March 6, 2014

Colin Powell shares the stories and lessons that have shaped his perspectives on leadership in his book, “It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership.” In the book, he outlines his “Thirteen Rules” and shares the sage insights that helped him make crucial decisions and, well, lead an army. Not surprisingly, candor has a big seat at Powell’s table.

Specifically, Powell addresses two key points relevant to candor. He asks his teams to tell him early and tell him everything. Regarding a sense of urgency, Powell employed a standing rule for his staff:

“Let me know about a problem as soon as you know about it.” Knowing I had a problem was important, but it was more important to start the process of finding a solution… we can all gang up on the problem from our different perspectives and not lose time.

Promptness makes sense: early communication should be inherent to our practice of candor. How can it be deemed honest and respectful if it is deliberately delayed or ignored? Powell goes on to advise:

“Leaders should train their staffs that whenever the question reaches the surface of their mind – “Umm, you think we should call someone? – the answer is almost always “Yes, and five minutes ago.” And that’s a pretty good rule for life.

Powell also acknowledges that it’s important to know the quality of the information you are getting. To ensure he was getting the whole perspective, and to manage accountability for decisions, he established four rules for disclosure:

– Tell me what you know (accurate facts – good news and bad news – are important)
– Tell me what you don’t know (have courage)
– Then tell me what you think (hunches and instincts are valuable)
– Always distinguish which from which

Quite the opposite of the famed “You can’t handle the truth!” (delivered by Jack Nicholson in his role as Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessup in the movie A Few Good Men), Powell has set a standard for candor that is modeled throughout the intelligence world. And his message translates easily to all organizations and leaders. He sums it up by saying:

If you want to work for me, don’t surprise me. And when you tell me, tell me everything.

Wise words from someone with tremendous leadership experience.