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The first thing you need to know about Colin Powell is that you should address him as “General Powell,” not “Secretary Powell.” The second thing you should know is that he is funny—disarmingly funny, in fact.
One of the most esteemed leaders in U.S. military history, Powell joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as an unsure college student, eventually serving in the Army for more than three decades. Powell, who served as President Reagan’s National Security Advisor, was promoted to the rank of general in 1989, the same year President George H.W. Bush tapped him to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After a brief retirement, Powell returned to public service in 2001, when he became the first African American Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Powell left that position in 2005 and has since devoted himself full-time to his philanthropic and professional work.
Looking back on his decades-long, boundary-shattering career, Powell says that his military background has had a profound impact on his success.
“Everything I did in the military in terms of leadership and management were transferable to civilian life.” Powell says. “I’m often asked this: ‘What was different about being chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State?’ And the answer is not much. People are people—it’s you who has to adjust.”
During an interview at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Summit this past summer, Powell talked with FreeEnterprise.com about his upbringing, his career, his favorite television shows, Facebook, and even selfies. We’ve split the interview into two parts, the second of which runs tomorrow.
One thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it all started at ROTC at City College.
Why did you decide to join the military?
It was almost fate. I entered college a couple of months before my 17th birthday, so I was a kid. I was actually leaving my close-knit family to go off to college, and I started off in engineering—engineering didn’t agree with me. I changed my major to geology, and maybe if I had had the opportunity to quit college I might have. But my parents would have killed me. And then, in my second semester, I found these cadets marching around the campus, and I liked the discipline that they demonstrated and I joined ROTC to be a part of that group. I needed another family, and that family was the ROTC group. Once I had joined ROTC, I discovered that, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at this.’ And I knew how to march, and I knew how to take orders, and I knew how to show up on time. And I found something that turned me on. And one thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it all started at ROTC at City College.
I think everybody needs something that turns them on in life, and as I talk to young people around the country I keep reminding them that, as you start to mature or enter the workplace or higher education, always look for that which you love doing and which you do well. That’s what you want to do. Fame and fortune and money will come or not come. But if you’re doing what you love doing and if you do it well, success comes every day.
What did you find most challenging about being a solider and what did you love most about it?
War is the most challenging aspect. Knowing that when you’re in a battle—whether it’s Vietnam or other places—somebody is trying to kill you. Or when you’re more senior, and you’re in charge of forces going into battle, the most challenging part for me was when we launched an operation—be it the invasion of Panama or Desert Storm—whether I had done everything possible to make sure that our troops are successful and is there anything I’ve forgotten? Because I know that young men and young women are going to die tonight because of this operation, and I hope I’ve done everything to minimize that.
The best part of being a solider is just working with soldiers. I’m deeply involved in education now, and people think that that’s a little strange. But that’s what I did for 35 years. I took teenagers and made them soldiers. Sometimes they were teenagers with guns—but they were great teenagers with guns. The best part of being a solider was being able to train young Americans, to take in young men and women—in my case, mostly men in the early years—who were not sure where they were going in life, and either volunteered for military service, or were drafted at that time, and to make them soldiers who had a purpose in life, who were disciplined, and who could go anywhere now that they’d got that purpose, that discipline, and that structure in their life. I’m a great believer in giving youngsters structure in their lives.
As I talk to young people around the country I keep reminding them that, as you start to mature or enter the workplace or higher education, always look for that which you love doing and which you do well.
Who are some of the best leaders you’ve worked with?
Well, without singling out anyone to the disadvantage of somebody I didn’t single out, I’ve been privileged enough to work for many great leaders in the military. Most of my military commanders were inspirational to me because they were good, and they showed me how to be a soldier, and they kept me at the right level. They didn’t let my head swell, and they trained me. I could tell you a hundred stories like that. At a more senior level, I admired the people I worked for in the civilian part of our government: Secretary Weinberger—who was my boss at the Defense Department—Secretary Carlucci, and, of course, I admired all four presidents I worked for at a senior level. Though I would never single out one over the other—that wouldn’t be right.
The best part of being a solider is just working with soldiers.
How long had your “Thirteen Rules” been in the works before you shared them during your 1989 “Parade” interview? Which of those rules have been the most helpful to you specifically during your career?
Twenty-four years. But that’s when they became public. For years before that, I was just slipping these little snippets of ideas and thoughts and rules, so to speak, into my desk glass. And they were just there for me to look at from time to time. And there were a couple dozen of them. And I have never been able to find all of them again. I don’t know what I did with them.
But it was a reporter who called me about those at the suggestion of one of my assistants. And so, the guy called, and he asked me to read off some. And I just read off the 13 that were cleanest. He put them in the order that they are. That’s all there was to it. He printed it in Parade Magazine, which goes to 50 million homes every Sunday, and the next thing we knew people were asking for them. It’s been 25 years now that we’ve been handing these out. And I know a good thing when I see it, so I put them in my first book and they’re a solid basis for my second book—and people still ask about them.
They’re not so much rules. They’re sort of like, ‘Hey, these are the things I thought about as I was coming up. And take a look at them. Maybe they’ll give you some insight or inspire you, and maybe not. But just take a look at them. It worked for me,’ which is the title of my second book. What has surprised me so much is that I had never explained any of these things. They were just 13 little statements. In my second book, the new one, I explained what I meant by each one of them. But people, never having seen the explanation, just reading the single sentence words or phrases, tacked them up on walls, and made PowerPoint presentations out of them. So I’m very pleased that they got that kind of attention. They’re pretty common-sensical.