ECC ’17: Leadership roles in innovation and mentoring

The iconic Colin Powell gave a powerful, personal, persuasive closing keynote address at the 49th ECC conference in Boca Raton. For 90 minutes, without notes or a prompter, he regaled ~700 attendees with vignettes from his life. His oratory exhibited the cadence and rhythm of his 2014 book, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership”. (Not a memoir like his “My American Journey” from 2003, this latest book in 44 short chapters reveals the principles that have shaped his life and career).

His life was shaped by the principles and ethics of his parents, and of his grand-parents who had immigrated from Jamaica in the 1920s.  He talked of his opportunities: to attend a tuition-free high school academy, then at CCYNY majoring in geology, afterwards enlisting in the army as 2nd Lieutenant from ROTC. His alma mater has named an entire school named after him, the “Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership”. Every time that he walks through that campus, he is struck by the diversity of students from all parts of the globe, and by their hopefulness about life in America.

We heard about key moments in his four decades of military service. In Vietnam, he was acutely aware that his unit had small nuclear weapons, hoped they would never have to use them. At the peak of his career he was a four-star general, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was not retired very long before being asked to serve again, as the Secretary of State. He remains convinced that the USA still needs a strong diplomatic corps, so our military advantage in nuclear weapons should never need to be used. He spoke fondly about the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan. One vignette was about a high-level meeting of concerned cabinet members over Japanese buying up so many prize properties e.g. the Rockefeller Center. Reagan replied “Well, you know, they all think the USA is a good investment”: always optimistic. Powell experienced a role reversal when President Bush sent him to Moscow to tell President Putin that the US was going to scrap the ABM treaty. Putin condemned it in strong terms, then abruptly switched to calmly asking Colin Powell and his Russian counterpart to draw up a new treaty, which still prevails.

One snowy evening while being driven home to McLean, VA he got a phone call from State Department Operations that he had been replaced by Condoleezza Rice. By the time he got home, all of the government phones were being removed. The next morning over coffee he told his wife how good it was he would no longer have to leave the house at 6:30 am. His wife’s under-her-breath reaction, to the idea of him being home more, made him realize that their marriage of 55 years was made possible, in part, by each of them leading purposeful lives: Alma Powell still runs America’s Promise alliance which he established two decades ago. So, he bought a Corvette, now the county police love to catch him speeding. As ex-GIs, they salute, then write him a ticket: trained too well by the military to do their duty! There is a YouTube video of him and VP Joe Biden racing their corvettes on a Secret Service training track.

These days, he is on the speaker circuit, which he really enjoys because he comes away refreshed by the optimism and energy at the events, and he always studies up on the organization ahead of time. His recent experience with start-up firm Bloom Energy convinced him this innovative Silicon Valley technology firm really needs construction firms who know permitting and connecting things together. (Bloom Energy makes natural gas-powered solid oxide fuel cells, each one producing 700 kW, remotely monitored and repairable without shutting down. Five of these tied together can power one Home Depot store, making it less dependent on the electricity grid).

He is not impressed by the failure of Congress to do its job - rather than endless continuing resolutions, get on with the people’s business: our founding fathers wrote the US constitution in just two months. Gen. Powell stated clearly his opinion about countries with which we have a difficult relationship: not all of his former colleagues agree.

North Korea: North Korea continue to provoke us by launching missiles, posting video on the internet. Our media gets stirred up: this is the wrong reaction. This panicky publicity fuels their behavior. What gain could North Korea get from launching a nuclear missile, which would be certain suicide? They are developing this capability mainly to deter US from attacking THEM. Their family dynasty is determined to maintain control, and are supported in this by China with money and oil. China does not want the regime to just collapse, because that would displace 27 million North Koreans across the border as refugees. General Powell also did not think highly of the USA sending a carrier force to North Korea. In addition to originally going the wrong way, what would the carrier do? Ram North Korea? (said with tongue firmly in cheek).

Russia: President Putin has moved his sphere of influence to borders of the former USSR, but he does not seem to want to go beyond that. Putin has high voter approval in Russia, so is politically safe. One true story about his time with George Bush: when President Bush said of meeting Putin “I can see his soul”, Powell thought “I can see KGB”.

China: Their ambitions are economic, not geographic. Sure, they are creating bases on reefs in the South China sea, but that is to solidify their claim to that area: it does not expand beyond that.  When Xi Jinping spoke at Davos, he laid out a strategic vision, and followed that up with his One Belt, One Road initiative.  This uses both maritime and land-based connections through Eurasia to Europe, also in South East Asia and Africa with China investing in port infrastructure and heavy rail in countries along the way. This initiative is a modern version of the ancient Silk Road.

He supports "1+1+1" pledge at SalesForce: give 1% of revenues, 1% of products, and 1% of staff time to charities. General Powell concluded by exhorting every person present to become personally involved with schools, kids at a  young age, to mentor and encourage them. If we teach them right, they won’t hate people of a different skin color, religion, gender or orientation. We are not better than anyone else that God has put on this earth.

Photo from MSNBC audio "Fanfare for the Common Man" Copeland, Aaron (© 1944). Performed by the Marine Corps band

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