A Glimpse Behind the Scenes – Insights in Leadership from General Colin Powell

What’s it like for leaders operating on the world stage?  What techniques do they use to build influence and extend their leadership?  A book I just read gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of one well-respected leader, and if his actions are any indication, the answer to these questions might surprise you. 

Behind the Scenes - Insights in Leadership She What?

So, I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across an update from a friend from long ago.  Leslie and I were classmates in high school and college.  Now, suddenly I learned that she has written and published a book. 

We lost touch after school, but it turns out that she had worked very closely with General Colin Powell, former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later Secretary of State.  She began as his personal liaison on the professional speaking circuit.  Later she became Assistant Chief of Protocol and Special Assistant to the Secretary of State. 

Whether traveling with him on diplomatic missions, stage-managing his time during formal events, or working out the details of the next project in his home office that they called “The Bunker,” she knew him not just professionally, but also personally.  It was a relationship that lasted 25 years.  She was practically a member of his family.

In her book, My Time with General Colin Powell Leslie shares the Powell she knew with the rest of the world.  It’s a rare opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a powerful leader in action on the world stage. 

I ordered her book on the spot.  When it arrived, I devoured it in two sittings.

The book is filled with interesting and amusing stories that illustrate different facets of Powell’s life behind the scenes.  As a senior protocol official, Leslie often includes detail about how major events were carefully organized, which I found fascinating.  Such things are practically invisible when done well, but the behind-the-scenes mechanics of an event can have a lot to do with its ultimate success.

In reading this book, three habits of Powell’s jumped out at me in the early pages.  All three offer insights into his approach to leadership.  Beyond that, they are things that any of us can do, which I think makes them well worth sharing.  See if you agree.

Love Notes

In her early days of working for Powell, it was not unusual for Leslie to find love notes from him on the fax machine (yes, that long ago, and yes, he actually titled each one “LOVE NOTE”).   

She dreaded them. 

Leslie was an experienced young professional with great initiative and strong problem-solving skills.  Yet at first she saw these notes from Powell as essentially a laundry list of what she had done wrong the previous day.  The notes also delineated clear instructions about what to do, or not do, in the future.  Worst of all, he wrote them in ALL CAPS.

As hard as they were to take, the “love note” title helped her see those missives as they were intended – an effort to develop and refine her skills.  The detail and care with which he wrote demonstrated that he cared about how she was performing, and wanted to help her become even better. 

The higher our leadership journey takes us, the easier it becomes to allow the many external influences to distract us from some internal things that are equally important.   Yet Powell’s example shows that developing the people immediately around us is just as critical as getting the mission accomplished. 

Leslie eventually broke Powell of the ALL CAPS habit.  He wasn’t really shouting at her, but he really did care about her development.  It’s a message for leaders that maybe does deserve to remain capitalized in full:


Do the Homework

Make me smart” was a phrase Powell often used with Leslie before a speaking engagement.  On the speaking circuit, he would address a wide variety of audiences, but he never faced them un-prepared.  He did his homework, and Leslie helped.  She would get copies of annual reports, gather background information on board members, assemble data on industry trends, and more.

Other speakers rarely asked for such things, but Powell would devour all of it, and often do additional research himself.  As a result, he was able to tailor and personalize the message to his audience, frequently surprising and delighting them with his depth of understanding.  This, in turn, made his words all the more impactful.

Perhaps he was adapting the dictum of warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu that we all learned in officer school: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” [1]  His audience was not his enemy, but he knew that the more he understood them, the more able he would be to influence them.  

Doing the homework helps us understand the people we are working with and the circumstances they face.  It allows us see things from their perspective, which is key to forming stronger bonds with them, and have deeper, more meaningful interactions.

Say Thanks

Like clockwork, after a speaking engagement, Powell would immediately send a hand-written thank-you note to his host.  The host’s response was invariably one of surprise and appreciation.  Leslie lost count of how many of her contacts told her that they rarely received notes of thanks from other speakers.

I’m sure that many shook hands and said “thanks” to their hosts before they went on their way.  But it is the extra effort, as simple as it was, of taking a moment to apply pen to paper, and sending a hand-written note of gratitude through the mail that stood out as remarkable.

Those notes of thanks demonstrate that Powell believed that a big part of leadership was about relationship.  They served as a tangible sign of respect that marked the occasion, and placed added value not just on the event, but on the relationships that came from it.  Throughout the book, this sense of gratitude continues to crop up in his interactions with people in all stations of life.

In a world that can seem increasingly driven by self-interest, genuine expressions of respect and appreciation for someone else can go a very long way towards cultivating a positive working and leading environment.

Behind the Scenes – The Takeaway

Certainly, it takes more than these three habits to become a great leader.  And for most of us, our leadership journey will not lead to the world stage.  But whether or not it does, that is not the place to focus, anyway.  The ultimate judges of whether our leadership is “great” are the individuals inhabiting the world immediately around us.  Powell’s example shows us that that those are the people to focus on.

The peak behind the scenes that Leslie gives us reveals some of the ways world-class leaders build influence.  Surprisingly, small, simple acts can have a disproportionately high return on investment, and they are things that any aspiring leader can do. 

  • Develop teammates though relevant, helpful feedback. 
  • Do the homework to get to know who we are working with.
  • Say thank you in a sincere, tangible way.

Each of these is an action that demonstrates respect and consideration for those around us.  As we do these things, that esteem is often returned, and our influence grows.

Who knows.  If we do these simple, behind-the-scenes things long enough, perhaps one day a bright, talented teammate of ours will decide to write a book about it to share it with the rest of the world.

Lead On!

[1]  Sun Tzu.  The Art of War.  Samuel B. Griffith, ed. Oxford University Press.  Oxford. 1971.

For a deeper look into Powell’s approach to leadership, consider his book, It Worked for Me, or read about why I agree with his idea that having problems as a leader is actually a good thing.



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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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