Lead With That: What Colin Powell Can Teach Us About the Importance of Humility and Growth

image with microphone and lead with that podcast episode title, What Colin Powell Can Teach Us About the Importance of Humility and Growth

In this episode of Lead With That, Ren and Allison explore what we can learn from Colin Powell’s legacy and leadership philosophy as he moved from the highest reaches of military leadership to the highest echelons of civilian leadership. 

In October US General and Statesmen, Colin Powell died due to complications associated with COVID-19. Among his many accolades, he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–93) and Secretary of State (2001–05), the first African American to hold either position. And that kind of symbolism was only a glimpse at all he represented. 

He was the son of immigrant Jamaican parents. He began as a professional soldier with a career that made him a hero in Vietnam and becoming the first Black national security adviser during the end of the Reagan administration.

With so much accomplishment and with such proximity to the highest levels of leadership in the world – we’ll explore the characteristics that we associate with his leadership philosophy. Specifically we’ll talk about how Colin Powell’s humility and insistence on transforming experiences into growth opportunities contributed to much of his success and appeal as a leader. 

Listen now or read the full transcript below. 

Listen to the Podcast

In this episode, Ren and Allison explore what we can learn from Colin Powell’s legacy and leadership philosophy as he moved from the highest reaches of military leadership to the highest echelons of civilian leadership.

Interview Transcript:

INTRO:

Welcome back to CCL’s podcast Lead With That. We talk current events and pop culture, we look at where leadership is happening, and what’s happening with leadership.

Ren Washington:

On October 18th, US general and statesman, Colin Powell died due to complications associated with COVID 19. Among his many accolades, he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state. The first African American to hold either position.

And that symbolism was only a glimpse of all he represented. He was the son of immigrant Jamaican parents, he began as a professional soldier with a career that made him a hero in Vietnam and ended in him becoming the first black National Security Advisor during the end of the Reagan administration. I failed to mention he was also the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time he was appointed.

And with so much accomplishment and with such proximity to the highest levels of leadership in the world, obviously we had to dig in. And Colin Powell like all people led a complex life with much to consider. Today though, we want to look at Colin Powell’s leadership philosophy. We want to learn and explore the wisdom and insights we can gain from a man who moved from the highest reaches of military leadership, to the highest echelons of civilian leadership. I’m Ren Washington one of the partners here at the center and usual, I’m joined with my friend and host and another partner, Allison Barr. Allison, have you ever done ROTC or served in the military?

Allison Barr:

I have not. Have you?

Ren Washington:

No, but I’m the son of a military parent. My dad was in the army, so I feel tangentially, I got some experience.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. And if you could describe your experience as a child of a military family in two sentences, how would you describe it?

Ren Washington:

Yes. Command and control was something that happened.

Allison Barr:

Got it. I feel like I want you to elaborate more on that but.

Ren Washington:

I think it’s a podcast for another day.

Allison Barr:

Yes. Ren’s childhood.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. That’s a much longer podcast and we don’t have nearly the couch space for it. But I think it was really interesting what I learned as I was growing up with a father in the military. Some of the tension that we get to explore in the work that we do because we in the Colorado Springs office, particularly the air force is there, there’s an army post. We’ve worked with a lot of people on defense. And people from that community I think, look at leadership as pretty hierarchical. Pretty top down. Orders need to be followed and it has to be so. And I understand that in that context and that’s why I thought Colin Powell was such an interesting dig because he mentions the importance of command and control and talks about it too in his 13 rules. But also I think he was forced to experience the nuance of something else.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. And when I was digging in and listened to a couple podcasts and interviews of his and there was a podcast in which a cadet says something along the lines to him, what would you do if somebody you were leading, said, “Hey, I don’t want to go to war. This is not what I want to do. And I’m having an internal conflict.” And I think that the way he explained it was so fascinating and that there’s a time and a place to speak up to your leaders and be really, really honest. And that was part of his legacy was saying, this might not be popular opinion, but we should do this or we should not and feeling very strongly about it. And he phrased it more along the lines of being honest, always honest, rather than being the one who’s in command or control, it is more around the lines of being honest.

Ren Washington:

I love that word honesty. And when I was looking into his life and his history and really the leader that he was and maybe the leadership he represented, there were some words that stuck out to me like honesty. But what other words for you did you think rose to the top when you were reviewing Colin Powell’s life and looking at his leadership style?

Allison Barr:

Well, first I have to share a fun fact with you. Did you know that he crossed paths several times with Elvis Presley?

Ren Washington:

With Elvis, you say?

Allison Barr:

Yes.

Ren Washington:

I’m did not know that.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. It’s interesting what you can learn when you start to listen to random podcasts about people and what they focus on. So some of the other words were not related to Elvis of course, but dignity, honesty, certain level of humility and being humble. I appreciate his way and commitment of moving forward and viewing mistakes as a way to move forward. He talked a lot about being a straight C student growing up and that he was never promised anything and that worked for him. And it really made me think about having a growth mindset.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. Humility was one of those words for me that stuck out. And I think it’s interesting, the exploration of humility and having a growth mindset and being humble enough to look at opportunities of learning and growth as opportunities to get better. I think he said something about, whether you’re having a setbacks or not, the role of a leader is always display a winning attitude.

The role of a leader is always to display a winning attitude and that humility maybe in the space of, when things are going awry, I might have to recognize that that’s true but also my role is to represent some light in the darkness. And when I think growth mindset, that’s what I think. For a fixed mindset, someone looks at challenges as borders or failures as stop gates. And I think, the winning attitude looks at challenges as opportunities, as failures as learnings, as everything to be better.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. And there was a quote that I wanted to make sure that I included here that really stuck with me. And he asked, “What did you do? What did you try to do to make all of your accomplishments happen?” And he said, and I quote, I’m quoting here. “I was never promised promotion. I was never promised anything. When I entered the military, I was told they didn’t want to hear anything about my background. They didn’t want to hear anything, anything at all and what we care about is performance.” And then he said, “I came to the army to do my best every single day and to be a good soldier. And that’s what I did, was lived for each day to be the best that I could each day.” And while, look, that might be a little bit of a cliched statement, it’s certainly admirable. And I think really it’s his movement through mistakes and commitment to growth. That really stands out to me the most.

Ren Washington:

I couldn’t help but think about the word meritocracy when you’re reflecting on golden Powell’s statement there. And meritocracy is something that I think you and I are active on in our equity, diversity and inclusion space. And in a lot of the literature around equity, diversity and inclusion, you’ll hear this word of merit or meritocracy. And I’ve worked with people in the past who’ve said that we don’t have issues here because we’re a meritocracy. We hire people who deserve to, because of their hard work.

And when I hear from Colin Powell, I think about the natural equitable structures of a command and control environment. That resonates with me and seems it could work, but I do want to take a pause because I think, that’s a caution of someone who might come from that environment, integrating into a more nuanced space where leadership is more social and really looking at the idea of merit as something that needs to be explored where it’s not just who’s performing at the highest, but who’s actually given the opportunity to perform at the highest.

So I don’t know if we were ready to go down that rabbit hole, but I mean, what’s the experience from someone who believes and has grown up that merit is the path to success and then they’ve been shifted to a different environment, like a corporate environment, where merit is really a lot to do with opportunity and privilege to gain merit.

Allison Barr:

Right. I think it’s very nuanced and it, like everything, depends. I mean, you will hear stories of people who are promoted and put into positions of power, who are embedded into the family dynamic that owns the business, for example. That’s an extreme example, of course, but I think because human beings are biased, we all are every single one of us, I think it’s really hard to consider that we would have any organization who’s exclusively allowing people to move up the rank. So to speak only based on merit from an equitable perspective, it’s almost impossible because so long as we’re not equitable as a society, you cannot mirror that at a workplace because the same human being is showing up at the workplace. What do you think?

Ren Washington:

I love that big picture look. I think sometimes addressing merit in the system is maybe a futile effort because we got to just address the merit and big picture society. I think one thing that would help someone like Colin Powell in that conversation is humility. I was looking at Colin Powell’s 13 rules of leadership. So, it’s pretty easy pickings to dig into, but one of the things that’s most resonant, I think to embrace the humility in the context of the meritocracy conversation or anything else is, something he said in his third rule, “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”

And I think a major part of humility, a major part of effective leadership is to separate and detach yourself from your role or your authority. I think about the most influential leaders that I’ve ever met and it’s a conversation of, do you have influence because of power and authority and position or do you have influence because of the power you gain from your personal connection from people. And that seems to be one that’s really resonant where your power and position might only give you so much authority for so long, but maybe if you can check your ego at the door where you’re not so identified with, I’m the boss, you have to do what I say, maybe that’s a leadership lesson that we could all benefit from.

Allison Barr:

Yeah, absolutely. And, there’s cultural conversations we could have too and workplace culture certainly. And if Colin Powell was raised in a military family and then went on to be in the military, then there’s a certain culture that becomes embedded likely in his personality. And from his parenting, we’re talking about how people develop as humans too. And so, again, it depends on the workplace culture that you’re in and what your own background is.

We have clients all the time who sometimes will feel absolutely devastated when they get their 360 feedback results, for example. Talk about an ego crusher and I’m right there too. You read 37 things that your peers and your boss say you’re fantastic at and then they give you three tips for improvement. And people’s ego, they just become absolutely deflated. And so, I already said this but Colin Powell’s perspective on looking at failure as opportunity, what he says is, you have to look at what you missed, look at what you missed and others might have made mistakes at the same time with you and we can look at those later. And his perspective was, I need to correct myself first. Grow from that failure and then throw away the word failure and do different next time.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. I love that he says, “Get mad, then get over it.” And the idea of, okay, let me recognize, let me see where I fell short and move. Let’s get to action. And I think when I talk leadership and when I talk to leaders or people who are trying to make a difference for teams or the people that they work with, or frankly, when we’re trying to make a difference for the people at home. Not just how do we look at what we can control. So often we get wrapped around the axle or bound up about our own failures, our own mistakes, and we can get bogged down in that.

And, perseverance is one of those words that stuck out or sticks out for me with Colin Powell and that’s key to the perseverance. I think it’s key to our rumination work. Get present, don’t ruminate or stick in those things that aren’t working for you. He said, “Always focus on the front windshield and not the rear view mirror.” And for me, I’ve had really positive experiences with leaders who don’t get stuck in the past, but are always helping us to use the past to frame where we’re going next.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. Absolutely. I remember being in my early 20s and had my first “real job” out of college and the environment that I was in, we had a running joke that was, don’t hurt people, don’t burn the building down, don’t steal and everything else we can fix. Everything else is fixable. And you can’t linger over that failure. There’s a lot of cliches and corny quotes that we could throw out and I probably will during this podcast, but he did embody that. I mean, he made mistakes and he owned them publicly. Very, very publicly. How many leaders at the top do that though?

Ren Washington:

Well, that does bring to mind that the tension that persists around the role he had in the initial invasion of Iraq. And then reflecting on how hard it is maybe to own one’s culpability or role in something that could make a seismic impact on millions of people. And I think he had a really unique recognition of that. And I think too, that’s a highlight of the complexity of leaders and leadership. The idea that heavy weighs the crown. People in leadership positions often have access to information and more visibility on the complexities of the problem than some of the people that report to them, that exist in those structures.

And so when I think of owning one’s part in a failure or recognition of a wrong move, a part of the way that leaders can make that conversation easier, is to create more visibility and more transparency. And maybe I can hit the back pedal back into humility, where it’s that recognition that I may not have all the answers. And in fact, admission to such isn’t a failure but it’s a success.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. And you’re making me think of, gosh, I think it was Dick Cheney who joked that Colin Powell’s ratings were so high that he could afford to make some mistakes here and there. And if you translate to the workplace, you have an employee who makes mistakes over and over and over again, will they be given that same equal treatment on the 16th time they make the same mistake. It’s an interesting translation.

Colin Powell was pretty favorable amongst both parties and amongst a lot of people. And that has a lot to do with who he was, of course, as a human, but at the workplace, what does that look like? Between me and you, would we be treated differently if we made mistakes? I don’t know. How does that work?

Ren Washington:

Likely. There’s a multitude of reasons why we might be treated differently. One, you’re more awesome than I am, two you’re cooler than I am. But moreover, when I think about Colin Powell or Dick Cheney’s comment about, “Hey, he can afford to make some mistakes,” it talks about that ratio I think that we have in our relationships and feedback of positive to negative. And the grace that we give to people that we trust and know versus those that we don’t.

And so, what that means for me in normal leadership, if you’re leading a team out there or you’re part of a team, is what are you doing to create an environment where you have a bank account that you can draw on if you make a mistake? Or if you have to deliver tough feedback, or if you muck something up. Can that be juxtaposed against all the other good things you’re doing? I think that’s an interesting balance. And I know the truth that a lifetime of work can be destroyed in a moment. But, I think in sustained relationships and strong connections and with trust, transparency, with candor, if I make a mistake but I’ve demonstrated to you my presence, if I’ve contributed to that bank account, then when I make a withdrawal, it’s not so painful. And why do you think we might be treated differently or be given grace when others aren’t?

Allison Barr:

I mean, I think context is everything. If I’m consistently making the same mistake and it’s gross misconduct, that would be very different of course. But if I’m making the same mistake over and over and my boss has had several conversations with me about it, the conversation might look different. And it just depends. I mean, some people have disabilities that prevent them from learning. So it’s just so, so dependent on context and goes back to, human beings are complex. We don’t have an equitable world right now. And so everything is contextual and then there’s employment law and all these other things that play to that.

Ren Washington:

I know I keep going back to this. I was just in Maryland with a client and we were having this conversation about what it looks like to give people a fair shake. And someone used an example of when kids have dyslexia in school, they’re given extra test time. But if someone has a comparable weakness in the [inaudible 00:19:13] space, there’s really not as much runway or understanding. There’s no extra test time, you get the job done and move on.

And I think maybe that’s one of the characteristics that’s most akin to the command and control style. And command and control for those who are unfamiliar, I know we said it a couple times, it’s very top down. I’m on the top of the heap, I give orders, you follow structure. And they’re typically with a hierarchy where there’s not that many people on the top and it widens out in the pyramid where more and more people are down in the org the lower you go. And so, I think that’s an interesting command and control approach but maybe the shift from that starts to be a, that recognition that humility again of maybe not getting too much in one’s own way. And that’s, I think something that we can keep in mind as leaders all the time. Do we ever work so hard to prove ourselves right or validate our own selves that it gets in the way of success?

Allison Barr:

Oh yeah. I mean, I’m sure 100% we could. I think it’s great that we acknowledge inequities and we acknowledge that we’re not all on even playing field and at the same time, there is a mindset that powerful leaders, great leaders, successful leaders have and it goes back again to that growth mindset. And when you do make a mistake, I know you mentioned this already, there are people who will ruminate and the research will show you that you’re more likely to make a mistake if you ruminate over your mistakes. It’s such an unfair cycle.

And so I think the main difference between those two mindsets is really the belief that you either believe that ability and intelligence is permanent and fixed or you believe that it’s malleable and changeable. And of course, we’ve proved at the Center through our research that you can learn how to have a growth mindset.

Part of it does start at the individual level. When I look back through the timeline of Colin Powell’s life, it seems to me that was one of his greatest strengths, the ability to say, “wow, that was a very big mistake. Let me learn from it and move forward.” That’s a really strong skillset to have, to be able to move forward after making quite a public mistake that he made, perceived mistake I should say. Some people didn’t think it was a mistake.

Ren Washington:

His number one leadership lesson, “it ain’t as bad as you think, it will get better in the morning.” And maybe that’s the central part to perseverance and managing the rumination, that distance. Even a man, a fallible man, a human man, like all the other humans, made a mistake and maybe a seismic mistake and one that could potentially color the legacy of an amazing life lived. And even in that space, I often read these things and I think, all right, cool. I’d be curious to talk to them. How did they work? How did your lessons work? Was it as bad as he thought? Did it look better in the morning?

And I think that perseverance, that’s the sustainment posture you need when you’re trying to attain that growth mindset and when you’re trying to be in that space. And so, his humility coupled with his resilience perspective, his point of view on always pushing. Those things really stuck out for me and are something I think people can model if they try to capture a little bit of that lightning in a bottle.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. And you mentioned a few minutes ago, I’m going to paraphrase what you said, but essentially having a bank of trust and what tips might you give a manager or somebody who’s maybe brand new to a different organization? How do you build trust in the workplace with people when you’re new to a team so that when you do make a mistake, because people will, there’s a little bit more grace.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. We get to talk about trust in its multiple forms a lot at CCL and I immediately think about how you can cultivate trust through three dimensions and we’re lucky enough to work with the Reinas who had Dennis and Michelle, who’ve devoted their life and careers to looking at trust. And so we deploy their model of trust and communication, trust and capability, trust and character.

And so if you’re a new manager or you’re just a manager trying to be more intentional, what does it look for you to demonstrate trust in those three areas? Not only demonstrate that you can be trusted but demonstrate that you can trust others. And that’s a tactical approach and then the other one which I will say for the rest of my life, I firmly believe it. And folks get ready to hear some more of it, about SBI Feedback, around our feedback model and how you need to give a more positive feedback than negative feedback.

It’s just a way to keep things balanced, not to pat each other on the back for things we don’t need to be patted on the back for but really to help people recognize that they’re doing best in class behaviors, that it’s making an impact on me, it’s making a positive of impact on the team. And so when I have to give you tough feedback or when I make a mistake as a leader, you look at me and you’ve seen that I’ve been willing in working towards creating a bank of positivity. So I don’t know those two things, the three Cs of trust and five to one. What about you?

Allison Barr:

Well, I will echo your sentiments on the Reinas. They wrote a fantastic book called Trust and Betrayal at the workplace that I think I’ve read three or four times. It’s very, very good. And they talk about trust being reciprocal, which is something you already said, Ren, but it’s something that hit home for me. And that the more that an individual trusts themselves, the more likely they will be to trust other people. And I find that to be very, very fascinating. And also that when trust is broken, it will be broken frequently and there’s room to mend. There’s a process that they walk you through to mend trust when trust has been broken at the workplace.

And so there’s really no reason then for when people make mistakes at work again, so long as it’s not gross misconduct, to be able to mend those situations. And Ren you just offered another tool that I was going to talk about too, which is SBI. And it’s so crucial to be able to communicate in a really clear way, if you are a manager when you expect a different result from somebody that you manage. And oftentimes that doesn’t happen. We talk to people and our clients a lot who are nervous about delivering critical feedback, they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings and you’ll hurt people’s feelings more if you don’t give it. You will.

Ren Washington:

To add another leader who maybe one day we’ll get the profile, Brene Brown and clear is kind, unclear is unkind. And to go back to Colin Powell, rule number five, be careful what you choose. And so when we think about trust in betrayal in the workplace, sometimes our choices might have an impact on people and we’re not really aware of it. And we have to be conscientious and critical about the choices we make and how it’s going to impact others.

I’m with a group of people this week right now, and it was 360 week, Allison. So they got their 360 degree feedback. Okay, you’re chuckling because we know and so for those who don’t know, 360 is a where you get to do an assessment on yourself and answer a series of questions about yourself and highlight and think about what your strong areas are, are in your areas of development and then everyone around you gets to answer those too. Your peers, your direct reports, if you have them, your boss, your boss’s boss. And it can be really interesting for people to look in that moment to see the choices they’ve made and the impact it has on them.

And sometimes people leave saying, wow, I’ve got this lifted intentionality, this lifted awareness. And I can tell people honestly that sometimes, that’s enough to get the ball rolling. And that’s where the snowball starts on the top of the hill before it turns into that, be big, big, big snowball that’s rolling down. I mean, that’s where momentum starts. It’s being aware and careful of what you choose and then acting on that choice. And I can’t help, but segue to rule number eight, check the small things. Colin Powell is a stickler for details, but the details, that’s what they say, the devils and the details, but sometimes it’s the small things that make a big difference, especially when it relates to trust.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. I mean, he has 13 rules. His 13 rules of leadership. I mean, I’m sure we could talk for hours about all of them. And I think what you’re highlighting for me now is how important communication is. And again, back to that honest communication, that Colin Powell mentioned and you mentioned Brene brown, clarity is kind, being honest is kind, how crucial that is for success at the workplace.

I was talking to a client just yesterday and we have a pretty jovial relationship and she was nervous about going for a new director role in her workplace. And she’s just nervous, it’s a new step for her. And I said, “Would do you like people?” And she laughed and yeah, of course why. And I said, “Then you’ve got the biggest step out of the way.” If you manage and lead people, you need to like people. And if you like people, then you’re more likely to be in relationship with them enough to develop them, which is the most important part of being a good leader is developing your team.

And that involves sometimes giving critical feedback. However, what do we say the ratio is 5:1. And that’s not to say to be super literal about that but it is incredibly important to let people know specifically what they’re doing well. So it’s a really nice thing to say, Ren, I enjoy working with you. That’s nice. It’s a nice thing to say.

Ren Washington:

It is. Thank you

Allison Barr:

But do you know-

Ren Washington:

That was nice.

Allison Barr:

… But it’s very helpful and kind to be specific. When I appreciate so much that you ask how I’m doing. I really do appreciate that. So now, you know.

Ren Washington:

Now I know.

Allison Barr:

And again, that’s a very loose example but it’s very, very important rather than say your presentation was great. Hey, when you laid out the bullet points in sequential order, that was really easy for me to understand. Then people will know what to repeat.

Ren Washington:

I don’t think that it’s small. I’m going to give you all a glimpse into my life. My wife and I did a pre-marriage counseling session with this guy named Dr. Coleman in Brooklyn, New York. So there you go, Dr. Coleman I expect my check in the mail. But it was a really interesting session and something we learned in there and this credit goes to him, was he highlighted the ratio of positive to negative but what he mentioned too, was this idea of a negative emotional override. When there’s an imbalance or let’s say you’re an employee and your manager only gives you negative feedback, then you’re eventually going to be in this negative emotional override.

And when that happens, basic neutral things become shocks, become offensive, become hard to swallow. So if I was your manager Allison, and you were a negative override, and then I gave a project to Eric on our team as opposed to you and let’s say it was specific to social media and exactly his job title, it would be understandable and easy for you to look at me and go see Ren, doesn’t like me. He never gives me the opportunity, even though the opportunity’s not in your space.

And so when I think about that in the connection, I think really it’s about developing your people to take your job. And so I think about rule 10 for Colin Powell, remain calm be kind. I’m going to hire someone to take my job, geez give me a little heart flutter, why don’t I chill out, especially when I’m under duress, especially when I think things are going badly. And what does it look like for me to be calm and be kind?

And then can I use that to make sure I facilitate a relationship with people where they’re not in negative override. Because the other side of the coin is true. If I am in positive emotional override, that means sometimes a neutral thing we’ll be positively received from my team. So the same situation for Allison, I give the job to Eric, you’ll say good call and you’ll help Eric get the job done and you’ll say, “Hey, what can I do to help the project?” And all of a sudden that’s just shifted because you’ve been told regularly what you’ve been doing that’s best in class, that’s making a difference.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. And you make me think of the negativity bias. Human beings have a negatively bias. And there’s a whole lot of research on that and its because human beings are primed to keep themselves out of danger. And so if we bring that more into a leadership or work conversation, we are biologically wired to focus on negative things. How many times, if you’ve had, this is to everybody listening and you too Ren, if you’ve gotten food poisoning from a restaurant, do you tell people?

Ren Washington:

Well, I never have, but I can imagine I would.

Allison Barr:

Oh, what?

Ren Washington:

I mean, I’ve gotten food poisoning. I’ve never gotten it from a restaurant. But I probably would tell people, I’d be like, Allison don’t go to this place because then it was me and the porcelain goddess for the next 12 hours.

Allison Barr:

Right. Okay. So maybe not the greatest example, but we’re more likely to take in and focus on negative stimuli. And it’s human nature, but it’s a pattern that we can’t interrupt. You just said, we can interrupt that. And I will say because we’ve talked about rumination a little bit in this podcast, If you are someone who ruminates, you are human and you are very normal. One thing that you can do is write it down. Research says, physically the act of writing, not typing, but physically the act of writing will help to lower your cortisol level so there’s one pro tip for all of our ruminators out there.

Ren Washington:

And another one, rule 12, don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers. I share this quite a lot of time and it reminds me of Mark Twain, “most of the worst things in my life, never happened to me,” When we ruminate, we ruminate about our fears or about the naysayers. We give [inaudible 00:33:40] the people who doubt us in our own fears. If the pressure’s on and the pressure is real and the stakes are high, it’s easy to tell yourself a story about all the things that are or wrong or all the people who told you, you couldn’t do it.

And don’t give counsel to those fears. Don’t listen to those fears or naysayers. They don’t matter. 

Allison Barr:

Yeah. That’s a good one. And I think even more so what you just said proves that negativity bias even further. Someone said to me recently, why are negative people so much louder? Why are my critics so much louder? They just stick with me. And that can be true for a lot of people. You hear 35 things that you do really, really well. And then one person says something very critical of you, and for most people, they’ll harp on that one thing. And again, that’s very normal, but I like that rule. That last one. What number was that? Ren, 13?

Ren Washington:

12.

Allison Barr:

12, but 13-

Ren Washington:

Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. Now this is an interesting idea. I think people are apprehensive or have an aversion to optimism. This idea that thinking optimistically is somehow a disadvantage. Now I could say, unbridled optimism might not serve you if the house is on fire. You’re looking around like the house is on fire well, the good news is we’re warm everybody. But I think that is the slippery slope fallacy. People go, well, we can’t be optimistic because then the risk is when things are really bad, we’re not going to see it. And I don’t think that’s what Powell is suggesting. I mean, if we go back to one of the first things that I said, it’s whether we’re having setbacks or not, a leader should always be displaying a winning attitude.

And that’s what optimism means to me as a leader, and maybe a lesson that I took from Colin Powell. When plans to change, it’s easy to get frustrated. In the military they have this saying, that no battle plan survives the first shot. Or Mike Tyson the famous boxer one said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” And it’s saying we can plan all we want but sometimes the plans go awry. What you’ll see some leaders do, it’s going to grab their hair or put their head in their hands or start running around frantic, what are we going to do? And instead, maybe the perpetual optimism is, Hey team, are we prepared? Do we know how to take care of this? And are we fit enough mentally, emotionally to address this thing.

Highlighting those and saying, yes, we can do this. That’s the optimism that I think people start looking at each other and saying, yes, we can be more than the sum of our parts. Have you seen optimism be a hindrance or a help to people? What’s been your experience of leaders in that word optimism.

Allison Barr:

Well, I think optimism’s misunderstood. I think you highlighted that nicely. Optimism does not mean bypassing. If my house is on fire, I’m not going to say to you, everything’s great and fantastic. It doesn’t mean that I bypass reality. It’s almost like a belief. It’s a belief system that just because it didn’t work right now, it doesn’t mean that we can’t try something else. So we’ll get it. We’ll get it. That is optimism. It’s being willing to move forward when things don’t go as planned. Things never go as planned.

And I’m not saying not to have a plan because it’s great to be strategic and have plans. But just know that your plan probably won’t go according to plan and that’s okay. You will have hiccups. You will have bumps along the road and that’s what it’s about. So, you’re probably going to feel much better if you approach it that way versus the opposite. 

Ren Washington:

Circles back to what you said about growth mindset.

Allison Barr:

Yeah, exactly.

Ren Washington:

Growth mindset’s going to see that and say, oh no, this is more info, more ammo, pun intended to put in my holster to use. 

Allison Barr:

Yeah. And I do think there are people who struggle, that people might have anxiety and really struggle with an anxiety disorder that can make them live in a space of worry. And that’s a very real thing. If that is you just one thing that you can tell yourself is, that’s not what it’s time for now. There’s going to be time to worry. You’ll have time for that. We will all have time to worry about stuff. But generally speaking at the workplace when mistakes are made, right now is probably not time to worry. So let’s move forward. You can worry about it later.

Ren Washington:

Get mad, get over.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. Exactly. Do what you need to do move forward.

Ren Washington:

Allison, through all the ground that we’ve covered, what’s really sticking out for me is number nine. It’s something I’ve said here before in this idea of shared credit. And I’ve highlighted Truman’s quote and we’ve seen it, amazing what we can get done when no one cares who gets the credit. Powell’s even quoted as saying that but I think he was miscredited because I think Truman might have the log on that, but I just love that idea as a leader. When your team wins, you win. When your team wins, you don’t have to be the one saying we did it because of me. What’s your big aha or takeaway from Colin Powell?

Allison Barr:

What you just shared, again, highlights to me the importance of honesty, because that is honest. Giving credit where credit is due. That’s honesty. So that’s one of them. And I think highlighting some of the things that we know from Colin Powell’s legacy is really to see failure as an opportunity. Get friendly with challenges. Learn from your mistakes and apply those mistakes later. Just don’t label it a failure. It’s an opportunity. And growth instead. What about you?

Ren Washington:

Wonderful. It probably boils down to lesson number four, rule number four. It can be done. And I’ve always thought about the idea of, I think the movie’s called The Edge with Anthony Hopkins. You ever seen?

Allison Barr:

No.

Ren Washington:

Anyway, there’s this rousing scene where he’s talking to another character and he’s saying, “What one man can do another can do.” And they’re shouting this as they fight this big bear or before they fight this bear. It’s great movie. But not to derail us. But I think about the idea it can be done. When leaders look at all of this stuff and think about man, as a leader, I have to do so much. Or what if I don’t get it right? Or God, what if I do listen to the negative voices or the naysayers? And I just think, it can be done. It’s not about trying to climb the whole mountain in a day. It’s not about running the whole marathon right now. What does it look like to take that first step. And so maybe lead with that.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. Lead with that. Well, thanks for the conversation Ren. This was, for me, more of an inspirational feel. So I appreciate it. And a special thanks to Ryan. And of course for the whole team behind the scenes that make our podcast possible. You can find our show notes for today’s episode, as well as links to all of our podcasts on ccl.org. Find us on LinkedIn too if you feel up for that and we look forward for next time. We’ll see you soon.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. And catch Allison on TikTok. All right. We’ll see you next time everybody.

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