By listening to staff and infantrymen of all levels and pacing himself through his work, Colin Powell was an effective leader, he said. The retired four-star general and former secretary of state spoke May 30 in the Massey Performing Arts Center to promote his latest book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.
“A successful leader is somebody who has the ability to inspire followers,” Powell said. “It is born in you to start with. You must have affection for people … and from that point on it is trained and developed through education. Leaders delegate the ability to get the job done and look at the broader world that you are in.”
The book focuses on human relations and translates his experiences with former President Ronald Reagan and an African American street sweeper in Philadelphia as well as relates stories from his time in Vietnam, Fort Campbell, Ky. and the U.S. Department of State into lessons on leadership for university classrooms and corporate boardrooms.
Powell’s appearance in Nashville was part of Salon@615, an author reading series presented jointly by Humanities Tennessee, the Nashville Public Library, the Nashville Public Library Foundation and Parnassus Books. Random House Executive Editor and Executive Vice President Jon Meacham conducted the conversation with Powell before an audience of more than 900 people before a brief question and answer session and book signing.
Before his visit to Nashville, Powell stopped at Fort Campbell, Ky., the army base where he once served as second brigade commander.
“A lot of the stories in the book come out of that experience at Fort Campbell, so I was anxious to go back and see how things have changed. We should be so proud of these kids. They do anything we ask of them,” Powell said.
He kept the crowd chuckling through his imitations of Ronald Reagan in the White House, Mikhail Gorbachev in the Moscow Kremlin and Transportation Security Administration officials in airports. Most important to leaders are human interaction and respect, he said.
“Americans are pushing politicians into extremely orthodox positions on the left and right, which makes it extremely hard for them to get back to the middle and move this country forward,” Powell said. “We, the citizens of the United States, have got to start examining these positions closely and stop falling for the rebel rousers … We have to remain an open, powerful, freedom-loving nation.”
A graduate of City College of New York with an MBA from George Washington University, Powell served two tours of duty in Vietnam during which he was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Soldier’s Medal. In all, he has received 11 military decorations, including the Legion of Merit. In 1987, Powell was appointed National Security Advisory under President Ronald Reagan and later served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush. In 1997, Powell returned to his alma mater, the City College of New York, to open the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service, offering high-achieving CCNY students the opportunity to prepare for careers in policy and public service. For the rest of the decade, he continued his work with young people as Chairman of America’s Promise: the Alliance for Youth. In 2001, newly elected President George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell to be Secretary of State, an office he held until 2004.