What Colin Powell Learned From Iraq

The former top soldier and diplomat also discusses Iran, Syria, and leadership secrets of Ronald Reagan.

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A lifetime of public service has equipped former Secretary of State Colin Powell with enough material to write a book of life lessons as accessible to teenagers as they are to business leaders and senior officials. It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership is a collection of personal experiences that Powell expands into broader themes and succinct rules. The retired four-star general recently spoke with U.S. News about being a top soldier and diplomat, applying his own rules to his life, and what he is doing now. Excerpts:

What was your goal in writing this book?

I wanted to share stories that meant a lot to me in the course of my life. Most of the stories are from my military background, but I also expand on the stories to show how they apply to senior officials and nonmilitary audiences.

Which story in the book is your favorite?

The squirrel story, about when [President Ronald] Reagan and I were alone in his office one day when I was his national security adviser and I was telling him about a problem I had that I had to solve. And he wasn't really listening to me. He was looking over my shoulder, out into the Rose Garden. And I couldn't understand why I wasn't making my point to him, so I talked louder and faster. And finally [I] stopped talking and he kind of stares over my shoulder and says, "Colin, Colin, the squirrels just came and got the nuts I put out there this morning."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

What was your reaction?

I said, "Um, yes, Mr. President." I went back to my office and stared across Lafayette Park and thought about it and I thought, "Oh, this is so obvious." What he was saying to me was, "Colin, I love you, I'll sit here for as long as you want me to. But so far you're only telling me about your problems. Until you give me a problem, I'm going to enjoy watching the squirrels out in the Rose Garden." Now that's the simple story, but I expand that into a style of leadership that delegates to people to solve the problems I hired you to solve and only bring me the problems that I have to solve. And how you empower an organization through the technique of delegation to good people.

One of your life rules is "Get mad, then get over it." Why is this important?

The point here is that getting mad is a natural human emotion. Everybody gets mad. The issue is, how do you get over it fast? Because when you're mad, you're not thinking that clearly. When you're mad, you're probably making it hard for the people around you to work with you. Mad is not a useful emotion to retain.

[See pictures of Iran participating in War Games.]

You describe your 2003 Iraq speech at the U.N. as a blot on your record. Which rule did you apply to overcome that experience?

'Get mad and get over it' is one of them. A lot of others apply. I had every assurance in the intelligence community that the information in that speech, which we went over and over for four straight days and nights, was solid. And so representing the United States and before the entire world at the United Nations, I presented that information. It was the same information that had been presented to Congress, it was the basis upon which Congress had passed a resolution authorizing war if the president thought it necessary. It's the same information the president had when he'd put similar things to what I said into the State of the Union address a few weeks before my speech. And so we all had that same base of knowledge but mine was the most visible, the most symbolic of all the presentations. And when I gave it, people stopped and listened. And the president by that time had already decided that combat would be necessary, he decided that sometime in January. And now it's 5 February and I'm simply telling people why it may be necessary. And so when it all started to come apart because the sourcing turned out not to be good and there were things in there that were simply wrong, with respect to the existence of weapons of mass destruction, I just watched it all fall apart before my eyes and I became sort of the symbol of it all. And I have been asked about it almost every day now for nine years. And I have to live with it. And so what I say in my chapter is, I was still the Secretary of State and so I had to go on with my job and not spend all my energy and time being mad at anybody, and including of course the intelligence community, but get on with it. And the only thing I was mad about with myself was that, should I have smelled that something was wrong? Did my instincts fail me?