Building Higher Trust 98 Colin Powell on Trust

November 11, 2022

Colin Powell gave a response to a student question that I find most helpful.  She asked him the following question. “How would you define the key characteristics of effective leadership that allow you to go and be an advocate for good?” Colin gave an immediate one-word response, “Trust.”

His experience in a nutshell

He went on to tell the short story of when he first learned this lesson from his superiors 50 years earlier. He was in the infantry school at Fort Benning. Here is a link to a brief video of Colin Powell’s view on the importance of trust.  

His main point is that good leaders are people whose followers trust them.  He quipped that if there is trust, people will follow you, “even if only out of curiosity.” It is worth doing a bit of analysis on this concept. 

Translating Colin’s message on trust to my own environment 

I always thought highly of Colin Powell as a model of excellent leadership. He had a long and industrious career helping our country in the military and as Secretary of State.  A key lesson was that once you have built trust, you can be a human being and make a mistake.

Mistakes can happen

Powell made a few mistakes in his career. His integrity was never doubted. People respected him. The most serious blunder was when he recommended the USA invade Iraq in 2003. His analysis was based on faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons of mass destruction. Those weapons were never found as the invasion unfolded.

A key lesson in leadership 

The lesson is, if you build real trust as a leader, you no longer have to be perfect. I learned the lesson when interviewing CEOs in preparation for my third book on trust.  Leaders who have not built trust must guard every action or sentence. People are waiting to pounce on any potential inconsistency.  Life for these leaders is miserable and highly stressful. 

Leaders who build trust can relax and be fallible human beings because people will cut them some slack. That’s why the title of one of my books is “Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind.”

Two very different ways to lead

The difference in quality of life for the leader who has built trust is palpable. I observed this difference when interviewing many leaders in preparation for the book. Leaders who had not built trust were bundles of nerves and totally stressed out. Leaders who knew the secrets of building trust were relaxed and far more productive.  They were actually having a ball because great leadership really is a blast. You just need to learn that the key is trust. Colin learned this lesson early and used it throughout his life.

Colin Powell paid attention as a lieutenant at Fort Benning. The skill he learned made him adored and world-famous. He died on October 18, 2021, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The cause of death was a compromised immune system: probably complicated by COVID.  At his funeral, three current and past presidents hailed him as an American Hero.


Please do not underestimate the power of trust in your organization.  Believe me, it changes everything. Not only are you a more effective leader, you also have a much richer and more enjoyable life.



Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations


The Leadership Management Scale

March 6, 2011

I often get into conversations in my Leadership courses about the difference between leaders and managers. This article suggests a visual scale that can help you understand your natural tendencies and how you like to operate.

Most of us have heard the old adage (first uttered by Peter Drucker, I believe) that “Managers do things right, and Leaders do the right things.” In leadership classes, I work with groups to develop a list of characteristics that typify managers and leaders. Generalizing the lists, I find that pure managers and pure leaders have completely different mindsets as follows:

The Pure Manager

The manager wants everything to go smoothly. He or she wants every process to run the way it should to get the maximum productivity. There must be no waste. The manager wants everyone to follow all the rules and be there every day motivated to do good work. In essence, the manager wants to stabilize things and clone everything to be exactly right. The manager is all about doing things right, and is most closely associated with the mission of the organization (what they are trying to accomplish today). The manager works with the process, the equipment, the schedule, and the people in terms of what they should be doing. Managers are now oriented.

The Pure Leader

The leader is often a destabilizing force. He or she is most interested in where the organization is going rather than optimizing today’s processes. That may mean making people unhappy for some time in order for the greater good. It often means balancing the needs of different constituencies with opposing needs. For example, satisfying social responsibility needs may mean a short term hit for shareholders, or working to optimize shareholder needs may require unpopular actions for the workforce.

If people are too complacent and do not see the dangers, the leader is there to create a burning platform. Leaders understand the need to sometimes be unpopular, or as Colin Powell likes to say, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.” The idea is to do the right things, which may mean some pretty difficult decisions. The leader is all about the vision of the organization (where they are trying to go). The leader works with the balance sheet, the strategic plan, the product line, and the people in terms of what they can become. Leaders are future oriented.

The Leader/Manager

This person is able to combine the best of both worlds and act in both roles. All of us act as leaders and managers at times, but each of us favors one mode or the other. A good balance between the two extremes is often the best place to be. In general, the world has far more competent managers than competent leaders, so if you have leadership tendencies, that is a good thing to have. Really great leaders do not mind being average managers. They recognize their limitation and surround themselves with outstanding managers to handle the details.

I think of the leadership – manager issue as a kind of sliding scale. On one extreme is pure leadership, and on the other extreme is pure management. We all operate somewhere on the sliding scale every day. Based on our personal style, we move from one point on the scale to another depending on current needs. Let’s be more specific with the metaphor. Suppose pure leadership is a 10, and pure management is a 1.

I may be writing an e-mail encouraging people to pay attention to our future vision in the actions we take today. While I am writing that note, my mind is operating at about 8 on the scale. I am having a bit of management thought because I am referring to current actions, but the thrust of my note is about following our vision, which is pure leadership.

I finish the note and look up to see a supervisor at my door with an issue. There is an employee with a significant attendance problem that is out of control. I discuss what the supervisor wants to do. He asks for my opinion, and I offer my advice. Here I am operating at about 1 or 2 on the scale because maintaining control and following the rules is pure management.

All day I do things that are partially leadership and partially management. I will share that my personal comfort zone is about 7-8 on the scale. That is where I would naturally spend most of my time if given the chance by circumstances. This metaphor has two important things that can help you:

1. Pay attention to where you are on the scale in any conversation or action. That will help you clarify your role.

2. Learn where your “Sweet spot” is on the scale. If you are a natural 2, then you need someone who is a 7-8 to balance you. If you are a natural 8, then get a 2 to help manage the place.

When coaching other leaders or managers, try to help them see where they are operating at the moment, because it can aid in the dialog. If someone is too near the edges of this scale for too long, that person may be operating with blinders on. Consider mental exercises to bring the person closer to the center of the scale for at least part of the time. Try to align the work you are doing most of the time to play to your strengths, and you will end up doing a better job.