Mission Critical: Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell

By Selling Power Editors

In 2002, while serving as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, Colin Powell received an urgent phone call from the Spanish foreign minister, Ana Palacio. So far in his career, Powell had risen to the rank of four-star general and had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position at the US Department of Defense. In the late 1980s, he’d been the assistant to President Ronald Reagan for national security affairs. In short, Powell was used to urgent phone calls, and thanks to a personal staff of 90, he had plenty of resources to respond to such calls with speed and intelligence. “I need your help,” Palacio said. “We have a major crisis on our hands.”

Having heard no news from other sources, he promised to look into it and call her back. A quick check of the wires showed no reports of anything amiss in the Mediterranean. He delegated further research to his staff, who reported back that a dozen Moroccan soldiers had overtaken a Spanish island so small that its only inhabitants were about 20 billy goats. A few days later, Spain had sent out its navy to reclaim the island.

Powell called Palacio back. “What makes you think this is our problem?” he asked.

The European Union and the Arab Maghreb Union disagreed about which country rightfully owned the island, Palacio explained. The EU said it belonged to Spain, while the AMU said the island belonged to Morocco. “We need the US to help us solve the conflict and avoid bloodshed,” she told Powell, and she needed an answer by Sunday.

Powell spent all of Saturday on the phone, and 50 international calls later, a peaceful resolution was in sight. To meet the Sunday deadline, Powell typed up an agreement on his computer and sent it to Spanish and Moroccan authorities for review. “No go,” was the reply from both sides; Spain and Morocco each had their own names for the island, as did the United States. Both countries said Powell had used the wrong name.

Powell went back to his computer and replaced all references to the island’s name with a certain domain at a certain latitude and longitude. Within an hour, he had approval from the king of Spain. Moroccan officials liked the agreement, but only the king of Morocco could sign off on it. The king was in his limo, driving from Rabat to Fez and couldn’t be reached, they told Powell.

Powell had known the king’s father for years and had spoken with the king on several occasions. “Give me his number,” Powell said. “I’ll call him.”

 The king took Powell’s call, but wanted time to study the agreement. “We need to have this approved in the next 20 minutes,” Powell said. “If we don’t get your okay, Spain will rescind their approval, and we’re still in a crisis.”
 The king hedged. “This agreement is in everybody’s best interests,” Powell continued, adding, “You’ve got to trust me on this one.”

The king gave his okay. Spain fulfilled its side of the bargain by withdrawing its troops. That Monday, Powell’s government lawyers were dismayed that he had drawn up an agreement without their advice or consent.

By Powell’s standards, however, everything had worked out just fine. “I’m not an academic and was not raised to be a foreign policy intellectual,” Powell told Atlantic magazine in a 2004 interview. “I’m a practitioner, somebody who was raised to see a problem, analyze it, have views about it and have passion for a solution.”

Powell has brokered thousands of deals during nearly five decades of working in the service of the US military and government. His passion for finding solutions has helped him confront situations much larger than the crisis of a certain domain at a certain latitude and longitude, but this small example illustrates many of the principles by which he lives and leads:
• When facing a problem, gather the facts.
• Find the peaceful resolution.
• Be prepared for people to get angry.
• Forget about who gets the credit.
• Always challenge the experts.
• Don’t wait for permission to invent and implement your own solution.
• And, most important, it can be done.

No Problem

Powell’s problem-solving skills were not necessarily apparent to anyone who knew him as a kid in the South Bronx. Born in 1937 to Jamaican immigrants, Powell was raised in a four-bedroom apartment in a brick tenement that housed a total of eight families. Powell’s older sister was the star of the family. She did well in school and unquestionably was bound for college. Powell, on the other hand, showed no particular aptitude for books or sports. “I was always a question mark in the family,” Powell told the Academy of Achievement in a 1998 interview. “I was kind of the runt, the kid who was worried about a lot. I was not a terribly good student.”

Left to his own devices, Powell suspects he would not have applied to college, but his parents placed a premium on getting a degree. “Education was the escape hatch, the way up and out for West Indians,” Powell wrote in his autobiography, My American Journey (Ballantine Books, 1996). His parents’ approval was extremely important to him. “I saw great merit in the way my parents lived their lives. I always wanted them to be proud of me,” Powell wrote. “The worst days of my life were when I did something that disappointed my mother and father.”

Powell was accepted by City College of New York, which despite its location in liberal, radical Harlem, had a small Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. Powell, isolated from his old friends and neighborhood, decided to join ROTC, and found that it was the one thing he looked forward to each day. He enjoyed the discipline, structure and camaraderie. Above all, he was good at it. “I became a leader almost immediately,” he wrote. “Race, color, background, income meant nothing. [We] would go to the limit for each other and for the group.”

Once he found his niche, Powell pursued excellence with gusto. He chose the army as a career and began active duty as an army second lieutenant in 1958. The army had been desegregated just a few years earlier, but Powell refused to let racists and bigots “rent space in [my] head,” as he put it in a TV One television network interview in 2004. “I’ve never let my color or racism be a problem for me,” Powell explained. “Let it be a problem for the racists, never for me, because if you let it become your problem, then you’re weakened, and you start to doubt yourself.”

That’s not to say he never got angry. (He remembers peeling out of the parking lot of an Alabama fast-food restaurant after being refused service at the drive-up window, for example.) His style, however, was to focus on solutions. When he and his new bride were assigned to live at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Powell was unable to find suitable housing and contemplated sending his wife, who was pregnant with their first child, back to her parents’ house in Birmingham. An army pal insisted they stay with his family – despite the neighbors’ consternation at a black couple living with a white family – and Powell and his wife slept in kid-size bunk beds. For Powell, success has always been about coupling a big-picture focus with a drive to prove his opponents wrong by sticking it out and doing his best. “By doing my best every day, day after day, year after year,” he writes, “I finally got to the top.”

Move ’em out

Of course, no one gets to the top without making mistakes, and Powell was no exception. Early in his career as a platoon leader in Germany, for example, Powell somehow managed to misplace his .45 caliber pistol. After a few frantic minutes of searching, he confessed his error to his captain, who told him curtly to get on with the mission. Later, the captain called on him and handed him the missing .45. Captain Miller told an anguished Powell that some children had discovered it on the ground after it had fallen from its holster. “Luckily, they only got off one round before we heard the shot and took the gun away from them,” the Captain said, adding, “For God’s sake, son, don’t let that happen again.”

Powell, overcome with relief, checked the magazine. It was full. The gun hadn’t been fired at all. Later, Powell learned he’d dropped the .45 in his tent – a mistake he vowed never to repeat. He also absorbed a vital leadership lesson. “Today, the army would have held an investigation, called in lawyers and likely have entered a fatal black mark on my record,” Powell writes in his autobiography. “Miller’s example of humane leadership that does not always go by the book was not lost on me. When they fall down, pick ’em up, dust ’em off, pat ’em on the back and move ’em on.”

In January 1963, the army sent Powell to Vietnam. During his tour, he suffered a massive infection after stepping on a bamboo stick dipped in poison. He was also in a serious helicopter crash, and despite a broken ankle, pulled three badly injured men from the wreckage. He was decorated for his bravery. Still, Powell felt disillusioned and uneasy about the war. His initial sense of being part of a noble undertaking quickly evaporated under what he felt was poor leadership and fuzzy goals. “I couldn’t see we’d made much progress in the year I was there, tromping through the jungles,” he told the Academy of Achievement. “And the enemy seemed to have the initiative and the advantage.” In Vietnam, Powell formulated one of his hallmarks of leadership: have a vision, and support it with crystal-clear objectives.

“Many of my generation seasoned in [Vietnam] vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support,” he writes in his autobiography. In his view, such goals as “containing the spread of communism” and “keeping the dominoes from falling” were neither inspiring nor measurable.

Shot Callers and Brawlers

When he rose in the ranks, working under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Powell never hesitated to give his honest input, even if it ruffled feathers. “I’ve said to the president, ‘You don’t pay me to give you happy talk, you pay me to tell you what I think,’” Powell revealed in an interview with teenink.com, during which he encouraged young people to stand up for their beliefs and speak their minds.

In 1990, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George Bush, Powell was at a high-level meeting to plan a response to Saddam Hussein’s march into Kuwait. As the meeting wound down, Powell felt a key question had been sidestepped: would the United States be willing to go to war to liberate Kuwait? Although he knew the question might be premature and should not technically come from him, he remembered his repugnance for leaders who let the Vietnam War go on without pressing political leaders for clear objectives. He brought up the issue and was greeted by a palpable chill. Later, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney rebuked him for the broach of protocol. Still, Powell remained unapologetic.

“I’ve told this to many bosses over the years,” Powell told teenink.com. “If you don’t want me to tell you what
I think, then you need to find somebody else, because if you ask me a question, I’m going to answer it, and it’s kind of irrelevant to me whether you like the answer.”

According to Powell, debates exist in all healthy organizations. “We’re supposed to sharpen the edges of debate, we’re supposed to argue with each other, we’re supposed to examine issues fully and without filters to help the president with issues,” he says. “So if Don Rumsfeld comes from one point of view and I come from another and the vice president does and the director of Central Intelligence does, and we argue and debate and fight about it, this doesn’t mean the place is falling apart; it means it’s working.” After the boss has made a decision, however, Powell considers it imperative to support it fully, no matter what his personal opinion might be. “Once a decision has been made,” he said in his autobiography, “the debate ends.”

Powell demands the same kind of honesty from his own subordinates. As a general, for example, he always asked his commanders to speak up, share bad news quickly and ask questions if his guidance seemed unclear, even if that meant asking continued questions after repeated explanations. “The worst thing,” he wrote in his autobiography, “was for subordinates to labor in ignorance in order to conceal their confusion and wind up doing the wrong thing.”

Powell can be as tough as they come, but those who’ve worked with him point out that he is also incredibly personable and engaging. “A friend of mine was an ambassador to Amman, and when he came back from his tour of duty, there was a note on his desk from Powell, thanking him for everything he’d done,” says General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.), who served as Powell’s special envoy to the Middle East from November 2002 to March 2003. “That had never happened before,” Zinni says. “He never had the secretary of state come down and shake his hand.”

From the Front Lines

Leadership can be lonely, but Powell never hid behind his lofty titles and trappings of power. In fact, he will go out of his way to eliminate the invisible lines of power that can cut leaders off from vital information. “In the military, when you become a four-star general, people will do anything you even suggest you want. If you say a wall looks a little dirty, by sundown, it’s painted. I had to work at breaking down that deference to hear from my people,” Powell said in Oren Harari’s Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell (McGraw-Hill, 2002).

Over the years Powell developed ways of making himself available to anyone who might want to share a problem or idea with him. During his army command, he made a habit of walking a fixed route at the same time each day. Everyone keeps an eye on the boss and his habits, and soldiers quickly learned to take advantage of this valuable face time. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell outright encouraged employees to enter and leave his office “without exaggerated ceremony.” He kept round tables in his office and conference rooms, so no one would ever occupy the head seat. His desk was colossal in size, but when people entered his office, he was quick to come out from behind it for a handshake, and he was known for conducting discussions in a small alcove adjoining his office.

Behind these tactics is Powell’s desire to keep one ear to the ground. “He was always very interested to hear from people on the front line,” Zinni says. “He talked to me every day and called me anytime there was a policy or strategic decision being made at the senior levels. He wants the views from the people who are going to execute those decisions. That’s one thing everyone loves about him – that ability to bring subordinates in and involve them.”

 “And with Powell, it’s genuine,” Zinni adds. “It’s not a put-on, and it’s not forced. He likes to seek people out at every level and always demonstrates his appreciation for what they do and for what they have to say.”
Powell believes that knowing the opinions of those at the bottom will better inform the decisions made by those at the top. By constantly taking the pulse of the organization from head to toe, Powell feels confident in backing his team to the hilt, even if it puts him in a tight spot. During Operation Desert Storm, General Norman Schwarzkopf told Powell he needed a few extra days before the agreed-upon date to start the ground campaign. The president was anxious to get the campaign underway, but Powell got his approval to wait a few days. Then Schwarzkopf made a second request for more time, citing issues with the weather.

Powell, under no small amount of pressure himself, told Schwarzkopf the delays were getting difficult to explain to the higher-ups. Schwarzkopf exploded that Powell didn’t understand his problems and didn’t care about the lives of the soldiers. “That did it,” Powell told PBS’s Frontline in 1996. “I exploded and started shouting back at him. And we got into a pretty good row. But then we have the utmost respect and affection for each other. I think the world of Norm. And we knew we’d better stop talking. So I said, ‘Look, Norm, we’ve got a problem. We’ll work our way through.’”

Schwarzkopf confessed that the pressure was building. “I think I’m losing it,” he said. “I feel like my head’s in a vise.”

“I said, ‘You’re not losing it. You have our total confidence, but you’ve got a problem. We’ll work our way through this problem. You know at the end of the day, I will carry your message forward. You’re the guy in the field.”
For Powell, the exchange was an exercise in an old lesson he learned watching two lawyers going at it – the lawyer who won the case later attributed his success not to the strength of his argument, but to the fact that the opponent let his ego get in the way. “Never let your ego get so close to your position that you lose your case and your ego at the same time,” Powell said at a speech at the fifth-annual Information Privacy Forum sponsored by InfoUSA in Aspen, CO. Powell took Schwarzkopf’s request to Cheney. “I told him, ‘We’ve got to wait a little while,’” Powell said. Half an hour later, the weather cleared, and Schwarzkopf was able to start the ground campaign with no further delays.

Powell, who retired from his position as secretary of state on November 15, 2004, continues to give speeches and promote the charity he founded in 1997, America’s Promise, with the objective of improving resources and education for children. He is not a man who likes to look back at turning points, greatest achievements or his most memorable moments. It’s no surprise that if he does have a definition of success, it’s wrapped up in the people who give their all for him, just as he gives his all in the work he does on behalf of the nation. As he told the Academy of Achievement: “No medal, no nice introduction, no awards could substitute for the knowledge I have that I’m reasonably well respected by my fellow soldiers. If I didn’t have that, I would have considered this to be a busted career.” •