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Quotations from Chairman Powell – A Leadership Primer



I have always been a student of different leaders and am always amazed how no matter the leader the core traits are always the same.

Because outages are a lessons in leadership we will be adding our own writings, other articles and famous leaders quotes to our blog.

The following was originally published in 1996 by Oren Harari, a former professor at the University of San Francisco, consultant and speaker.

I hope you enjoy this as much as we did.

Please Enjoy This Presentation For Download As Well

Quotations from Chairman Powell

A Leadership Primer

By Oren Harari

I have little interest in celebrities. If I were the rule rather than the exception, Hard Copy and People would go out of business fast. So, earlier this year, when General Colin Powell made the transformation from a human being to phenomenon, and when his nation-wide book-signing tour became a happening to frenzied masses—well, I paid little attention. I didn’t buy the book, either.


Then I found myself on the same speaking platform as Powell. Charitably speaking, I was the opening act in front of 1,000 bankers who were there to see the main show. I stuck around to see it, too, and frankly, I was impressed. Powell was witty, erudite, insightful, articulate and self-deprecating. All commendable virtues. So I decided to buy the book. Am I glad I did! My American Journey is a marvelous work, and it provided an unexpected payoff. As I read it, I started to underline noteworthy phrases and sentences and soon realized that what I was underlining were gems of wisdom regarding effective leadership. In fact, when I was finished, I was ready to toss out every leadership book in my library.


I’d like to share with you a compendium of advice from the general. With the exception of the occasional paraphrase to keep grammatical consistency (which will be noted), I present Powell’s words verbatim in bold—18 priceless lessons, to be exact. After each quotation from General Powell, I attach my own civilian commentary which I hope you will find useful.



“Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It’s inevitable if you’re honourable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.



“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”


If this were a litmus test, the majority of CEOs would fail. One, they build so many barriers to upward communication that the very idea of someone lower in the hierarchy looking up to the leader for help is ludicrous. Two, the corporate culture they foster often defines asking for help as weakness or failure, so people cover up their gaps, and the organization suffers accordingly. Real leaders make themselves accessible and available. They show concern for the efforts and challenges faced by underlings—even as they demand high standards. Accordingly, they are more likely to create an environment where problem analysis replaces blame.



“Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites. Experts often possess more data than judgment. Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.”


Small companies and start-ups don’t have the time for analytically detached experts. They don’t have the money to subsidize lofty elite, either. The president answers the phone and drives the truck when necessary; everyone on the payroll visibly produces and contributes to bottom-line results or they’re history. But as companies get bigger, they often forget who “brung them to the dance”: things like all-hands involvement, egalitarianism, informality, market intimacy, daring, risk, speed, agility. Policies that emanate from ivory towers often have an adverse impact on the people out in the field who are fighting the wars or bringing in the revenues. Real leaders are vigilant—and combative—in the face of these trends.



“Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.”

Learn from the pros, observe them, seek them out as mentors and partners. But remember that even the pros may have leveled out in terms of their learning and skills. Sometimes even the pros can become complacent and lazy. Leadership does not emerge from blind obedience to anyone. Xerox’s Barry Rand was right on target when he warned his people that if you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant. Good leadership encourages everyone’s evolution.



“Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

Strategy equals execution. All the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day. (Think about supreme athletic coaches like Jimmy Johnson, Pat Riley and Tony La Russa). Bad ones—even those who fancy themselves as progressive “visionaries”—think they’re somehow “above” operational details. Paradoxically, good leaders understand something else: An obsessive routine in carrying out the details begets conformity and complacency, which in turn dulls everyone’s mind. That is why even as they pay attention to details, they continually encourage people to challenge the process. They implicitly understand the sentiment of CEO-leaders like Quad/Graphic’s Harry Quadracchi, Oticon’s Lars Kolind and the late Bill McGowan of MCI, who all independently asserted that the job of a leader is not to be the chief organizer, but the chief dis-organizer.



“You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”

You know the expression “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission?” Well, it’s true. Good leaders don’t wait for official blessing to try things out. They’re prudent, not reckless. But they also realize a fact of life in most organizations: If you ask enough people for permission, you’ll inevitably come up against someone who believes his job is to say “no.” So the moral is, don’t ask. I’m serious. In my own research with colleague Linda Mukai, we found that less effective middle managers endorsed the sentiment, “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘yes,’ I can’t do it,” whereas the good ones believed “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘no,’ I can.” There’s a world of difference between these two points of view.



“Keep looking below surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find.”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the scared. It’s an excuse for inaction, a call to non-arms. It’s a mindset that assumes (or hopes) that today’s realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy, linear and predictable fashion. Pure fantasy. In this sort of culture, you won’t find people who proactively take steps to solve problems as they emerge. Here’s a little tip: Don’t invest in these companies.



“Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavours succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.”

In a brain-based economy, your best assets are people. We’ve heard this expression so often that it’s become trite. But how many leaders really “walk the talk” with this stuff? Too often, people are assumed to be empty chess pieces to be moved around by grand viziers, which may explain why so many top managers immerse their calendar time in deal-making, restructuring and the latest management fad. How many immerse themselves in the goal of creating an environment where the best, the brightest, the most creative are attracted, retained and-most importantly-unleashed?



“Organization charts and hence titles count for next to nothing.”

Organization charts are frozen, anachronistic photos in a workplace that ought to be as dynamic as the external environment around you. If people really followed organization charts, companies would collapse. In well-run organizations, titles are also pretty meaningless. At best, they advertise some authority—an official status conferring the ability to give orders and induce obedience. But titles mean little in terms of real power, which is the capacity to influence and inspire. Have you ever noticed that people will personally commit to certain individuals who on paper (or on the org chart) possess little authority—but instead possess pizzazz, drive, expertise and genuine caring for team-mates and products? On the flip side, non-leaders in management may be formally anointed with all the perks and frills associated with high positions, but they have little influence on others, apart from their ability to extract minimal compliance to minimal standards.



“Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”

Too often, change is stifled by people who cling to familiar turfs and job descriptions. One reason that even large organizations wither is that managers won’t challenge old, comfortable ways of doing things. But real leaders understand that, nowadays, every one of our jobs is becoming obsolete. The proper response is to obsolete our activities before someone else does. Effective leaders create a climate where people’s worth is determined by their willingness to learn new skills and grab new responsibilities, thus perpetually reinventing their jobs. The most important question in performance evaluation becomes not, “How well did you perform your job since the last time we met?” but, “How much did you change it?”



“Fit no stereotypes. Don’t chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission.”

Flitting from fad to fad creates team confusion, reduces the leader’s credibility and drains organizational coffers. Blindly following a particular fad generates rigidity in thought and action. Sometimes speed to market is more important than total quality. Sometimes an unapologetic directive is more appropriate than participatory discussion. To quote Powell, some situations require the leader to hover closely; others require long, loose leashes. Leaders honour their core values, but they are flexible in how they execute them. They understand that management techniques are not magic mantras but simply tools to be reached for at the right times.



“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

The ripple effect of a leader’s enthusiasm and optimism is awesome. So is the impact of cynicism and pessimism. Leaders who whine and blame engender those same behaviours among their colleagues. I am not talking about stoically accepting organizational stupidity and performance incompetence with a “what, me worry?” smile. I am talking about a guns ho attitude that says “we can change things here, we can achieve awesome goals, we can be the best.” Spare me the grim litany of the “realist”; give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.



“Powell’s Rules for Picking People”—Look for intelligence and judgment and, most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego and the drive to get things done.”

How often do our recruitment and hiring processes tap into these attributes? More often than not, we ignore them in favour of length of resume, degrees and prior titles. A string of job descriptions a recruit held yesterday seem to be more important than who one is today, what she can contribute tomorrow or how well his values mesh with those of the organization You can train a bright, willing novice in the fundamentals of your business fairly readily, but it’s a lot harder to train someone to have integrity, judgment, energy, balance and the drive to get things done. Good leaders stack the deck in their favour right in the recruitment phase.



(Borrowed by Powell from Michael Korda): “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.”

Effective leaders understand the KISS principle, or Keep It Simple, Stupid. They articulate vivid, overarching goals and values, which they use to drive daily behaviours and choices among competing alternatives. Their visions and priorities are lean and compelling, not cluttered and buzzword-laden. Their decisions are crisp and clear, not tentative and ambiguous. They convey an unwavering firmness and consistency in their actions, aligned with the picture of the future they paint. The result? Clarity of purpose, credibility of leadership, and integrity in organization



Part I: “Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.” Part II: “Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.”

Powell’s advice is don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you less than a 40 percent chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100 percent sure, because by then it is almost always too late. His instinct is right: Today, excessive delays in the name of information-gathering needs analysis paralysis. Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.



“The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.”

Too often, the reverse defines corporate culture. This is one of the main reasons why leaders like Ken Iverson of Nucor Steel, Percy Barnevik of Asea Brown Boveri, and Richard Branson of Virgin have kept their corporate staffs to a bare-bones minimum. (And I do mean minimum—how about fewer than 100 central corporate staffers for global $30 billion-plus ABB? Or around 25 and 3 for multi-billion Nucor and Virgin, respectively?) Shift the power and the financial accountability to the folks who are bringing in the beans, not the ones who are counting or analyzing them.



“Have fun in your command. Don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earned it. Spend time with your families.”

Corollary: “Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.”

Herb Kelleher of Southwest Air and Anita Roddick of The Body Shop would agree: Seek people who have some balance in their lives, who are fun to hang out with, who like to laugh (at themselves, too) and who have some non-job priorities which they approach with the same passion that they do their work. Spare me the grim workaholic or the pompous pretentious “professional;” I’ll help them find jobs with my competitor.



“Command is lonely.”

Harry Truman was right. Whether you’re a CEO or the temporary head of a project team, the buck stops here. You can encourage participative management and bottom-up employee involvement, but ultimately, the essence of leadership is the willingness to make the tough, unambiguous choices that will have an impact on the fate of the organization I’ve seen too many non-leaders flinch from this responsibility. Even as you create an informal, open, collaborative corporate culture, prepare to be lonely.


Well, there it is—a primer worthy of perusal by any aspiring leader and one a lot more useful than the infamous Quotations from Chairman Mao. I hope these lessons provide you the same road to success that they provided General Powell. Good luck!

Outage Success Standards

Here are our Outage Success Standards. I invite any and all to comment, critique or confirm this list.

OSS-R3 (3)

“The secret to achievement is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then waste no time starting on the first one.”
Mark Twain

Mark Twain

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
Vince Lombardi

Vince Lobardi

“If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.” George S. Patton

George Patton

“It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed” Napoleon Hill


Unicorns, Pixies and Fairies



Leprechauns, wood nymphs, elves’… shall I go on ?

What am I talking about?  Well friend I’m glad you asked!

These are all mythical creatures of mystery and whimsy just like an unplanned outage that goes well.

Let me be completely clear, if you do not have everything planned out for your outage and then add in the fact that everything goes wrong, nothing is easy and people suck, you my friend are not going to have a great outage.

Thems the facts, it’s that simple, no ifs, ands, or buts

Back in the dark ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was just a little Mug (Freshman) in NY Maritime one of the first things we had to do was memorize this:

The “Riesenberg Saying”
“The sea is selective, slow at recognition of effort and aptitude but fast in the sinking of the unfit.”

If you substitute outage for sea you will see what I’m talking about.

Our business, Outages, are not for the faint of heart. We swear, yell and curse each other out and that’s when we are getting along.

To rip into a Boiler or Turbine, lay is guts out all over the place then put it all back together so everything runs right and no one gets hurt, does not happen via “decision by committee”. No one is taking a 360⁰ survey and spot-checking everybody’s feelings around where you should land the cover, it’s got to go where it’s got to go.

We don’t go into the boiler and say make the “final cut”  where you feel it would be best, you know, where it would make you the happiest.

Our business, at its worst, kills people and leaves the survivors racked with guilt, remorse and scars on their souls that they will carry their entire life.

So what is a pink footed, unicorn wearing, covered in glitter, scared little girl to do?


Do what I say!!!

Am I dick?…yes

Am I a control freak? …yes

Yes! Yes! A thousand times Yes! (couldn’t resist a little pride and prejudice)

Now that you think I’m an Ass, ask these questions:

  1.        Do the units get done on time? Yes
  2.        Do the unit’s perform better after the outage? Yes
  3.        Did the outage come in on or under Budget? Yes
  4.        Did anyone get hurt? NO!!!
  5.        How many times have you done this? Over 200

Aren’t these the questions that matter?  Does anything else matter in regards to performing an Outage?

My mentor Socrates didn’t have the Magic Finger because he was trying to pass on some pithy folksy wisdom. His number one rule was “trust no one.” Subsequently  that evolved the Magic Finger, because he would not trust anyone to actual mean what they say or do what they were supposed to do.

Even after we had all worked together for years he would still check behind us. We still had to start every job with the drum door gaskets nailed up over his desk (“beginning with the end in mind” for a little Stephen Covey vibe)

The Point

“The Outage Expert saying”

“The Outage is selective, slow at recognition of effort and aptitude but fast in the sinking the unfit.”

You can’t let up, it’s not fun, you have to be the designated adult. You have to think of everything. (your team does at least) The minute you think you’re invincible, that’s when the Outage Gods will rise up and bite you.

As far as the “Do what I say,” what I’m referring to is to follow the general principles that I have laid out in the blogs.

I would like to say that there is a bottomless well of knowledge about outages and that I will take me a lifetime to teach you…But the reality is that the principles can be taught fairly quickly.

However the “Secret Sauce” is not in the knowledge of what to do. It’s in the doing of the thing. To do Outages well there must be a dictator. Plain and simple. (a benevolent one hopefully)


That Dictator cannot waver from the rules (for the rules ) for if they do, like Icarus they will fall to earth and not in a good way.


Running a plant is collaboration; it’s a team sport, where even though there is a chain of command, opinions are considered and taken in, to form the final decision. That’s the way all the smart people do it, you never know what gem you may pick up from a discussion of an issue, even if the gem is to further strengthen your own opinion.

Outages are different; the planning phase needs to be collaborative on all levels you just never know who knows what and I’ve often been surprised about how much I don’t know. Right up to the minute before the outage you can have discussions. (I don’t recommend it but you can)

But the minute you start shutting the unit down there needs to be just one person in charge and that person calls the shots. It is the only way to maintain order and control and maintaining order and control is the way to be consistently safe.

The Story

For the story this week I will direct you to the preface for the blog:

Tuesday Morning. Everything was looking good, everybody was in the groove and I thought that it looked like we had a chance to make the 12 hours over the next 4 or 5 days. I would be very, very wrong.

About 11 am the lights went out. I’m not being metaphorical, they really went out. The whole plant was black no lights with 150 people in all sorts of places in and around the boiler. First order of business gets everyone safe and find out what happened.

We evacuated the plant, we had to get flashlights and climb through the boiler to get everyone out. Mission accomplished. Everyone got out and nobody was hurt.

When I got to the control room we had determined that the whole grid was down. To make matters worse, the Island mode on our switch yard didn’t work. So we were down as well.


There we sat, black plant with 150 contractors burning money with no idea what to do. We could not get an answer from the grid, so we didn’t know if we were going to be down for two hours or two days. Around two in the afternoon I sent the day shift home and told the contractors that I would make a decision about the night shift by 5 pm.

With still no answer from the grid, I got everyone in the plant together and asked what we can do about this. From the back of the group Joe piped up “why don’t we go after all the valves on the black plant list”. We had by this time successfully implemented Zone Maintenance™ and we had a running list of Black Plant items. The planner (a different one than Outages 101) said he would be right back. In a few hours we had a plan.

Purchasing got every gas or diesel welding machine they could get their hands on, we bought every portable light that Home Depot had and set up all the jobs in a completely black plant. We got valve packing rushed in and went after everything we could.

By Wednesday, around noon, I felt pretty good we had turned lemons into lemon aide. However, we were still down and it was about 10⁰F outside and now we have been down for 24 hours and we had an air cooled condenser that we were freezing up.

We went after the ACC with torches opened up all the drains and drained each cell as best we could.

Then we realized all sorts of lines were freezing though out the plant. We ran around with welders & torches and whatever we could to drain lines. It was like shoveling sand against the tide, but what else were we going to do?

The grid came back up around midday on Thursday. We started to get the plant back up as best as we could depending on what lines were frozen and what we could get running. By Friday end of day shift we had the boilers up and we were starting to get one of the turbines going. We were starting the outage back up with full crews that started since Thursday night shift.

As I was walking to the 6pm meeting, I passed by the Ops manager, whom was playing with the steam dump valve from the steam header to the condenser. When I asked him what was going on, he said, he was trying to calibrate the dump valve. He didn’t think that is was working correctly. I said just leave it until we get the turbine up and all the cells of the ACC hot and running and then we take a look at it. I turned and walked away figuring that he would listen….he did not.

During the 6pm meeting (about 15 minutes after my conversation with the Ops manager) we blew the rupture disc on the turbine. Steam shot straight up out of the turbine. We evacuated the plant again (this time with lights) and got the steam to stop shooting out of the top of the turbine. After a few shifts we changed the ruptured disc and there were no more major problems. We eventually finished the outage.


Gee, Jay how did it all turn out? Well I’m glad you asked.

We finished the outage only 30 hours over the planned schedule. We overcame a 12 hour delay from the sandblast, a 54 hour delay from the grid going down and an 8 hour delay for the rupture disc. The total was a 74 hour delay that we made up 44 hours of, in the middle of all the mess.

We didn’t even go over budget, we spent more than we should, but we were able to manage just a $60,000 overage from traditional spending.

The best of all is, the grid got dropped because of a sudden ice storm. We had insurance, so eventually we got a check from the insurance company the made the outage a profitable event.

Rules of Thumb

  • Outages are different remember that (first of the ten commandments)
  • Every Outage needs a boss (#4 also see )
  • If you’re the Boss, It’s no fun but if you adhere to all the rules you can make it fun for everyone else and that’s the highest level of the game, getting everything done well and safe while having a good time. It’s easier than you think, it’s just hard to do