Powell’s Rules of Leadership

“Leadership is not rank, privilege, titles or money. It’s responsibility.”
— Gen. Colin Powell

Life has changed for General Colin Powell, but he’s used to that. As a soldier, he weathered the Cold War, first as a young officer and later presiding over its historic conclusion as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He served America in Vietnam twice, surviving a helicopter crash and wounds inflicted by the enemy. And he founded America’s Promise, a network of charities designed to benefit the country’s youth. His new challenge as Secretary of State changed entirely on September 11, 2001; he is now trying to hold together a fragile coalition of feuding countries and attempting to quell age-old conflicts in the Middle East to avert a global conflagration. Clearly, this is a man who has been well served over a career filled with history-making events by a closely observed set of rules. And these are rules that apply just as well in the boardroom as on the battlefield.
In his autobiography, “My American Journey,” Powell summarized his observations on leadership succinctly at the end, but readers came away with vivid impressions on their application in the stories Powell weaves through the narrative. He dealt with leadership and management issues most of us will never know, but he also had decades of experience sweating the small stuff—which is what most of us do every day. Powell is an unassuming man, highly approachable and down to earth. Those fortunate to hear him speak at the National Home Equity Mortgage Association convention a few years ago learned that his favorite relaxation pastime is a holdover from the necessities of humble military paychecks: he enjoys tearing down car engines and rebuilding them, especially older Volvos. No privilege-bred politico he, but rather someone whose extraordinary life has been guided by rules that speak eloquently to practitioners in our business.
Here are Colin Powell’s rules, as outlined in his autobiography, and how you can apply them to your business:

  1.  It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
    Disasters happen on a regular basis in the mortgage business, since every deal is driven by the minutiae inherent in the lives of its customers. It doesn’t allow a lot of room for discouragement, and resilience pays off for those who hang in there. This rule is closely associated with rule 2.
  2.  Get mad, then get over it.
    Note that it does not say, “get even.” Problems are not always caused by people who mean you ill; just as often they are caused by oversights and dropped balls from vendors, service providers, clients, and yes, employees who are normally reliable. Dwelling on problems is nowhere near as effective as getting over them and spending energy working on constructive ways to avoid them in the future.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position fails, your ego goes with it.
    In short, don’t let pride get in the way of flexibility, and don’t assume you have all the answers. To do so is to set yourself up for disappointment and worse, to lose the confidence of the good people around you who want and need to lend their opinions and expertise to the enterprise.
  4. It can be done!
    Positive thinking must be the most written-about aspect of competitive business. There’s a reason for that: it’s one of the easiest things to talk about and one of the most difficult mindsets to maintain. See Rule #1. In addition to positive thinking, you want your organization to have a strong sense of “can do.” Resolve to overcome obstacles in order to reach a worthwhile goal is a corporate value most readily supplied by leadership.
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
    Before committing to a course of action, be open to the input of the people with whom you have surrounded yourself. As a leader, you must then choose and move forward. Just make sure you haven’t made a choice you’re not prepared to live with. If, for example, you decide to tackle a specific lending niche at the expense of an existing core business source like Realtors, is success in your best long-term interests?
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
    If something seems logical, feels logical and sounds logical, it probably is. The mere fact that someone else tried it and failed only means that there is experience from which to benefit—not that it cannot be done. Take advertising, for example. If you offer a compelling value proposition that differentiates you from your competitors, you may find a very receptive audience once you get the word out. Just because your “me-too” competitors failed to get the desired result doesn’t mean your investment will be wasted.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
    Once you’ve assessed the opinions of those whom you trust, be decisive and own the decision. Taking responsibility for decisions is highly liberating; blaming others for mis-steps is a cop-out. In his famous 1834 autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett,” the author put it simply: Be sure you’re right, then go ahead. Ten gazillion young baby boomers wearing coonskin caps learned this message from Fess Parker in the 1950s.
  8. Check small things.
    The devil is in the details, especially in the mortgage business. If you’ve ever had a closing held up because of a relatively insignificant piece of documentation that had nothing to do with the borrower’s creditworthiness or the merits of the deal, you know this. Details can also be lost to “transaction fatigue” on those deals that wear you out from all the attention they require. General Powell used to keep a rubber chicken handy when he ran a battalion, and at briefings would toss it at an officer who dozed after an all-night exercise. No one wanted the honor of being pelted with the rubber chicken, and it lightheartedly kept people on task despite fatigue.
  9. Share credit.
    The only people who don’t do this are either running for office, or are very insecure. They hog credit for successes, then look for others to blame when things go wrong—as taught in Large Organization Survival and Gamesmanship 101. Avoid these types of people, especially as employers. Leaders who share credit earn the respect of those they lead, and teach their successors to bring out the best in people.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
    This is a tough one when you deal with your customer’s most important financial transaction, especially when delays can change the dynamics of the deal and become costly. Remember that the measure of a leader is someone who can keep his or her head when all around them are losing theirs.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
    If you’ve done a good job in hiring, you have people in your organization who take a great deal of pride in their work. Generally speaking, good people like to have the best demanded of them. Company pride is part and parcel of this concept, and the best way to communicate the mission of the company (or department) is to create a “vision statement” that spells out how you, as a leader, want the organization to be perceived. If you have people who consistently do not respond either to the vision or to the service levels you’ve set, replace them.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
    We all know people who will find reasons not to do something, whose fear of failure freezes them into “analysis paralysis.” We know people in business who are either natural pessimists or who feel better about themselves when they see others fail. If you let them guide your business decisions, you’re sewing the seeds of mediocrity. See Rule #7, above.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
    Once again, the power of positive thinking will give you wings. By “force multiplier,” General Powell refers to the military concept of magnifying the advantage of a limited number of assets by using strategy, field position, and weaponry. Your “troops” are your production people, and your perpetual optimism leavened with sound tactics will give them the power of a vastly greater force. The highly competitive marketplace requires optimism that finds few obstacles insuperable.

The mortgage origination industry has shown itself to be populated with resilient, positive leaders. How else would its members have risen from obscurity to dominance in less than two decades? Mortgage brokers have maintained market share in the face of every sort of competition from institutional lenders who have access to huge amounts of capital, endless marketing budgets and brand recognition to rival the top retailers out there. How can independent originators manage to thrive in the face of such adversaries?
The answer lies in the core competency of the originator: serving the customer. As long as originators continue to offer high-touch service levels that elude the big banks, their place on the competitive battlefield will be preserved. General Powell might be amused at such a metaphor, but he would no doubt see the applications for his rules of leadership—rubber chickens optional.

By James Hennessy