
I like the idea of getting complex and difficult things accomplished. The more complex the task, the more people need to be involved, the clearer the vision needs to be, and the better managed the resources need to be that are needed to accomplish the task. I love the experience of being in rich community and community building is something I'll always want to be involved in.
I like the idea of bringing beautiful and useful things into the world. This also involves organizing and focusing people and resources for a purpose.
I believe in justice, and being a force for justice. That said, I don't identify as a social justice warrior. Although I appreciate the experience, "predicament" even, of certain marginalized groups, I feel like my truest concerns around justice are about representation, health, ecology, and economic mobility.
I don't have a strong inclination to be in charge, but I also don't have a strong inclination to follow along with a/the group. Sometimes this takes the form of seeming/being aloof or distant, or simply going my own way. So the voice is there, but I feel I need to take it seriously, and approach it rigorously -- through study, introspection, and mentorship.
As part of my leadership skills development I have recently been attending Toastmasters events. If you're not familiar with the concept, they are an international organization that supports the development of public speaking skills. I have never been drawn to public speaking until so many of my sources of study all pointed to the benefits and power for impact of public speaking.
It should have come as no surprise then, that Colin Powell, even though he was a soldier, a general, a secretary, etc, came to primarily identify himself as a public speaker. I did feel surprise though, reading this quote from the book which exemplifies the point:
After his time in public service, as he pondered what to do, he considered the many offers to be on company boards, executive committees, etc. However we can draw some conclusion from his rejection of all these offers. What he did spend the rest of his life doing is traveling 1-3 times a week to make public speeches all over the globe to all variety of organizations.
This demonstrates to me that no matter what the specific area of expertise is as a leader, the art of public speaking is one of the essential tools employed in their efforts to communicate, persuade, and have impact.
I can't say that I feel extremely comfortable in front of a crowd, be it speaking, performing music, dance or theater. However the few times I have pushed myself to do it, I have gotten at lease some of what seems sincere positive feedback.
Recently I've been leveling up my public speaking skills locally through teaching, toastmasters and lightening talks at community meetup groups. I'm working up to submitting proposals for talks at professional conferences in engineering and related fields.
Is there a person I'm meant to be? Is it the same as the person I'd like to be? Can we choose paths at all or is it just an artifact of overactive imagination? Whatever the case may be, we're all becoming our future selves, little by little, whether we want to or not, whether it's in the directions we want or imagined. I admit that I find this somewhat stressful. I worry that even though I don't simply want to become the person that entropy and circumstance would shape me into, I don't always have the clarity about the way forward that would allow myself to be shaped by clear intention instead.
Sometimes the path ahead it is brilliantly clear and I can develop in intentional ways and directions. Other times the path it's blurry, even opaque. In those times when the path ahead is obscure I can get to feeling stuck, worried and depressed. I suppose that it is these moments that become our major life transitions.
As I near the uncomfortably symbolic milestone age of 50, I feel I am in one such transition moment. It's important that I look for sources to light the path ahead. In transition times past I found great wisdom in books. Reflexively, I've been buying books. Like a lot of books. Like, more books than I can read in 5 years. I must have bought 300 books in the last 2 months.
This demonstrates a couple of things to myself. For one, it shows I really want to get this transition right, and not die feeling that I never fully lived or developed myself fully. For another, it demonstrates a kind of wild and unfocused ambition that all but guarantees feelings of insufficiency or incomplete realization. For another, it is a desperate but understandable attempt to find a respite outside myself from the very grueling internal work of confronting demons, fantasies, limitations, uncomfortable truths, time, and death itself.
Reading great books is lovely and can be truly illuminating. Equally, journaling, meeting with mentors, and listening to the voices who have chosen to share in memoires, autobiographies, or podcasts, can be enlightening. That said, they can only offer limited illumination on the path of becoming. They can help process thoughts, feelings, dreams, fears, etc, by way of analysis or example. But in the end, the work of choosing what to become (and why) is a solitary venture. More, reconciling that with the limitations of age, time, resources, personal potential, and energy is outright Odyssean.
The path that leads to my next phases of "becoming" is somewhat opaque at this transition point. It's uncomfortable. I have a sense of expectation and wonder about what is to come, but also an uncomfortable sense of time running out. In the worst moments it can feel like panic, dread, exhaustion. In the process I've let go of a number of activities and communities where I no longer experience a strong sense of meaning and connection. Especially in certain music and dance communities it began to feel like I was on auto-pilot and my original motivations for being involved were no longer relevant.
At the same time, finding other activities and communities to replace these hasn't been easy or forthcoming. And I've explored a number: meditation communities, NVC, AR (authentic relating), mens groups, hiking groups, Unitarian churches, spiritual groups, choirs. But none have given me that sense of belonging and community I felt in younger years in social dance and traditional music communities.
What remains is some kind of empty space where new patterns and understandings need to manifest. If I listen closely, I can sometimes find some inner intuition about where to place my feet on the path. The topics of leadership and public speaking are ones that I feel this kind of intuition around. I can't say exactly where they will take me or what I'll be contributing to, but for now it's enough to trust that they are skills that my intuition thinks will be valuable down the line.