GEN. COLIN POWELL

November 27, 2018

 
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Ep. 2: How Colin Powell Became Colin Powell

November 27, 2018

Former Secretary of State and retired four-star general, Colin Powell, sits down with Carly for a conversation about his experience in leadership, and how his “long run of mediocrity” led him to become one of America’s most widely-respected leaders.

About this Episode:

General Powell visited Carly in her studio to talk about his life, his experience, and the unlikely lessons he learned from a very average upbringing. In this episode, they discuss:

  • How Colin Powell’s titles (National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State, General) weren’t what made him a leader

  • What he learned talking through the parking lot attendants at the State Department

  • His definition of character, and it’s significance in leadership and problem solving

  • How a leader must define purpose and mission for an organization

  • What Gen. Powell calls the “celebrification of American society”

  • The difference between leaders and managers, and what it takes to make up the difference

  • What to do when your superiors are on the wrong track

  • That leaders must have a bias to action, to not walk past a problem, no matter the size

  • The importance of humility in leadership

  • His upbringing in the Bronx, and his “long run of mediocrity”

  • The ROTC officers who changed his life and unlocked his potential

  • How he strove to improve, even at the Coca Cola bottling plant

  • What satisfaction means for him


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About the Guest:

General Colin Powell

Gen. Colin Powell is an American statesman and a retired four-star general in the United States Army. During his military career, Powell also served as National Security Advisor, as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, holding the latter position during the Persian Gulf War. Powell was the first, and so far the only, Jamaican American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the 65th United States Secretary of State, serving under U.S. President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, the first black person to serve in that position.

 
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SHOW NOTES:

 

Introducing today’s example, who leads a “masterclass in leadership” [0:26]

Carly introduces us to today’s example: Colin Powell [0:26]

  • Everyone thinks of General Colin Powell leader – his resume, from politics to diplomacy to education, speaks for itself

  • Beyond his titles and positions, though – he is a humble, courageous leader

Casey and a handsome man in a sweater discuss their excitement for the conversation [1:23]

  • Jeffrey doesn’t have a very good British accent

  • Colin Powell is a person you think of when you think leadership: he’s a retired four-star general, served as the National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the 65th Secretary of State under George W. Bush

  • Though he and Carly use different language based on their different experiences, they share many of the same values when it comes to leadership

Skip the title worry, parking attendant reviews, and unpacking leadership [5:33]

Carly and General Powell discuss their shared perspectives on the role of title and position in leadership [5:33]

It illustrates in yet another way – we get so fixated on people’s title, their position, their fame, their wealth. And the truth is, none of those things define them.
  • So often people assume that someone with a title is leading – but there are often people who have big titles who don’t lead – and people who don’t have any titles at all who are actually leading

  • You have to grow over time; when you’re starting out as a young lieutenant with 40 soldiers, just focus on those 40 young men. Later, you’ll be expected to learn more but never forget that you’re leading soldiers

One of General Powell’s favorite stories is from his time at the State Department, when he would go down to the parking garage and talk to the parking attendants [8:01]

  • The only way to fit all the cars was to stack them – and the third car couldn’t leave until the first and second had left in the evening

  • I asked them how they decided who’s going to be numbers one, two, and three and they said to him: “Mr. Secretary, if when you come in in the morning you stop by us, you lower your window and you look out and you say, ‘Good morning. How are you?’ you are number one.”

Carly and General Powell unpack leadership by talking about character [11:21]

  • Character is an old-fashioned word, but it’s really important; it’s how you behave and what image you are presenting to your followers

  • If you want human beings to follow you, you have to give them purpose

  • General Powell provides an excellent example, when he visited the Empire State Building, and a guide asked the janitors about their job and they said: “Our job is to make sure that when people come here tomorrow from all around the world, this building shines.” That’s purpose.

  • Character has to be more than image – if the image isn’t real, then people don’t believe the purpose

  • Unfortunately, our culture celebrates image over character too much of the time

Pissing people off (and wooly-pully sweaters), leaders are not managers, and your brain in Alabama [17:19]

Pissing people off is an important part of character [17:19]

  • You’re not there to be a nice guy; you’re there to lead the group

  • Why Colin Powell wears wooly-pully sweaters as a part of his leadership style

  • And you need to expect truth – even if it’s not nice – from your team and staff, too

  • As a leader, once you’ve heard everything, you still have to make a decision; not everyone may agree, but everyone needs to walk out believing in that decision

Leaders are not managers [18:52]

  • Managers will do the best they can within the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo

  • General Powell shares that he has had commanders who worked for him that were perfectly competent that didn’t inspire; they didn’t have the extra 20%

  • Character is built more rapidly in difficult times than in easy times

Leaders have teams and colleagues who bring them problems [20:07]

  • You know you’re no longer leading if your desk is clear and nobody’s coming in to see you

  • If people don’t bring you a problem, it’s either because they don’t think you can solve it or they think you don’t care

  • You need to tell your superiors and your bosses if they are not doing the right thing, even if it is hard and even if you might pay a price for it

  • Don’t avoid a problem; confront it. In the military, there’s a bias to action: “Lieutenant Powell, don’t stand there with your finger in your ear and your brain in Alabama. Do something!”

Choosing to lead, setting high standards, and talking about the “unmentionables” [23:52]

Carly and General Powell discuss the institution of the military and what it looks like when you have position but you DON’T solve problems [23:52]

People get very confused about leadership… it isn’t title, it isn’t position, it isn’t fame, it isn’t ego, it isn’t controversy… It’s problem-solving and character, and the courage to do the right thing when it’s easier not to do anything.
  • The military is not a perfect institution; not everyone has chosen the path that General Powell chose, to stay true to the fundamentally human aspects of leadership at every juncture

  • General Powell attributes that to constantly think that he can learn from everybody and never looking down on anyone

  • People can have enormous position and title and not lead because they’re not solving problems; they don’t have courage and character and the ability to collaborate and form a team

Leaders always strive to do better [27:25]

  • Leaders should encourage their units to achieve the highest standards; you don’t get a lot of satisfaction out of achieving easy goals

  • General Powell shares his story of testing two tank battalions and one commander kept winning; it was clearly about one leader, not about the sources or supplies

  • Attitude – believing in yourself and inspiring your team to believe in themselves – can be a game-changer­­

Good leaders will foster an environment where you can talk about the tough stuff [29:34]

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  • In many organizations, people know what the problems are and where they are, but they won’t talk about it

  • Leaders need to create a space where people will talk about these “unmentionables” so they can get solved and everyone can move on

  • If you talk to the people at every level, eventually the staff begins to realize that they need to solve the problems that their employees have – before those employees bring those problems straight to the top

  • Those techniques have to be real – they can’t be image; they can’t just be brown bags for 30 minutes

A long run of mediocrity, becoming a good soldier, and Pepsi Cola plant learning [32:48]

General Powell finds his way to leadership after a long run of mediocrity [32:48]

  • General Powell was a straight-C student before he went to college and joined ROTC; he was a drifting kid, but blessed with a tight-knit family and a diverse neighborhood where everyone learned to get along

  • When General Powell wanted to go to a selective high school, his guidance counselor advised against it – and it was the best thing that ever happened to him; he wouldn’t have been successful without that long run of mediocrity at first

  • Some officers saw potential in him; they saw that he liked running trick drills and regular drill meetings

  • He didn’t have the same opportunities, but he took advantage of those he did have: City College of New York and ROTC

“My ambition was to become a good soldier” [38:04]

  • People often ask General Powell if his ambition was to become a general, but the reality is that his ambition was to become a good soldier

  • Satisfaction was feeling every day like he had done his best

Experiential learning from the Pepsi Cola plant [39:18]

  • At age 17 or 18, General Powell was working at the Pepsi Cola plant in New York, mopping floors; at the end of the summer, the foreman asked General Powell if he wanted to come back and he said yes – as long as he didn’t have to mop floors. So he integrated the bottling machine at the Pepsi Cola plant in New York City

  • If you perform well when you’re doing something you don’t want to do and that you don’t like doing – somebody is always watching and they’ll take that into account

Real friendship, walking the walk, and leadership over “likes”

Casey and Jeffrey debrief on a classic friendship and they key lessons of leadership from the discussion between Carly and General Powell [42:23]

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  • General Powell and Carly have known each other for a long time and they have a rich, genuine friendship that is fun to get to listen to

  • One theme that we heard a lot about is humility: it often shows up in places where you don’t expect it (like in General Powell’s parking garage story)

  • The garage story is also a great example of the idea that the people closest to the problem are best positioned to solve that problem

  • Carly and General Powell, during this conversation, both “walk the walk” – they exemplify their beliefs about leadership

  • Too often, our culture is about digital, mobile, fast-moving, title, position, and “likes” or “followers” – but Carly and General Powell talk about a more meaningful culture and style of leadership

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

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