As you might expect from a retired Four-Star General, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a former Secretary of State, Colin Powell has packed this book with insight and almost indispensable wisdom regarding leadership and effective public service. I have always admired the man based on what I read about him, saw in his public persona, and heard from folks who worked at the State Department during his tenure. Therefore I had high expectations for this book. For the most part, I was not disappointed.
The book is largely a compendium of anecdotes, save for his 13 Rules with which he kicks off the book. I will not divulge them here but suffice it to say some are obvious while others are the types of insights gleaned from handling some of the heaviest of leadership burdens.
A truly goo leader is honest and I wanted a sense of his honesty from the get go, which is why I started with the chapter devoted to his speech at the UN supporting the United States’ plan to invade Iraq. By now it is well known that this was the single biggest foreign policy blunder in modern times and the pretenses upon which the arguments for invasion were made were false. Powell wastes not even one word to refute this and calls this moment “a blot” on his record. Powell spells out, in no uncertain terms, the faultiness of the intelligence being used to support invasion, and how people were deliberately forcing a wrong decision and a bad agenda. It takes guts to own an error that egregious, but knowing he is willing to do it gave the remainder of the book – and its author credibility.
Powell’s stories are easily accessible, sometimes quite humorous, and always told with a sentimental point of view. The man has seen and done a lot. Sometimes the stories involve details and side commentary you can do without, but in my opinion he has earned the right to adorning his stories (which is not the same as embellishment, which he stays away from). For a person whose most famous work dealt with the biggest of pictures, he has a penchant for connecting almost everything with a personal story or angle. You learn very early he cares for the work almost as much as the people he works with.
The book includes material I plan to revisit time and again. Aside from the 13 rules mentioned earlier, Powell devotes an entire chapter to meetings: what they mean to him, how to conduct them, and what to expect from them given they are a use of everyone’s time. This is the type of practical and substantive material any leader and/or manager should expect from the book.
Unfortunately the book includes material offering nothing at all. For example, Powel spends one chapter talking about his preferences when he's on travel, everything from the type of alarm clock down to the types of pillows he request for the room. I too have traveled a lot for work but have no urge to tell you about why I reserve a king-size bed and sleep smack-dab in the middle of it.
Overall, I recommend the book. It is full of wisdom and life lessons from an elder statesman; somebody who has intentionally try to be a good leader, realized when he screwed up, and endeavored to fix it and become better. Given my interest in leadership, I may have spent a bit too much time poring over every sentence. I could have skimmed over it more and dove deeper where necessary. If you read it, I suggest you take that tack.