It’s not often that political figures make us laugh, so when General Colin Powell took the stage on Monday night at Lisner Auditorium, the audience probably was not expecting to laugh. Instead Powell treated the audience to a motivating, informative, and humorous evening.
General Powell was interviewed by Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. The two met many times during Sesno’s career as a journalist and had a wonderfully respectful relationship on the stage.
The main point for the beginning half of their conversation was Powell’s book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. This is his second book, and Sesno was curious about the difference between this second book and his first, My American Journey.
Powell responded that in this book he didn’t want to talk about his own life and his time in the military or politics. “I don’t want to talk about history; I want to talk about today, the present, the future, I want to try to help people today as they get ready for tomorrow,” he said.
His new book consists of thirteen rules that Powell likes to live by. “They work for me in life and in leadership and so, that’s why I put the book together,” he said.
In 1989 a reporter from Parade magazine was doing a story on Powell. His assistant told the reporter to ask Powell about a list of sayings under the glass on his desk. Powell read off thirteen of the sayings, which have now become his “13 Rules of Leadership”
A theme runs throughout these rules: confidence and optimism.
“Believing in something, believing in yourself, but above all believing in your followers, trusting your followers, giving them respect, training them,” Powell said. ”… If you do all that to a group of followers they will give you their trust and they will take care of you while you’re taking care of them.”
Another of Powell’s rules that Sesno brought up was “It Ain’t As Bad As You Think, It’ll Look Better In The Morning.” Powell responded about the rule, saying, “Well, maybe it will, and maybe it won’t.” The idea is more an attitude than a prediction, a belief that “we’re going to make it better.”
Both Sesno and Powell agreed that President Ronald Reagan was a true optimist.
“Nobody could do it like Reagan could,” Powell said.
He then told the story of a trip back from the Moscow Summit when Powell, Reagan, and the rest of the group they were traveling with stopped in London for Reagan to give a speech. They had been up until 3 a.m. the night before, unhappy with what they had written for Reagan the next day. But at 7 a.m. the next morning, Powell had to hand the speech over to the President.
His advisors, including Powell, were nervous that the speech would be a dud. Margaret Thatcher introduced Reagan and Powell remembers, “Within a minute and a half, everyone was crying.”
Powell recalled an anecdote about Reagan that led to one of several outbursts of laughter from the audience that evening.
He was serving as the National Security Advisor and was giving Reagan the morning brief, telling Reagan about a problem that Powell was having. Reagan was paying no attention at all; instead he was looking out into the Rose Garden. After talking a little louder and still getting no response, Powell was ready to give up. It was then that Reagan got up out of his chair and said, “Colin, look, look. The squirrels just came and got the nuts I put in the Rose Garden.”
Powell left soon after and it was back in his office that he realized what was happening. “What he was saying to me was ‘Colin, you know, I love you. I’ll sit here for as long as you want me to, listening about your problem. But until you tell me I have a problem I’m going to watch the squirrels’… ”
Powell said that he has worked with many leaders in his time who he believes were great leaders, including President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “They were inspiring because they had a sense of purpose,” he said. ”And they were able to drive towards that purpose … they were able to bring their followers with them.”
Sesno then asked Powell, “Is leadership something you are born with or something you can learn?”
“I think it’s something you are born with. It has to be something inside of you that you are born with or gain early in life,” Powell responded.
Leaders “are born with a certain empathy for people and a certain ability to influence people,” he said.
“Leadership is all about people….People get work done. It is not the organization; it is not the PowerPoint charts; it is not the philosophy of the organization; it’s the people,” Powell said later in the evening. “So leadership is all about inspiring a group of people to achieve what needs to be achieved, to achieve purpose."
Written by Emily Hines, social media intern at The Smithsonian Associates.
Photos by Jamal Toye, video intern at The Smithsonian Associates.