Once America’s top soldier and diplomat, four-star general Colin Powell is just as busy in retirement.
The Persian Gulf War strategist now spends a lot of time travelling the world sharing his high profile public service experiences under four presidential administrations and some of the lessons that shaped his life and career.
The highly-decorated soldier and statesman was the headliner at a day-long leadership conference at the Metro Convention Centre last week which attracted close to 3,000 business leaders and professionals from across the Greater Toronto Area.
“When people ask me if I am really retired, I say no,” said the 76-year-old Powell. “I am probably as busy now as I have been in my career. It’s a different kind of busy. Yes, I follow politics, I follow foreign policy and I follow crises and all the other things.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for four years, Powell said he relishes speaking to audiences around the world.
“I enjoy it so much, not because I get to talk to you, but because I learn so much from the audiences I speak to, both in the U.S, Canada and in Tokyo where I was last weekend,” he said. “I just have great experiences learning what is going on in the world. I learn a lot more on the speaking circuit than I do while sitting around watching TV or listening to commentary on TV. “What I see all over America and places like Toronto and other parts of the world is that people are concerned about the economy and what is going on in their government, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and places like that. So there is this great deal of concern.
“On the other hand, I also see something else. I see confidence and I see people getting together…I only wish I could bottle up the confidence and optimism I see all over the country and take it back to Washington and pour it over the heads of our politicians. We better get going because it’s really bad. We have a dysfunctional system in Washington.”
Powell also talked about his passion for business and his eight-year association with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers which is Silicon Valley’s most famous venture firm and his involvement with America’s Promise Alliance (APA).
He and his wife of 51 years – Alma – have generously committed their time, energy, creativity, financial resources and leadership to improving the lives of young people across the U.S.
The APA emerged from the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in 1997.
Providing young people with caring adults, safe places, effective education, opportunities to help others and a healthy start in life are the base of the APA foundation.
“Almost 60 per cent of American children have no health insurance along with another 35 million other Americans,” Powell, the APA founding chairman, said. “When it comes to Obamacare, I am no expert on these matters. I have had the privilege of having socialized medicine as a soldier for the past 55 years. But I have watched this (Obamacare debate) and the only conclusion I can come to – I don’t care whether it’s Obamacare or any other kind of care you want to call it – is that we got to have it. It’s a disgrace for Americans not to have universal health care like our Canadian friends do for every single citizen.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell rose through the military ranks to become America’s top soldier even though he didn’t attend the U.S Military Academy at West Point. He entered the City College of New York with a “C” grade average, but found his passion in the institution’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program.
Earlier this year, the school – where he secured his first degree in geology – renamed its social sciences division after its most famous alumnus.
“When I left the school 55 years ago, it was clear they were not going to name anything after me,” said Powell who attended public school from kindergarten to college. “My academic credentials were not exactly good…I tell kids that what matters most is not where you start, but where you end up in life and what you did along the way.”
Powell, who earned straight ‘A’s in his MBA courses at George Washington University and at the prestigious National War College, talked about the importance of leaders knowing and taking care of others, especially when it comes to those who are their followers.
He shared a lesson he learned from a brief encounter with parking attendants – the majority of them minorities and immigrants – when he was Secretary of State.
“I was bored and wanted to get away from the staff and bodyguards, so I went to the underground garage that’s always crowded with cars stacked one behind the other,” he said. “Of course, the attendants had never seen a Secretary of State wandering around the garage and they thought I was lost and needed help getting back to my office.
“When I told them I was not lost and that I wanted to chat with them, they were surprised and pleased. After assuring me everything was fine with their job, I asked them something that had puzzled me and that was how they decided which car ends up going out first, second and third. (The cars were stacked in three’s and the drivers of the second and third cars could not leave before the lead vehicle). They told me that if a driver lowers his window and acknowledges them on the way in, that vehicle would automatically go to the front of the line. Those that refused to lower their window or look in their direction would be the last to get out.
“It’s an exchange between human beings, one behind the wheel and another outside. One is much higher in the organization than the other, but they are both human beings. Both have fears, anxieties, dreams, hopes and ambition. The guy outside the car is no less important than the person behind the wheel who has a lot to do with what can happen to the person on the outside. As leaders, it’s imperative you put your followers in the best possible environment to achieve.”
Powell, who was in Lima having a working breakfast with then Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo when terrorists attacked the U.S. in September 2001, praised Canada for being one of the first countries to offer assistance that included taking in thousands of stranded air travellers and helping to guard American airspace.
“The Canadian Armed Forces has been part of my life,” said Powell, who oversaw 28 crises. “When I was a Second Lieutenant in Germany behind the Iron Curtain, Canadian soldiers were there. Twenty-eight years later when I went back as a Commander manning 75,000 soldiers, the Canadians were right back there. In Desert Storm, Canada was there and when we had a problem with Haiti and I had to create a force quickly to go there and stabilize the country, Canada was one of the first to offer support.
“In all of these different ways, Canada has always been with the United States. I have admired your Armed Forces for so many years, not only what they do in war, but what they do in humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts. You have been a leader in this effort throughout the world.”
As national security advisor to late president Ronald Reagan, Powell said he established friendships with several Canadian political leaders, including former prime minister Brian Mulroney with whom he speaks on a regular basis.