Four-Star Leadership

Oct 24, 2010 No Comments by

A few years ago I read the autobiography of former US Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Four-Star Army General Colin Powell. Agree or disagree with his politics, one cannot help but be struck by four compelling traits he has demonstrated in his public and private life:

  • his humility,
  • his flexibility,
  • his gift for leadership
  • and his talent for solving problems.

Today I’ve listed a pair of my favorite quotes by Powell that demonstrate these traits. (I’ll put another pair up tomorrow.)  The first example is my favorite because it demonstrates a facet of leadership that I see sadly lacking in many organizations – humility.  What makes it more intriguing is that he fully developed this gift in an organization that is thought to promote driven leaders who are anything BUT humble!I encourage you to consider how Powell’s traits might fit into your work as a Change Leader or Change Agent.

1. Humility as a Virtue: Powell recalled the story of a childhood summer job he held working as a porter in a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant:

“When I reported in, I was handed a mop, an experience that black workers have had for generations.  I noticed that all the other porters were black and all the workers on the bottle machines were white.  I took the mop.  If that was what I had to do to earn $65 a week, I’d do it.  I’d mop the place until it glowed in the dark.  Whatever skill the job required, I soon mastered. “

At the end of the summer, the foreman said, “Kid, you mop pretty good.”

“You gave me plenty of opportunity to learn,” I told him.

“Come back next summer and I’ll have a job for you.”

Not behind the mop I said. I wanted to work on the bottling machine. And next year, that is where he put me.  By the end of the summer, I was deputy shift leader, and had learned a valuable lesson.  All work is honorable. Always do your best, because someone is watching.

Here’s what I learned from this story: The best way to get promoted into your next role is to excel at the role you are in right now!

Many soldiers who later came to serve under Powell would experience his humility and his raw ability to relate to the common man.  The seed of this leadership trait was not planted in a military academy or an elite university… it was planted back when the teenager was pushing a mop.  The General knew how the soldiers felt because he never forgot what it was like to walk a mile in their shoes.

2. Flexibility is Not a Weakness: During his long career of public service, Colin Powell was at one time the most senior military officer responsible for the application of the most powerful fighting force in the world.  At another point in his life, he would become the most important statesman responsible for exercising all possible diplomatic means to avoid the use of force.  How could one man have held these seemingly juxtaposed positions?  One word: flexibility.

Here’s a Powell quote that demonstrates his openness to reason and compromise:

Throughout history, the word ‘compromise” has been politicized to represent the best and the worst of outcomes… But it will always be a staple of involved leadership.

…just as they did in Philadelphia when they were writing the constitution, sooner or later, you’ve got to compromise. You’ve got to start making the compromises that arrive at a consensus and move the country forward.

Whatever you think of Powell’s work as the senior diplomat, its hard to deny that he tolerated all sorts of opinions and at least considered all sides of a situation before taking action.  He always tried to keep the greater good of those he served in the forefront of the decision-making process. Powell was known to be very opinionated in private – but a team player in front of the cameras. His tenure at the State Department was marked by his frequent opposition to the positions taken by the same military leaders he used to hold as peers. In 2008, the Republican even crossed party lines to endorse Barrack Obama for President – even though Obama’s campaign platform promised to change course on many of the initiatives Powell had started in the previous administration.

Tomorrow, I’ll get into the second pair of Powell’s strengths that Change Leaders and Change Agents can learn from: his problem-solving ability and his penchant for being able to lead people through difficult situations.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. In your opinion, do you find that organizations today promote more humble leaders or more arrogant leaders?
  2. What can leaders learn from those who disagree with them?

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