It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership
Colin Powell (with Tony Koltz)
© 2012, 283 pages

I’ll admit, I haven’t read a whole book for fun in a while.

However, as I’m gearing up for officer training in March I am feeling increasingly motivated to become an “expert” in my field.  The number one way I’ve heard recommended time and again of how to do this is to read and read a lot.  Reading about topics related to leadership, followership, history, politics, etc. can only help me in becoming the best airman I can be.  Thus, I made a trip to the library this week.

I plan on reading a book a week at minimum, and I’ve started with a book from the biography section: It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell (with Tony Koltz).

If you’re wanting a book with linear arguments and charts explaining leadership principles and characteristics… then this is not the book for you.  However, if you want to feel like you’ve had a coffee meeting with “the most interesting man in the world” who also happens to be your tough old veteran grandpa, then this is exactly the book for you!

The casual, story-oriented format of the book is engaging and filled with down-to-earth insights for career and life.  Each chapter can stand on its own, so it’s easy to fit in a bit of reading on your break or in short chunks throughout the day.

I find the anecdotal style of the book refreshing.  Much of leadership training and military career advice is communicated through complex theories and models broken into bullet points and matrices.  While these sources are valuable, they can get overwhelming quickly.  What do these principles look like in real life?  How do I apply them as a warrior?  How can I work on being all of the things a leader needs to be?  Where do I start?

Out of the fog of my young lieutenant ambitions and questions, Powell comes to the rescue!

Instead of giving me more theories, he tells stories.  (And the stories stick better than the bullet points do.)  Through stories from his ridiculously interesting life, he gives me character traits a leader needs to develop: a good work ethic, respect for others, effective decision-making, and loyalty, among others.

Powell talks about the victorious moments of his life and what he learned from them, but he isn’t afraid to talk about the failures he experienced, too.  We readers get a bit of insight into the Iraq War and Powell’s now-infamous speech to the UN about weapons of mass destruction.  He accepts responsibility and shows the steps he took to move past the failures and correct the problems and oversights that caused them.

There is a wealth of military-specific information for the warrior in this book as well.  Insight into career moves, military leadership, promotions, and followership are all fleshed out with stories of inspiring tank commanders, division boxing competitions and salty old sergeants.  Sometimes he connects the dots for us readers, and at other times he lets the poignant words of others speak for themselves.  I will say, however, that while he talks about his military career, it’s definitely in a way that seems he’s writing more toward business execs and civilians.  It seems like a book he would sell at the back table of a speaking engagement.  “Military lite,” you might say.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when you position falls, your ego goes with it.”

“[The troops] will never let you down as long as you never let them down.  The troops will always get it done and take care of you. Make sure that every hour of the day you are taking care of them.”

“Our own [American] people are our best ambassadors and promoters.”

“Leaders who do not have the guts to immediately correct minor errors or shortcomings cannot be counted on to have the guts to deal with the big things.”

“Loyalty is disagreeing strongly, and loyalty is executing faithfully.”

“Above all, the leader must never be blinded by the perceived brilliance of his plan or personal investment in it. The leader must watch the execution from beginning to end and do what it tells him.”

“I have even brought my love of hot dogs to the highest levels of diplomacy… Hot dog diplomacy may not be earth-moving, but it allows two people to develop a human relationship that will help sustain an official relationship in good times and bad.”

If you’d like a quick and easy read to inspire you to greatness, It Worked for Me should be the next book on your list.  Its memorable stories and practical lessons will stick with you and equip you to be a better follower and leader in your own context.

Have you read this book?  If so, what did you think?  Are there any other books you think I should add to my reading list?