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Colin Powell is a man perpetually in motion. Jetting from East Coast to West, the way most people jump on the morning commuter train, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff juggles a variety of business interests with charitable work, public speaking--pretty much whatever strikes his fancy and seems worthwhile. For most of his adult life, people have been drawn to Powell, attracted by his enthusiasm and can-do demeanor, captivated, as he rose to the highest levels of power in Washington, by the improbable arc of his personal life.
In the preface to his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell describes himself as "a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means." The audiences who pay dearly to hear Powell speak these days understandably believe that the man who rose from such unpromising beginnings to become one of the most admired public figures in the world must have grasped the secrets of leadership early on. He clung to them dearly as he became the youngest general in the Army, then found his way to the seventh floor of the State Department. "When I go out and speak," says Powell, "I don't talk about the chairmanship and all that stuff. I talk about being a young second lieutenant at Fort Benning, Ga. Most of what I learned about leadership I learned in my first two months there."
Outside Fort Benning is a bronze statue of an infantryman, entitled Follow Me . The class work, weapons training, and grueling field course at Fort Benning were all designed to turn out disciplined, diligent infantrymen. But for a young man like Powell, a so-so student, Fort Benning was his Road to Damascus. Leadership, Powell discovered, was all about establishing a mission. The infantry's mission was to destroy the enemy. But the basic principles of leadership could be applied to just about anything. "Great leaders," Powell says, "articulate what the mission is--the who, what, when, where, and why. And they articulate that in a simple way. Then the question becomes, 'Does the leader believe in the mission so much that he or she will pursue it selflessly?' And then the followers want to know, 'Are you going to give us the resources to achieve the mission?' "
Trust. Powell had such a glittering Army career that in hindsight, his 35 years all seem to roll into one gold-plated adventure. But when talking about that career, he tends to dwell on the less exalted moments--the screw-ups. As a young platoon leader in Germany, Powell was horrified to discover that he'd somehow lost his service revolver. Losing a weapon in the Army is a big deal, but as Powell recalls, his captain didn't ream him out. The weapon was recovered (Powell had dropped it in his tent), and his captain, Tom Miller, returned it to him with a reprimand and some stern words of caution. This, Powell saw, was another kind of leadership. "You've got to trust people. . . . you've got to trust them to make mistakes and not ground them off about it." In the book, Powell puts it this way: "When they fall down, pick 'em up, dust 'em off, pat 'em on the back, and move 'em on."
Powell has distilled his thoughts on leadership to 13 basic rules, starting with, "It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning," and concluding with, "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." To the inevitable question about whether any one person served as role model, he answers with a thoughtful but emphatic no. He cites Captain Miller but says, "I'm not the product of one person, but hundreds." And to those who lament a perceived lack of leadership in the world today, Powell has this to say: "I see great leaders everywhere I look today. Bill Gates; Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Political leadership is a lot more difficult today . . . with no strong consensus on what should be done. But there are always leaders in America and in every generation of Americans."
BORN: April 5, 1937 EDUCATION: B.S., City University of New York; M.B.A., George Washington University; National War College FAMILY: Married, three children HOBBIES: Repairing and refurbishing old Volvos MODEL LEADER: The Word War II-era soldier-statesman George Marshall PASSION: Founding chairman of America's Promise--The Alliance for Youth
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