Project Management Institute

Lessons in leadership




Few individuals boast as distinguished a résumé as Colin Luther Powell.

Born in New York, New York, USA, in 1937 to Jamaican immigrant parents, Gen. Powell served 35 years in the U.S. Army, including stints in Vietnam, Panama and the Persian Gulf. He went on to become a four-star general and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before serving as the 65th U.S. Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.

Make no mistake. Gen. Powell knows a thing or two about project management. On the front lines of business, military and politics, he has led people and spearheaded an array of major initiatives, including Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. PM Network recently spoke with Gen. Powell about projects, teams and leadership—including the importance of listening to the troops.


The best leaders are those who face reality and avoid trying to spin the problem away. They confront issues, share their anxiety and uncertainty with the followers, and let them become part of the solution.

PM Network: You've led teams during times of great uncertainty and change. How do you influence morale and discipline for the project at hand?

Gen. Powell: First of all, you have to convey the significance of the project to the followers. Leaders set goals, objectives and missions. They give nice speeches and put out PowerPoint presentations, but it's the followers who either accomplish the mission or not. So, in times of crisis, challenge or great opportunity, I've always tried to make sure the followers understood the opportunities, risks and dangers, and why it was important to move forward.

Secondly, it is essential people have a plan to follow and know they will receive the resources required to get the job done. Too often, leaders talk a good game but they don't follow through with the resources or executable plan needed to achieve the goal. I've always tried to create a team environment where everyone trusts each other, we all understand what we're trying to accomplish and everybody knows that they have a role to play.

PM Network: How does a leader create a sense of understanding and trust among his or her team members?

Gen. Powell: You talk to them, you explain to them, you constantly interact with them, you have open lines of communication from top to bottom, as well as horizontally across an organization. You don't allow people to remain in the dark about what you're doing. You address anxieties, problems and challenges. It's all about building trust and developing strong communication within groups of human beings.

PM Network: How should a project manager deal with adversity and setbacks?

Gen. Powell: First, acknowledge there's a problem or some type of adversity. I've seen a lot of people who stare a problem right in the face and then turn away. To pretend there is no problem is a failure of leadership. One day, there are no problems coming your way, but you're not leading anymore because people either don't bring you their problems or they think you don't care.

The best leaders are those who face reality and avoid trying to spin the problem away. They confront issues, share their anxiety and uncertainty with the followers, and let them become part of the solution. Leadership is all about problem-solving. In the military, there is a lot of discussion about where a leader should be on the battlefield. Should the leader be up front where it's possible to become a quick casualty or should the person be at the rear? The correct answer is that you should be at the point of decision. You should be where you can make the most difference. The trick of leadership is being at the right place at the right time.

PM Network: How can project managers ensure projects remain on track?

Gen. Powell: There's a military expression: No great plan survives first contact with an enemy. That's because there's always somebody on the other side that's just as smart as you and is trying to outthink you. So, leaders must always be thinking about contingency plans and examining “what-if” scenarios. The other side of the coin is to have a part of the organization thinking about things that go well—how can we exploit success? This type of leadership model requires agility and balance. Finally, if you have a high level of trust within an organization, your people will watch out for you and take care of you. They will help you minimize the risk.


BORN: 5 April 1937

BIRTHPLACE: New York, New York, USA

EDUCATION: Attended City College of New York, where he earned a bachelor's degree in geology and participated in ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps). Earned a master of business administration from George Washington University.

CAREER: Served 35 years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of four-star general and later serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–1993). Served as national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State for George W. Bush (2001-2005). Since returning to the private sector, Gen. Powell has become a limited partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and serves on the board of directors for Revolution Health Group.

MILITARY AWARDS: Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters), the Army Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (with Oak Leaf Cluster), Soldier's Medal, Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart

CIVILIAN AWARDS: Two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President's Citizens Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal. Gen. Powell has received awards from more than two dozen countries.

BOOKS: My American Journey [Random House, 1995], an autobiography

PM Network: What can leaders do to stand their ground when making unpopular decisions—even if they know they're making the right decisions?

Gen. Powell: Obviously, everyone can't prevail. The way I've always gone about it is to let people have their say. I want them to argue with me for their position. I want people to jab at me when they think my position is wrong and point out why. At every organization, I've allowed—actually encouraged—the most junior people to argue with me. I want a lot of debate and dialogue because it draws out the best of them and it draws out the best of me.

But at some point you can't keep debating and arguing and looking at options, you've got to do something. That's when the leader says, “Fine, I've got all the information I need and I thank you for all your input. This is what we are going to do.” At that point, I expect people to behave as if they've thought of it themselves and to attack the problem or project with the passion I have. I won't tolerate anybody saying, “Well, that's what he decided, but it's a bad idea.”


When a problem came up and I wanted to get information, I talked to the junior officers—captains and majors—who knew what was really going on and could provide an authentic report.

Ultimately, you have to create an environment where people are freed from demonstrating their ego because it contaminates the decision-making process.

Finally, how many times have you seen a leader close down debate or discussion? They say, “I know what we're going to do.” Then everybody thinks, “Let's just sit around and wait for the leader to tell us what to do. We don't have to use our brains.” Well, that's not the maximum use of all the brains available. In high-performance organizations, you get the right people, you manage risk, do your contingency planning, tap into expertise. Above all else, you maintain open lines of communication.

PM Network: How can a project manager improve his or her leadership skills and take charge?

Gen. Powell: There's no magic solution. I have always tried to improve my skills by watching others and internalizing things—looking for the factors that lead to success. But I've also learned as much from the people that I didn't get along with and who I thought were not successful.

PM Network: In the past, you've talked about turning to lower-level team members for ideas. How does a project manager do this?

Gen. Powell: As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I had a personal staff of 1,600 people and I was responsible for 2 million people on active duty and another 1 million in the reserves. I had a beautiful office at the Pentagon and all kinds of stars and decorations on my jacket. But when a problem came up and I wanted to get information, I talked to the junior officers—captains and majors—who knew what was really going on and could provide an authentic report.

We would sit at a circular table and I'd wear a really plain sweater. I would force them to talk to me—even if they were scared to death. I wouldn't just listen. I would debate with them and force them to argue their points. Oftentimes, they would break into a cold sweat, but when it was all over I'd say to them: “Thanks very much, this is just what I needed. I'm not sure I'm going to do it your way, but your input is very important to me.” Word got out and people learned that the chairman would listen. I used the same techniques as Secretary of State, including briefings with President Bush.

PM Network: Are there any other ways that leaders can make themselves more accessible?

Gen. Powell: As chairman and then secretary, overseeing 20 to 30 people at a daily briefing, the purpose was never to find fault with anybody or chew someone out. The meeting served the purpose of starting the day together. These meetings never lasted more than 30 minutes and usually they lasted less than 15 minutes. There wasn't enough time for people to show how smart they were. The mindset was: Just speak up if you have some useful information we can all use. Over time, we built a bond based on communication and trust. People would tell me when they thought something was not going right or that I was making a mistake.

Also, very few of my principal assistants had to make an appointment to see me. All they had to do was come upstairs and see my secretary and she would send them right in. Below that level, people could get in by going through the direct reports—usually within 20 minutes. I also made it a point to allow staff to make decisions. I wanted people to feel comfortable enough to schedule a briefing with a congressperson. The thinking was: Just go up there and tell them what we're doing. Tell us about it afterwards. If there's a problem, we'll work it out. But I have to be able to trust you and not worry about every detail.


Gen. Colin L. Powell will speak about leadership, project management and social responsibility at the PMI Global Congress 2008—North America. The keynote presentation is sponsored by Microsoft.


WHEN: 18–21 October

WHERE: Denver, Colorado, USA

To register, head to

I don't want to create the impression that everybody was running around in a disorganized state. People knew who was in charge and who was next in charge. Transparency is extremely important, and it is something I have always strived for. The reality is that you can have a solid chain of command with no question about who is in charge and also have an open environment—a matrix organization—where people are talking to each other and still have absolute control over things.

PM Network: What are some of the challenges facing tomorrow's leaders?

Gen. Powell: Everybody is looking to see what new leadership techniques are going to be required for a different environment or a different world, but I don't view things that way. I've been in public service for more than 50 years. I believe the techniques and principles that work are timeless. It's all about collaborating with people, building trust and confidence, and making sure you take care of the followers. You also need to give them what they need to do their work well, solve problems, face reality, create opportunities and monitor risks. This is all fairly universal and it applies to any time or era. PM

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




Related Content

  • Why Great Ideas Fail and How to Make Sure They Don't

    By Vargas, Ricardo Viana | Conforto, Edivandro Carlos | Oumarou, Tahirou Assane To reduce failure rates and successfully deliver strategies in 2020 and beyond, organizations must overcome disruptive forces and flip posing challenges to opportunities and advantages. It all…

  • Project Management Journal

    Senior Project Leadership Skills and Career Stallers member content locked

    By Floris, Maurizio | Wiblen, Sharna L. | Anichenko, Ekaterina We know little about which leadership skills matter most and according to whom in the career progression of project leaders. This research suggests that high- performing senior project leader talent…

  • PM Network

    Vital Signs

    Transforming horizon-focused strategic visions into here-and-now reality can't happen in a vacuum. Instead, project leaders must cultivate a deep understanding of the business, technological,…

  • PM Network

    Erasing Boundaries

    By Khelifi, Yasmina As more projects have a global scope and scale, it's increasingly common for project professionals to manage stakeholders around the world, juggling time zones, technologies, languages and other…

  • PM Network

    Focus Group

    PM Network queried the community on best practices for managing meetings.