What Worked for Colin Powell

Former secretary of state and GW alumnus shares leadership advice from new book at Lisner Auditorium.
School of Media and Public Affairs director Frank Sesno interviews Colin Powell, M.B.A. '71, at Lisner Auditorium on Monday.
School of Media and Public Affairs director Frank Sesno interviews Colin Powell, M.B.A. '71, at Lisner Auditorium on Monday.
August 05, 2014
 
Colin Powell’s story has a simple beginning: A young boy born to Jamaican parents joins the army. From there, the details only get more and more remarkable.
 
He won the Purple Heart after being wounded in the Vietnam War, and later received the Soldier’s Medal for rescuing his comrades from a burning helicopter. He earned his M.B.A. at the George Washington University in 1971 and served Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in key defense roles. President George H. W. Bush made him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the ‘90s, and in 2001, his career catapulted into new heights when President George W. Bush selected him as secretary of state—the highest rank an African American had ever held in government.
 
School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno remembered some of these details from covering the White House as a CNN correspondent. In an interview organized by Smithsonian Associates on Monday night at Lisner Auditorium, Mr. Sesno asked the four-star general: “When you were a kid, did you imagine all you’d achieve?”
 
“I wasn’t standing on the corner of 123rd Street saying to myself, ‘Self, you’re going to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff one day!’ ” Mr. Powell chuckled. “I couldn’t have dreamed those things.”
 
Whether he envisioned his impressive future or not, his leadership skills ultimately guided his career trajectory. Mr. Powell wrote about his experience in his 2003 autobiography, “My American Journey.” He presented a carefully written draft to a collaborator, who told him point blank, “Do you know how boring this is?” 
 
They were daring words, but they turned out to hold some truth. When the book was released, Mr. Powell found that readers were less interested in the intricacies of the Vietnamese-Laotian border, Desert Shield and Desert Storm and instead wanted to know more about what he’d learned from being one of America’s most respected leaders. That’s why he wrote his latest book, “It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership,” which he discussed and signed copies of for a packed audience.
 
The new book was also inspired by a profile that journalist David Wallechinsky published in Parade magazine. In the article, Mr. Wallechinsky asked Mr. Powell to share some quotes and words of wisdom that the then-secretary of state kept taped to his desk. The magazine published 13 brief pieces of advice from Mr. Powell, a list that today he calls the rules he lives by.
 
Each rule is loaded with Mr. Powell’s signature frankness: “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.” “Be careful what you choose: You may get it.” “Get mad, then get over it.” But the most potent words, he told Mr. Sesno, are from the last concept: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
 
“There’s a theme: confidence and optimism. Perpetual optimism is a way of multiplying your energy and the value of your leadership. People who are optimistic get things done,” Mr. Powell said.
 
Even when he followed his 13 signature rules, there were complexities in Mr. Powell’s career as secretary of state. He gave a speech to the United Nations in 2003 describing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which investigations later revealed didn’t exist. Mr. Powell explained the intelligence information came from “a failed product.” He also addressed a recent Senate report indicating that the CIA kept him in the dark about alleged torture tactics used for al-Qaida detainees. Mr. Powell said he has not yet reviewed the report, but urged the Americans to judiciously interpret the word “torture” in its most legal sense.
 
As conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine dominate news headlines, Mr. Powell has been watching the foreign crises unfold from the perspective of someone who’s been there before. He has a knack for studying and understanding unpredictable leaders, like Vladimir Putin, who he says was able to win the favor of Russians by promoting national pride. 
 
Mr. Powell also empathized with the Herculean task that Secretary of State John Kerry faces as he brokers agreements between Hamas and Israel. He remembered when he himself held unsuccessful peace talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and warned the United States of the political capital it risks trying to fix a problem that might be “unsolvable."
 
Despite the difficulties politicians and foreign leaders encounter, Mr. Powell said effective leadership comes from those who have the ability to inspire a population. Those figures, Mr. Powell said, include President Bush, President Obama and his personal hero, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, known for working with others and bringing people together.
 
“What I have found is that leadership is all about people,” he said. “People get work done—it’s not the organization, it’s not the PowerPoint chart, it’s not the philosophy. Leadership is all about inspiring a group of people to achieve what needs to be achieved.”