General Colin Powell, as part of the Washington Speakers Bureau's Summer Speaker Series, offered insight on what it takes to thrive as a leader during challenging times. The hour-long presentation was broadcast via webinar on Wednesday, August 18, 2010. Powell spoke candidly about career highs and lows for approximately twenty minutes before taking questions from the live audience and online attendees.
Powell, 73, has a decorated history in leadership. The four-star general was national security advisor during the Reagan administration, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during George H.W. Bush's presidency, and secretary of state for President George W. Bush. Though retired from political life, Powell still maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, which he considers his primary business interest. Powell said he enjoys connecting with audiences and that they give just as much back to him as he hopes he gives them.
Powell noted that much of his time was spent outside of the United States while working for past presidents and now he relishes in the chance to get his "fingers on the pulse of Americans and what America is thinking." He said Washington is not always reflective of the true America and he prefers traveling the country while speaking to a variety of people and hearing their views and concerns.
Despite severe economic hardships in the U.S., Powell said most people he encounters are not afraid of the future, and while they may be worried for the time being, "they are confident in our system." He said he tries to remind people how far the nation has come and how strong its people are. Even during troubled times and popularity decline, Powell said the U.S. is "still the land of hopes and dreams and opportunity."
Whether speaking to thousands of people in an auditorium or eight people in a hotel room, Powell is passionate about his mission to share, inspire and help others succeed. He shared his preferences for venues and said his favorite places to speak are old, refurbished movie theaters from the '20s and '30s.
"There ain't no old movie, just me. There's nothing more exciting for me as a speaker than to wander those old movie stages ... all eyes on me," he said.
Powell shared tips for those still adjusting to the speaking circuit. He noted the importance of connecting with an audience.
"People enjoy you opening the door to your life and sharing stories. It breaks the tension," he said. "Have a little fun and warm up the audience ... the atmosphere lightens and people want to hear more."
Oftentimes, companies provide an outline of what they want you to speak about in hopes of motivating and educating attendees. Powell said to always take client needs into account when preparing a speech and incorporate personal experience that relates to the organization's goals. By doing this, you are "talking with them and for them."
To be a successful and respected leader, you need to invest time and energy into understanding your organization. While stress and outside concerns can sometimes steal focus, Powell said it is imperative to always remember the positive nature of your company and its employees.
Further, Powell explained the importance of acknowledging all members of your team, regardless of their level in the company. He recalled being in a parking garage and speaking to the workers about their daily duties. When Powell asked how they determine the order of handling the incoming cars, they shared that those who roll their windows down and acknowledge their presence get better service.
Another essential quality of an effective leader is the ability to delegate responsibility. Powell spoke about a time when he met with President Reagan to share some problems he was encountering. While speaking, Powell noticed the president was distracted by squirrels eating nuts in the rose garden. Even after raising his voice, the president maintained focus on the squirrels outside the window. It was then that Powell realized it was not his place to bring his issues to the president, and by not acknowledging his concerns, the president was actually saying, "I will listen to you for as long as you want, but you are not my problem ... you come see me when I have a problem."
Powell explained that when you are hired as a leader, someone is entrusting you to take on that role and not rely on them for an easy fix.
"Keep unto yourself those things that you have to do and delegate responsibilities," said Powell.
Powell also stressed the importance of embracing diversity. He said America's melting pot is what keeps the nation thriving and that minorities will eventually be the majority.
"We have to learn to get along as a diverse society ... it will be an inspiration to the rest of the world," he said.
Powell, a son of Jamaican immigrants and raised in New York City, spoke about an encounter he had with an immigrant hot dog vendor. After asking the man how much he owed, the man replied, "You don't have to pay me. I've already been paid ... America has paid me. I'm here."
Powell noted that this country is still the same country that welcomed his parents and offered them hope years ago.
"America will always remain leader as long as we keep those dreams alive," he said.
Though the U.S. is still a dominant global force, Powell said the nation should be careful not to rest on its superpower status.
"America is still number one. We still have that title of leadership, but we can't treat the world like they're 13, 14 and 15," he said. "We need to look at them as two, three and four."
After 40 years of public service, garnering several honors, and speaking to patrons around the world, Powell found it hard to comment on his greatest achievements when asked by an audience member.
"I don't really think of my life in those terms. I'm a product of everything. My successes and my failures," he said.
Now, Powell enjoys balancing his speaking engagements, nonprofit work, and family life outside of the political spotlight. When asked what he hopes to be remembered by, Powell kept it short and simple: "Good soldier. Served well. Great family."