Colin Powell spoke with Whitworth Today editor Julie Riddle for the fall 2018 issue, available here.
Colin Powell knows a few things about effective leadership: he served as U.S. Secretary of State, as a general in the U.S. Army, as National Security Advisor, and as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This fall he was the featured speaker for Whitworth's President's Leadership Forum.
Here, Powell elaborates on several of his "13 Rules of Leadership" (included at the end of the interview) and discusses other topics including good advice and bad ideas.
Julie Riddle: What is the best advice you've been given and how did it make a difference in your life?
Colin Powell: I'm a product of everything that's ever happened to me. I have benefited from good advice. I have benefitted from bad advice. The best advice I guess was advice I was given when I was a kid in Harlem in the South Bronx when I was growing up. My immigrant parents said to me, "You will stay in school. Don't even think about not going to school." But the thing I remember most about my parents to try to keep me on course was, "We have expectations for you. Don't disappoint us and don't shame the family." That was it – that got me through college, with my solid C average, and the Army, where they didn't accept C as an acceptable grade, so I got straight A's in my military courses.
And then throughout the Army I received lots of advice. I remember my first assignment to Fort Benning, Georgia, to learn how to be an infantry officer. You have to remember this was 1958. We had a difficult time still in the military and in society – we were a segregated nation. The Army had been desegregated by President Truman in 1948, but that only really ended finally in 1954. So when I came in, in 1958, it was really the first generation of black officers who were going into a completely desegregated environment. And I still remember my instructors at Fort Benning saying to me, "Now listen carefully. We don't care if you're black or white or green or blue, we don't care that you were born in Harlem, we don't care that your parents were immigrants. All of that is totally irrelevant to us. The only thing we care about now and the only thing you should care about now is performance and demonstrating potential. If you perform and if you demonstrate potential, you'll go up. If you don't, you won't. Do you understand?" "Yes."
It was made clear to me: don't give us excuses for inadequate performance. Do your best every single day. My ambition and goal in the Army was to do my very best every day. That was drilled into me. So when I would come home at night from the job, either as a lieutenant or as a general: Did I do my best? Was I a good soldier today? If I was, that was my satisfaction. Whether it caused me to be promoted or not promoted didn't make any difference. I just tried to do my very, very best. And that's what I tell young people wherever I go. Do your very best. Let your potential and performance take you where they're going to take you. And don't be so ambitious that you let your ambition get in the way of your potential and performance.
Julie Riddle: I was struck by the concluding page of your book It Worked for Me, in which you wrote: "For good ideas to succeed, they must have champions," and, "Bad ideas don't die simply because they are bad. You need people to stand up and fight them." Could you expand further on these two points?
Colin Powell: The way I picked that up over the years was, principally working in Washington, D.C., many, many years ago as a Whitehouse Fellow, and seeing cabinet officers and bureaucrats and political appointees work, and watching all the administrations I worked for come up with ideas. In a bureaucratic environment like Washington, you can't just have a good idea and expect it to carry itself along. I've seen some of the best ideas come along but they had no champion, and so they failed. You have to have champions, in life or in government, especially. You come up with an idea, but then make sure you can bring other people along to your idea. Otherwise, it's just your idea. You have to have people who believe in what you believe in or in what you're trying to do, and become champions of your idea. That's how ideas succeed and that's how legislation gets passed.