By Eddie Pipkin

As a lifelong news junkie and history nerd, I paused this week to consider the life and times of Colin Powell, trailblazer and witness to many of the headline events of my adulthood.  The accolades and remembrances poured in after his death earlier this week, as he was universally regarded not only as an accomplished leader, but as a man of principle, integrity, and equanimity.  In short, a role model for any of us who lead anybody.  One of the columns I read was a personal reminiscence from a junior official starting a new assignment.  It was about advice Powell offered, not the technical, nuts-and-bolts advice he had shown up seeking – it was guidance that was broader, more in the category of wisdom, and several things about it struck me as perfect for ministry leaders.

Retired Admiral James Stavridis, writing for Bloomberg, remembered the time he drove out to Powell’s home in Virginia to get some advice before assuming command as the supreme allied commander for NATO.

Powell led off with advice that was the bedrock of his own exemplary career:

“First, he said, you need to park your ego at the door. [It was a job that came with a lot of first class perks and special privileges.]  ‘Remember who you are, Stavridis,’ he said. ‘You’re not being sent over there to be the 21st-century version of Charlemagne.’ Humility, so much at the core of Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants and graduate of a City College of New York, was job one.”

Next he reminded Stavridis that it was crucial to keep an ear to the ground to find out firsthand what was happening.  Stavridis says this was always part of Powell’s reputation, whatever his assignment, to be . . .

“constantly picking up the phone to take the temperature of senior military colleagues, civilian peers in other agencies, the Washington media, foreign counterparts, friends. His network was endless, and he paid for information and intuitions with his own ideas and advice, creating a mosaic of each challenge, filling in the little colored stones until the picture emerged.”

By being curious and genuinely valuing the perspectives of other people, Powell had an authentic grasp of any given situation.  He reminded Stavridis that . . .

“you must put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. He said to stop and think about the history, culture, language and, above all, the demands that your counterparts are facing — in Paris, London, Berlin and Rome, of course, but also in the smaller capitals. . . .”

Above all, Stavridis concludes, a forward-looking attitude is essential:

“Finally, stay optimistic. If you look at Powell’s “13 Rules for Success,” which I cut out and kept under the glass on my desk in Belgium, four of the 13 pertain to optimism.”

Stavridis notes his favorite three of these leadership aphorisms, which are all, as noted, rooted in optimism:

  • Things will look better in the morning.
  • It can be done!
  • Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  • Perpetual optimism is a force-multiplier.

You can link to the expanded, complete list from the above quote, but I’ll go ahead and give you all 13 at the end of the blog.

Let’s think about Powell’s advice to Stavridis from a ministry perspective, taking a look at each piece that the admiral highlighted.  (Although known primarily as a soldier and a statesman, Powell was a man of faith who had some interesting religious overlap.  For instance, he spoke Yiddish from his young days in the Bronx and worked as a “Shabbos Goy,” a non-Jewish person who did tasks for observant Jews that they could not do for themselves on Sabbath days).  This personal experience melded with his education and his professional experience to form his conclusions on how to lead.  For each, there are ministry applications:

  • Be humble. I’ve written about the importance of humility in this space on multiple occasions.  I thought it was relevant that Powell dwelt on the prestigious ‘trappings of power’ in warning Stavridis about the temptations to associate one’s ego with the perks.  There is no doubt that ministry leaders fall prey to this temptation — and you don’t have to be a big city church of that to be true.  It’s also no surprise that the next two pieces of advice are inextricably tied to humble leadership as a practice – because we can’t do either of the next two things unless we are willing to acknowledge that other people (on our teams and in our congregations and in the communities we serve) have something worthwhile to teach us.
  • Keep an ear to the ground. We must guard against only having regular relationships with an insider crowd of preferred and powerful associates.  We should seek out conversations with people who are doing the ‘grunt work,’ the people who are making ministry happen in the trenches, the people who we know disagree with us, the people are serving in ministry areas that have no appeal to us, and the people whose jobs we think we know inside and out (but maybe we don’t).  These should be conversations tilted largely towards listening.  If we’re asked questions, we should answer with enthusiasm, but our goal is not to pontificate; our goal is to be attentive and listen.
  • Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. We shouldn’t just stop at getting info from a variety of people.  We should work to actively understand and appreciate their point of view.  If we understand their motivations and fears, we can deal with them with respect and compassion.  To “put yourself in the other guy’s shoes” is a decidedly different metaphor than “reading the other guy’s mail.”  It’s not merely an intellectual exercise.  To wear someone else’s footwear implies that we feel what they feel and that we have in some way shared their travels and their stories.  It’s deeper and more empathetic than just a tacit acknowledgement that they have a different opinion than we do on a topic or strategy.

And to revisit Stavridis’ favorite “rules” and celebrate how they can make us better ministry leaders:

  • Things will look better in the morning. I like this aphorism, not just because it is practical optimism that calls for a good night’s sleep after a soul-cleansing prayer and not panicking prematurely, but because it calls for a practical pause.  In effect, no matter what bad news comes in the meeting or the phone call or the email . . . let it sit for a spell . . . take a deep breath . . . meditate in prayer . . . and after a period of time come back to that issue and see if it can’t be approached from a more hopeful perspective.
  • It can be done! Perhaps ministry leaders are infamous for being too fond of this aphorism – filled with the Spirit as they can be, but Powell worked in a practical sphere with high stakes, so he’s not advocating ‘pie in the sky’ planning here.  He frequently expanded on his management philosophy in can-doism by stressing his refusal to give up when the odds looked formidable.  Bring in more people with more ideas.  Free people to propose alternate strategies.  Try a different approach.  Incentivize people for success.  And, above all, keep working the problem with optimism, and you can get there – or at least sufficiently close to there!
  • Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers. Here is a straight-up piece of biblical advice (see Proverbs 17:22, Philippians 4:6 and 4:13, for instance).  Powell is, again, not advocating a Pollyanna approach.  He’s not saying to push out all critique, critical advice, or reports of problems.  What he’s saying is that we should not default to those inputs as our chief means of decision making.  We shouldn’t let our fears dominate our thinking.  We shouldn’t let the doom-and-gloomers dominate our discussions.  Give the voices of confidence and the emitters of optimism the edge.
  • Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. This is a profound principle for Gospel-oriented leaders.  After all, Jesus, though he spoke no-holds-barred truth on a regular basis, was at heart an optimist.  That’s why they call it the Good News!  It is fair to ask if people who share leadership meetings and one-on-one sessions with us think of us first and foremost as cynics or optimists, as someone who criticizes first or encourages first, as someone who drains their energy or fills them with energy to meet the challenge ahead.

And Powell’s real secret on that last point, is that optimists breed optimists and encouragers breed encouragers.  Problem solvers breed problems solvers.  Leaders breed leaders.

(I don’t need to belabor the point that negativity breeds negativity, and cynicism perpetuates itself in ways that can drag down an entire organization.)

These words of wisdom from Colin Powell resonate because they aren’t just phrases copied down in a management manual.  They are hard-earned and well-practiced lessons from one of the most accomplished public servants of the past 50 years, a man who overcame adversity with grace and passed on his insights with gratitude.  It’s worth noting that Admiral Stavridis was welcomed into General Powell’s home.  The great man made time, as he had so often before and would in the years to follow, to accommodate someone he could guide and mentor.  We, too, should make ourselves available to those we can help along the way.  That is part of our role and our journey, and not just for admirals but for people lacking in credentials and power.

If we do that – if we lead with humility, seek out conversations, broaden our perspectives, and are always actively listening – maybe people will remember us as significant statesmen as well.  Not, of course, on the world stage . . . but maybe on our local stage.  What we do here matters as well.

Here, as promised, are all 13 of Colin Powell’s “Rules for Success / Leadership”:

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position, that when your position falls, your ego falls with it.
  4. It can be done!
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.