Colin Powell on Leadership Skills and the Digital World

Colin Powell: General (four-star) in the U.S. ...

Colin Powell: General (four-star) in the U.S. Army; National Security Advisor (1987–1989); Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–93); 65th Secretary of State (2001–2005) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Lillian Williams

A life is about its events; it’s about challenges met and overcome—or not; it’s about successes and failures.  But more than all of these put together, it’s about how we touch and are touched by the people we meet.”

That’s a quote from Colin Powell’s latest book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (HarperCollins).

Powell recently promoted the book in Chicago, where I heard him speak to a packed audience at the Union League Club.

He elaborated on a few of his thirteen leadership rules outlined in the book. Significantly for this blog, the book also describes how Powell put his stamp on technology at the U.S. State Department. More about the digital angle in a moment.

Essentially his remarks that day contained an overarching piece of leadership advice: Take the high road (stay positive), even when dealing with your adversaries. “Always have a positive attitude,” he repeatedly told the crowd, though his book also advises leaders to consider “counterviews” when appropriate, prior to making decisions.

His leadership rules, as you might imagine, were shaped largely by experiences during his public service career.

A retired four-star general in the U.S. Army, Powell served four presidential administrations, in the posts of Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He served two tours in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart. His career began when he signed up as an ROTC cadet at the age of 17, staying with the military until he retired from active duty in 1993.  Son of Jamaican immigrants, he grew up in the South Bronx of New York.

The short and snappy titles of his leadership lessons make plain his thoughts. No guess-work necessary. Among the rules are: “It Ain’t As Bad As You Think.  It Will Look Better In The Morning,” “Get Mad, Then Get Over It, “Share Credit,” and “Don’t Take Counsel of Your Fears Or Naysayers.”

As he often does, Powell told vivid stories about what influenced his philosophy. The anecdotes brought smiles to faces in the audience–at least until the following issue was raised.


When Powell began to discuss his involvement with the lead-up to the Iraq war, the Union League ballroom seemed to grow quieter.  At nearly every speaking engagement, Powell said that he is asked about this issue. Though he didn’t break new ground, he offered his viewpoint again.

Saying that he was given erroneous information, Powell described his infamous 2003 speech to the United Nations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as one of his greatest “failures.”  The book chapter devoted to this issue has been critically reviewed at outlets ranging from Bloomberg and Esquire, to the Huffington Post.

So, how do you respond–or how do you live with–failure? That’s certainly a fair question, given the subject of Powell’s book.

“Always try to get over failure quickly,” Powell responds in the chapter concerning his failure.

“Learn from it. Study how you contributed to it.  If you are responsible for it, own up to it.  Though others may have greater responsibility for it than you do, don’t look for that as an escape hatch.  Once you have analyzed what went wrong and what you did wrong, internalize the lessons and then move on.”

Digital Technology Revolution

Powell’s book also includes a chapter titled “Fast Times In the Digital World.”  In it, he reflects on digital technology challenges faced by the State Department.

“When I became Secretary, I was anxious to see how the department had been keeping up with the information technology revolution,” he wrote. Powell served as Secretary of State in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005.

“The picture I saw was unsatisfactory.  We had many generations of computers and incompatible systems—including a large number of antique Wang desktop computers, running legacy programs.”  Most of the computers did not have Internet access, he noted.

But getting up to speed with hardware and software wasn’t the greatest challenge, he said.  “We had to persuade the entire State Department that we were now in a transactional, not lunar, world. We no longer lived a time-bound existence where our work and actions are measured by clocks and the passage of days.”

“I never stopped pressing our people to increase their email use and update our databases with each transaction and not at the dictates of arbitrary calendar dates.”

As a journalist operating in this digital age, I certainly grasped those concerns.

Questions About His Views On Digital Technology

Though I did not have an opportunity to ask, I wanted to hear Powell’s views on how digital technology might be used more effectively to meet some of today’s pressing problems.

After all, he founded America’s Promise Alliance, a foundation devoted to assisting children. Powell writes in his book that his grandchildren are digital natives, and that their behaviors have sensitized him. He points to his service on the AOL board for several years.  He notes that his son, Mike, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005, taught him a lot.

So, I’d like to hear Powell’s thoughts on the potential of digital technologies.

For example, in a few months the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans will become the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a daily paper. The paper will cut its printed editions from seven to three days a week (and lay off 32 percent of its employees), though editors promise to beef up the online operation. We know that journalism continues to undergo transformative change brought about by digital technology and other factors.

However, the New Orleans case exposes another issue: Thirty-six percent of New Orleans residents do not have Internet access at home.  That’s according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

How does this lack of access affect New Orleans residents? How will the switch to a Web-based news product affect these consumers? A recent article captured the poignant feedback of New Orleans residents who are concerned about this issue.

So, what leadership skills would Powell recommend to deal with this digital access—or rather lack of access–issue?

And, let’s widen the discussion to embrace another trouble spot—education. To level the playing field for public school students in places like New Orleans, does Powell have any advice to offer?

In East St. Louis, Ill., for example, the latest figures show that only 11 percent of high school students meet or exceed state standards for education.  As numerous educational surveys show, East St. Louis is not alone.

The education problem requires a combination of solutions, but could technological advances help to turn things around? Might more students be tutored through online methods, in addition to traditional approaches?

Or, turning to violence in U.S. cities: Children and adults die daily in senseless waves of street crime.  In the city of Chicago where I live, it’s tough to locate a peaceful spot  in some neighborhoods. Could there be a greater role for digital technology in the fight against crime?

I’m sure that Powell continues to ponder such issues.  I wish that I could have heard his thoughts that day in Chicago.  But, time was limited.

It’s your turn.  What are your thoughts on the potential of digital technology to offer unconventional solutions to resolve nagging social problems?

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One Response to Colin Powell on Leadership Skills and the Digital World

  1. Pingback: Leadership — what is it? « The Good News

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