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Over the years I have read many books about the different types of leadership styles that exist. While reading these books, I’ve thought about what type of leader I am.

September 18, 2008 
By Lyle Quan

Over the years I have read many books about the different types of leadership styles that exist. While reading these books, I’ve thought about what type of leader I am. Better yet, what type of leader do I want to be? These simple questions are part of the reason that I have read and continue to read so many books on leadership, risk management and mentoring. During my reviews of these books and the different leaders that are being portrayed, I have come across two that I find I refer to regularly, not for their technical advice or lists of credentials, rather for their focus on what a leader is and how they treated people under their command.

The two leaders I am talking about are Colin Powell and Ernest Shackleton – two men from different times and with two different challenges.

Most of you have heard of Colin Powell; he joined the army, went to Vietnam, and was involved in the Gulf War. He obtained the rank of general and went on to become the secretary of state. His leadership style and beliefs are quite basic and to some they might even seem simplistic, but that’s what makes him so effective as a leader. Powell is one of those leaders who seem to be able to cut through the clutter and get to the heart of the matter. In two books titled The Powell Principles, 24 lessons from Colin Powell, and The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, the author, Oren Harari, reveals Powell’s principles for success and how to shatter some of the old, steadfast rules of leading with an iron fist.

Powell’s 24 principles encompass such concepts as:

  • Rather than trying to establish your authority, establish trust;
  • Instead of talking a good game, walk the talk;
  • Check your ego at the door;
  • And strive for balance.

I have had the pleasure of hearing Powell speak and found him to be a man of strong character and convictions. He appears to believe that only by being true to yourself can you be true to others. What a refreshing idea.

In their book Shackleton’s Way, authors Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell demonstrate Ernest Schackleton’s leadership secrets by taking the reader through his amazing trip in 1914. Shackleton and his crew of 27 men set out to discover the Antarctic. Shackleton wanted to be the first to reach it and plant his flag. However, the trip didn’t turn out as expected. The ship became stuck in the ice and was eventually crushed by the pressure of the ice pack. From there, the true journey of human endurance and leadership begins; Shackleton’s goal and focus went from trying to reach the Antarctic circle to simply staying alive and finding a way back to civilization for him and his crew. This was a two-year adventure which would, among other things, test his people skills, his leadership ability and ability to unite his crew into embracing in his vision of survival.

After two years in the most inhospitable conditions on the planet, Shackleton beat the odds by sailing a small lifeboat to an island and securing a rescue ship to returning his men. Although undernourished and somewhat beaten by the terrible conditions they endured, not one man was lost to this unfortunate misadventure. Shackleton and his crew lived to return home and tell their stories.

It was only though his strong leadership, confidence and unshakable belief in survival that Shackleton and his crew were able to support each other and draw from each other’s strengths.

I discovered as I read these books that a lot of us who have the desire to lead already have many of the talents and beliefs that Powell and Shackleton demonstrated. Learning to understand which ones work for us and which ones are not part of our character is what counts. For example, I know that I am not an overbearing type of leader. I believe in teamwork and helping to mentor and building on the abilities and strengths of the team. I also believe in the adage that you have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak. Our teammates have a lot to offer. It’s up to us to hear what they have to say and allow them to take the lead once in a while.

Perhaps we won’t realize our full potential until we are faced with the life-threatening challenges that Shackleton and his crew faced, or maybe we will discover and hone our leadership abilities and qualities much the same as Colin Powell did as he continued to move up the ladder of success and took on the challenges.

Either way, reading these books (and others) and applying their lessons about leadership and why different people are successful will help to make us the leaders we strive to be. Leadership should not be about the accolades; it should be about getting the job done and getting it done right.

The Powell Principles, 24 Lessons from Colin Powell (2005) and The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell (2002), are published by McGraw-Hill. Shackleton’s Way (2002) is published by the Penguin Group. Both are available online through Chapters and Amazon.

Lyle Quan is the deputy fire chief – administration with the Guelph Fire Department in Ontario. He is an Associate Instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University. Email:

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