Leadership Lessons

by Bill McBride

Sometimes business feels metaphorically like war.  I say metaphorically because nothing in business compares to the pain, suffering and sacrifice our dedicated soldiers defending our great nation provide.  But strategically and from a leadership perspective, there are so many lessons us civilians can learn from the great military leaders like Retired Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

With strategic “battle” planning, one must take into account:

  1. One’s Army – Team condition and capabilities.  Competency, Readiness, Morale, & Confidence in leadership
  2. The Enemy – Population Inactivity, “Substitutes” to our product offerings, and our Competition (although this makes us better and is not our core threat it is an adversary in talent and member acquisition)
  3. The Geography & Climate – Local, state & federal economic factors, local & federal regulations, weather, workforce talent, population density and consumer demographics
  4. Leadership & Strategy – Leadership & Strategy

So, from my perspective, I want to accomplish several things:

  1. I want a strong team, well trained, confident, and ready to win (just like the military, you have to hire the right people for the job at hand before anything else)
  2. I want to have a value proposition and unique offering that serves unmet demand in the marketplace as well as core consumer needs.  The right product – Unique – The right price – The right place – The right experience
  3. The right business model for the circumstance. One that achieves the above with a satisfactory profit margin
  4. It all requires leadership and the right people for the situation

So, I decided to share some principles that General Colin Powell bestowed upon many in presentations that he did after he retired as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and before he became Secretary of State.  These fundamental lessons have had a dramatic effect on my life professionally and personally. 

The following from General Colin Powell, US Army Retired, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Former Secretary of State:

  • “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.  Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions…” 

  • “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.

  • “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. 

  • “You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”
  • “Keep looking below surface appearances.”

Don’t shrink from doing so (just) because you might not like what you find.

  • “Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything.”

Plans don’t accomplish anything, either.  Endeavors 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. 

  • “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 behaviors among their colleagues.  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.  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 favor right in the recruitment phase.

  • “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, Keep It Simple, Stupid.  They articulate vivid, over-arching goals and values, which they use to drive daily behaviors and choices among competing alternatives.  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.” 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.  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.”
  • “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.


General Colin Powell and 82nd Airborne Command Sergeant Major Bill McBride (Bill’s Dad)

For more information on this topic, contact Bill McBride at BillMcBride@BMC3.com or visit us at www.BMC3.com.


Bill McBride profile

President & CEO, BMC3 – Bill McBride Consulting, Coaching & Club Management

Co-Founder, President  & Chief Executive Officer, Active Wellness

Bill is a health club industry veteran with over 25 years of experience leading and managing all aspects of commercial health clubs, medical fitness centers, residential, community, multi-tenant and corporate fitness sites.  He co-founded Active Sports Clubs and Active Wellness, LLC and owns a health club consultancy – BMC3. Bill has served as Chairman of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) Board of Directors, President of the Mid-Atlantic Club Management Association (MACMA) and served on the Industry Advisory Board for the American Council of Exercise (ACE).  He is actively engaged as an author on industry education, serves on several fitness related technology company Advisory Boards, serves on the Medical Wellness Association (MWA) and Medical Fitness Network (MFN) Advisory Boards and consults & speaks regularly on industry topics throughout the world.

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