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."
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.
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?
Should you have spoken out about your doubts earlier?
No, I don't think I've ever said I had doubts about what I was presenting. What I had doubts about were some of the things that were not properly sourced. In other words, I wasn't convinced that we had enough sourcing for them and so I didn't use them. But the information I used, I had no doubts about it. A lot of that information turned out to be quite accurate, but the most essential part of the presentation was the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and that turned out not to be the case. And I
was as surprised as anybody as slowly but surely the sources unraveled.
What's the lesson to learn from Iraq?
This really goes to the chapter called "The Powell Doctrine." Anytime a nation is faced with the possibility of a conflict, my view of looking at a situation like that is see if it can be solved through diplomatic means or economic means or political means. At the same time, make sure that you never take the military option off the table because it reenforces the diplomatic options. But if you have to use the military, make sure you have a clear objectives as to what you're trying to achieve and put decisive force behind. And also think through the conflict. In Iraq, the second Gulf War, we didn't think through the potential consequences well enough and prepare for them. We were not supposed to have an insurgency, they were not supposed to blow up the U.N. headquarters. We did not expect the kind of war that broke out between Shia and Sunni, who had been suppressed from having that kind of conflict under the thumb of Saddam Hussein. And so, always give thought to where you're going to end up. And always remember that if you decide to take out a government, you become the new government and you have to act like it. In this case, we didn't send enough troops, in my humble judgment. We didn't preserve the integrity of the Iraqi army so that we could immediately rebuild it and make it a force for good rather than a force for evil. And so I think mistakes were made so that the initial success of the fall of Baghdad was not subsequently followed by the success we hoped for in stabilizing the country and giving it back to the Iraqis. That took years and it only started to work when President Bush realized that what we needed was not more electricity or more oil coming out. We needed security and that's when he decided on the surge that took place in 2006. The surge should have been at the front.
Do you worry about hawkish talk when it comes to Iran?
Yes. Well, I worry about hawkish talk. When people think that a bomb is the first solution or they get frustrated and annoyed--"We've got to do something"--without thinking through what the something is or what the consequences of doing the something may be. In the case of Iran, I think there's been some hawkish talk, but I think people are thinking it through. Would the military action that's being thought about, that's to say bombing, actually accomplish the purpose of destroying their nuclear program, which is what we want to do. Or should we continue to try diplomatic means? And so never take the military option off the table. But I think that what's going on now with the application of economic sanctions and other things is the way to go. A day may come when somebody feels like that is not enough. But right now I think that's the best way to pursue this problem.
When is it acceptable to use the military to intervene in humanitarian crises, like Syria?
Syria is becoming a humanitarian crisis but first and foremost it's a horrible conflict between the Syrian army and President [Bashar al-] Assad, who I have absolutely no use for, and armed opposition. I haven't sensed that the humanitarian problem has reached the level where people are going to start intervening militarily. It does not reach the crisis level of, say, Somalia in President Bush 41's administration. The United States armed forces is uniquely suited to fighting wars, but also to dealing with humanitarian crises. We have the ability to move logistics, we can move things like no other armed force in the world, and we've done it repeatedly over the years. But you have to make sure you have sized the problem. In the case of Somalia, we went in to feed a starving population who was being terrorized by their own citizens, and we succeeded in that within a few weeks. But then the decision was made to move into nation building by the Clinton administration that replaced us. And that turned out to be a very, very difficult thing to do. And after the loss of those brave soldiers in October 1993, President Clinton decided to phase out our effort.
What was the difference between being a top soldier and a top diplomat?
The basic principles of leadership and management are the same: Have a common purpose, get everybody aligned in that purpose, treat your people well, give them the equipment and the support they need to get the job done. Recognize those who do well, deal with those that are not doing well. And above all, keep inspiring the people who work for you. And if you do that and take care of them, they'll take care of you.
What's next for you?
I never know. I have a nice life now. I'm at an age where I'm not looking for full time work. I will continue to work on the youth programs that I'm so committed to. America's Promise Alliance that I founded, and my wife now runs, works to make more and more resources available to our young children who are in need. More mentors, more Boys & Girls Clubs, more Big Brothers and Big Sisters, more safe places for kids to learn and grow. Work on getting a healthy start for every child, to adequate healthcare, insure our children for health. Too many kids are not finishing high school. And we focus on service. "Kindness Works" is a good chapter for that one.
Would you steer a young person towards the military or diplomacy?
I would steer them to a career that appeals to them. Every speech I give to high school or college graduates always sort of ends with, "Find out that which you do well and that you love doing. And make that your course of action in life." For me it was the military shortly after I entered college. I didn't have that much interest in anything else in college but suddenly I saw these cadets and I said, "I want do that." And I loved doing it and I did it for 35 years. You can't have somebody else impose upon you or tell you what you should do with your life, but listen to others, watch others, and see what really turns you on. But always as an option, look at public service. Above all in your life, no matter what you do, find a way to serve the society that is serving you.
- Read the U.S. News Debate: Should There Be an International Treaty on Cyberwarfare?
- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Reminisce About Watergate
- Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on the iPad.