Saluting General Powell: some personal memories and tribute to a truly great American

Today we learned the very sad news that General Colin Powell,a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity,” passed away.  There will no doubt be many wonderful tributes to him, but allow me to add a few personal notes to his many well-deserved accolades.  Let me put it plainly: General Powell’s legacy epitomizes what it is to be a truly great American. He was a leader’s leader.

I had the honor of speaking with him twice in the early 1990s when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS).  Despite their brevity, each encounter made a lasting impression upon me.   

The first occasion was when I was a student at the National War College and he was a guest speaker.  I asked him about the just-completed 1990-91 Gulf War.  Specifically, I wanted to know how he came up with such perfect wording at a press conference at the start of the war.  The New York Times relates:

When briefing reporters at the Pentagon at the beginning of the gulf war, Mr. Powell summed up the military’s approach: “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple,” he said. “First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

I can’t remember his precise words, but they were to the effect that the comment wasn’t made up off-the-cuff; rather, it was carefully crafted in advance to send a clear message not just to America and our allies, but also to the Iraqis – and especially their army.  How much effect Powell’s deadly determination had on the minds of Iraqi soldiers, no one knows for sure, but we do know that thousands surrendered with little or no resistance.

The lesson I carried with me the rest of my life from that exchange was an important one: it’s all about preparation.  In essence, General Powell gave me a personal reminder of one of his oft-quoted leadership principles:There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

The next meeting was in the spring of 1992.  The CJCS sponsored the Strategy Essay Competition for all the students at the various war colleges.  Much to my astonishment, my essay – The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012 – was selected as co-winner.

With Gen Powell and my wife Joy, 1992

I received a commemorative plaque from General Powell at a Pentagon awards ceremony.  On that day General Powell was doing a whole series of award presentations, promotions, and other recognition events, one after another.  He arrived in the anteroom a few minutes before my ceremony, and we had a conversation (albeit a short one!) which was mostly him asking about me.  Somehow, he made me feel like I (and the paper I wrote) had completely captured his attention.

When we went into the presentation area filled with my friends and colleagues, General Powell conducted the ceremony in a way that is still hard for me to believe.  With no notes, no “smart card” handed to him by an aide (as is typical with most busy senior officers in such situations), he spoke extemporaneously about my paper – and me – in such a detailed manner I could imagine attendees would think we were fishing buddies.

General Powell appreciated that the event was a very big deal for me – a mere lieutenant colonel at the time – and made it his business to ensure the event was a memorable one.  This is the kind of sincere caring that builds loyalty and respect in subordinates; it really can’t be taught or feigned – but General Powell was gifted with that kind of charisma.

Of course, how he did it all from memory, I’ll never know, especially as he went on to conduct so many other ceremonies that very afternoon.  Still, the message was clear: taking a sincere interest in your subordinates is an indispensable element of genuine leadership.  Again, another lesson I never forgot.

In my almost 35 years in uniform, I never heard anyone in the military – even in private conversations – ever disparage General Powell’s character or competence.  He was truly one of those extremely rare people who, if you are very lucky, you might meet once or twice in a lifetime.

There is so much to say about him.  For example, military leaders bristle, sometimes unproductively, at civilians who appear too cavalier about the potential human costs to those America will send in harms’ way when military force is used. 

General Powell, however, showed us the textbook way to handle such tricky civil-military relations’ situations.  He describes an incident that arose in the 1990s as the U.S. was shaping its approach to the deepening crisis in the Balkans:

My constant, unwelcome message at all the meetings on Bosnia was simply that we should not commit military forces until we had a clear political objective. [Defense Secretary Les] Aspin shared this view. The debate exploded at one session when Madeleine Albright, our ambassador to the U.N. [and later secretary of state], asked me in frustration, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about it if we can’t use it?” I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board. I patiently explained that we had used our armed forces more than two dozen times in the preceding three years for war, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance. But in every one of those cases we had a clear goal and had matched our military commitment to the goal. As a result, we had been successful in every case. I told Ambassador Albright that the U.S. military would carry out any mission it was handed, but my advice would always be that the tough political goals had to be set first. (Emphasis added.)

As scholars know, this discussion reflects part of what has been called the Powell Doctrine as to how the U.S. ought to think about the use military force.  That doctrine has been critiqued, but in my view, it has stood the test of time.  (Take a look at Frank Hoffman’s excellent essay, A Second Look at the Powell Doctrine.)

Here are the eight ‘Powell Doctrine’ questions that ought to be asked before committing the military:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

As we assess America’s involvement in Afghanistan, reflecting on the Powell Doctrine remains a very worthwhile and, indeed, necessary task.

I also invite your attention to General Powell’s leadership lessons.  Many generals have them (mine are here), but Steven Matthew Leonard observes in this terrific discussion (here) that General Powell’s were unique.  Leonard says:

Like most of our leadership lists, Powell’s rules are actually lessons themselves, gleaned from his decades in uniform. The genius is in their simplicity; the power is in their brevity. He doesn’t waste a lot of words; he doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining them. Instead, he shares them with the same directness that came to define him as a leader.

As I say, read Leonard’s piece but here are Powell’s succinctly stated leadership axioms:

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done!
  5. Be careful what you choose.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices.
  8. Check the small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Everyone can learn from Powell’s wisdom.  Like so many Americans, I wish General Powell had run for President – but I respect his family-centered reasons for not doing so.  Still, his leadership positively impacted my life and that of so many others in such a very real way that his memory will be with us always. 

We all mourn General Powell’s passing, but to paraphrase General George Patton, in our grief we should also thank God that such a man lived.  Let’s work to honor his memory, and try to live up to his example of what a genuine American patriot ought to be.




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