Cold Iron Truth

On leadership, keep your powder dry


My grandfather used to say: “Son, keep your powder dry.” The old aphorism is basically a reminder to keep your power or influence in reserve until you really need it. In my case, he could simply have been trying to quiet an overly talkative kid. But anything my grandfather said that had to do with guns carried great authority with me. He owned a shotgun that had been converted from a flintlock by his grandfather, and we grandchildren were schooled in its use.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Cincinnati.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron

I was recently reminded of my grandfather’s advice as I was about to participate in a planned meeting. One of the meeting leaders pulled me aside to tell me that I was not to ask questions, and informed me that if I did ask questions, I would be punished to the fullest extent possible. I also was not to challenge the preordained conclusion.

I was simultaneously aghast and impressed. Never had I heard such a trifecta of terrible leadership uttered in a single breath. It was a reminder to revisit the premises of all the books I had read and the conferences I had attended on leadership.

There are basic prerequisites of building consensus and adopting new ideas.

First, you must introduce the wonderful idea and explain it to everyone. It is even better when you are able to back up someone else’s great idea.

Next, you must allow the group to discuss the idea and be open to change. This may involve shelving, or even killing, your shiny new idea.

You must allow time for things to sink in regarding the idea. If you want something to stick, people have to adapt and adopt. If your idea is truly wonderful, you should be able to attract advocates and get a majority to agree to the plan. You should make sure they get to vote on the plan. If you lose the vote, don’t try any maneuvers to undo your loss. Accept it and move on. If your idea is good, it will surface again as someone else’s idea and be a much easier pitch.

Finally, never, ever bully or threaten. Memories are long, and while some may not agree with your idea, they won’t actively try to kill it later or undermine future projects. Pinch yourself every day, and remember that you are a servant of the group. You are a facilitator, not an autocrat.

That said, leaders differ in their styles of leadership. I think the best leaders are not afraid to listen to their boards and membership. Their actions focus thoughts and move things along. If you let your board members own their actions, they will respect you. You will build up tremendous goodwill (and powder). With any luck, you may never need to draw on this goodwill; but if there is a crisis and you need to put a bullet through something quickly, your intentions will not be questioned. At a minimum, you will have plenty of opportunity to explain your actions.

So it saddens me to see leaders burn all their powder and lose their influence. It’s not good for them or their organization, and they will likely have to overcome unexpected resistance in the future.

Leaders, keep your powder dry!

Dr. Coldiron is in private practice but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and several book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics. He is a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. Dr. Coldiron is the chair of SkinPAC for 2019-2021; this is an unpaid volunteer position. Write to him at

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