The Essence of Leadership: Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell

Here is a great tool to share with your leadership team about the essence of leadership.

Former four-star general, Colin Powell, was asked: How would you define the key characteristics of leadership?

His answer was simple, without stalling: Trust.

Watch the video above or read the transcript below.


Essence of Leadership Transcript

Colin Powell: The longer I have been in public service, more people are asking about leadership over the years. Leadership? It ultimately comes down to creating conditions of trust within an organization. Good leaders are people who are trusted by followers. Leaders take organizations past the level that the science of management says as possible.

One of my sergeants back in the infantry school of Fort Benning almost 50 years ago, which is where I learned everything about leadership, said to me one day: “Lieutenant! You’ll know you’re a good leader when people will follow you… if only out of curiosity.”

I’ve never had a better definition. What he was saying, and I’ve seen it in my life since then, is they trust you. You have built up that trust.

How do you do it? A clear mission and statement. Selfless service. People look to you and they trust you. You’re serving selflessly as the leader — not self-serving selflessly — and that you prepare the followers. You train them. You give them what they need to get the job done. Don’t give them a job if you’re not going to give them the resources. And you’re prepared to take the risks with them.

So they would teach us at the infantry school: no matter how cold it is, lieutenant, you must never look cold. No matter how hungry you all are, lieutenant, you must never appear hungry. No matter how terrified you are, lieutenant, you must never look terrified. Because if you are scared, tried, hungry and cold….they will be scared, tired, hungry and cold.

I’ve gotten away with that many many times in the course of my career by being scared to death, cold and want to sleep. But no! Let’s go. Let’s keep going. Let’s go around this corner, if only out of curiosity.

They’ll follow you into the darkest night, down the deepest valley, and up the highest hill if they trust you. So, the essence of leadership is about doing all that the science of management says you can with resources, but taking that extra step and giving it that spark. That spark comes from getting people to trust you…

So that they will follow you, if only out of curiosity.


Remember, if you can change the language, you can change the conversations. If you change the conversations, you can ultimately change the outcomes.

What did you take away from this short talk?

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