450 days with Colin Powell taught me more than a school education or any other professional experience. Stories offer a window into Powell’s thinking, world, wisdom, and heart. National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for George Herbert Walker Bush, and Bill Clinton, Secretary of State under George W. Bush, he was also a friend – a friend to all. His values in stories:
Honesty. “Don’t be afraid to be a skunk at the garden party.” The day was full, tempo fast. We were in the National Security Council – not uncommon – discussing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2004.
An event had occurred, and the Secretary of Defense was saying it was the fault of an American ally. Powell listened. Even as a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he tried to stay in his lane.
The President was taking it in. Others in the room knew this was a US failing, but no one wanted to contradict Rumsfeld. Finally, in that little, quiet room, Powell slapped the table. The room went silent.
Powell had had enough. From memory, he laid down eleven layers of force structure possessed by this ally, making clear they did not have the capacity, and we did. This was not their fault but ours. Fixing the future meant we owned it. Honest advice is worth having and giving.
Respect. “What’s your name?” Yes, he practiced obvious leadership lessons, like praise in public, criticize in private, but far more. He knew everyone at State, kitchen to garage crew.
With hundreds in my bureau, buildings across DC, a team member arrived one day, looking mystified. Her building was over on Navy Hill. I asked what was up.
“Well,” she said, “two years ago, when the Secretary arrived, he walked all over these buildings, met thousands of people, shook every hand … We poured out into the halls, and he asked us all – ‘what is your name, what are you working on, any kids, their names?’ He did that with everyone.” That sounded like Powell, about people.
“But that’s not it …” she said. “I have not seen him since that day, and just bumped into him … He knew my name, and asked me about my three children, by name … How can he do that?” Smart, full of respect.
Caring. “I love apples.” Apple season and our family was picking. Our daughter, then four, suddenly announced she was picking apples for Colin Powell. We smiled, but she did.
The next day, as promised, I delivered them. Our day was full of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten o’clock that night, the Secretary’s aide appeared in my doorframe with an envelope. “Secretary wanted me to give this to you.” A handwritten note to my four-year-old, in a big hand, so she could see the words, saying “thank you … I love apples, thank you so much for picking those for me. Your friend, Colin Powell.” If he did that once, he did it ten thousand times. Life is about caring.
Forgiveness. “Don’t worry, over …” Sitting in the Secretary’s office, I overstepped – critical of an embassy’s operations. The Secretary reminded me we are one team. He was firm. I was chagrinned, never wanting to disappoint Colin Powell.
We talked for a while, but I felt terrible. Leaving, I paused in his doorframe to apologize again. “Bobby, don’t worry, over, on to other things.” Simple as that, point made and taken, over.
He was passing mercy forward. As a young man, he misplaced a service weapon, which could have been career-ending. He confessed to his commanding officer, who then opened a drawer, gave it to him, and said, “don’t let it happen again.” Mercy matters; pass it forward.
Humor. “Bobby Ray …” At my official swearing-in, the small Maine town from which I come showed up in force – mid-blizzard. Powell was moved. “Is there anyone left in Wayne, Maine?”
On a trip to Mexico City, we got in late. Powell called us to his room for, pre-game talk. Mike Levitt, former Utah Governor, then at HHS, started laughing about a time Powell had come to Utah – to speak to a “truckers’ convention.” Powell retold the story.
“I made the mistake of saying, if I had another life, it would have been as a trucker, but no truck.” Well, when everything ended, ballcaps handed out, he found an 18-wheeler at the front door. “For you, Sir!”
“So, I said, ‘Mike climb in,’ and we turned our caps around, got in and I drove off, around corners, and we dead-end at a park, family having a picnic on a blanket…” They laughed.
Leavitt said, “Can you imagine it, our faces pressed against the windshield, looking down, this poor family looking up, not believing what they are seeing, their governor and a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, hats backward in a big rig?” We all laughed. Secret: Nerves were gone.
The next day, creating an inside joke, Powell introduced his team. When he got to me, new to all this, he introduced me as “Bobby Ray Charles,” smiling.
Afterward, to be sure all was as it should be, I said, “Sir, um, just wanted to say, well, just in case you might have thought, or just to be sure, just wanted to say, um, my middle name isn’t actually Ray.” He put his arm around my shoulder, “I know, Bobby.”
That point forward, it was his way of saying, you are on my team, welcome. On handwritten notes after that, he sometimes opened with “Bobby Ray.” I loved it. Who would not? Humor.
Courage. “Just having a bad day …” Two combat tours, wounded in Vietnam, saving fellow soldiers, 35 years in the Army, countless trips into warzones, Powell had courage.
But courage comes in many forms. Sometimes it is patience. He got memos that might be interpreted as offensive. He held fire, “I think what my friend is looking for is …” he would say, “just having a bad day …” Take nothing personally; it works.
Gratitude. Powell knew others knew what he did not, honored their knowledge. Sometimes a “thank you” is not words. The President wanted a brief on Mexico; Powell could have done it. Instead, he found two experts, brought them to the White House, let them brief. Never forgotten. Other times, he would say, “come on, you’re coming with me.” Gratitude.
America will miss this man, and so will I, epic leader, epic friend – of all Americans. We are fortunate to have lived in his time, but his values live on to illuminate the future through us.
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