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Eileen McClelland

Colin Powell Talks Leadership and Ring His Wife Has Worn For 54 Years



GEN. COLIN POWELL, former U.S. secretary of state, says the “super people” of America are the key to solving leadership issues the country faces now, and not some larger than life “superman” or “superwoman” future president.

Powell opened the American Gem Society Conclave in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday with a keynote address titled “Leadership: Taking Charge.” Powell served as national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is the author of the best-selling MY AMERICAN JOURNEY and IT WORKED FOR ME.
“It’s only the super people who will be able to fix some of the problems we have,” says Powell. “We have a Congress that is not functioning. Suppose our Founding Fathers acted like that. They didn’t. They made compromises on the most difficult decisions imaginable. Now we have 535 people who can’t agree on anything. And we the people have to fix it. Otherwise we are in deep trouble.”

Being on the speaker circuit allows him to take the temperature of the American people. Powell says he is well aware of troubling issues, including racial and political divisions, and an income and opportunity gap. Still, he says, Americans he meets are up to any challenge. “I see a people who are just as resilient, optimistic and confident,” he says.

On the global stage, Powell said that although the United States’ position has changed in recent years, people around the globe still “look to us as the moral arbiter of the world,” and a place that still inspires dreams.

Colin Powell on leadership

Powell’s success as a leader, he believes, was due not to the authority given to him but the influence he was able to generate with the people who worked for him.

He created successful teams by making the mission clear.


Powell learned about the importance of empowerment through his relationship with President Ronald Reagan, who once stared out the window of the Oval Office watching squirrels at a feeder — to make the point, Powell believes, that the problems Powell was telling him about that day were his to solve.

“Reagan knew he had to look beyond the crisis of the day. His job was to ask, where is America going, where are the risks, where are the opportunities?”

As a result of that realization, Powell vowed always to work directly with his line subordinates, without any buffer of assistants, and to make sure they were empowered.

“There’s nobody between me and my line,” he says. “Each person that I empowered had a different range, but they knew I trusted them to do these things and I stuck with them when they got in trouble. They trusted and respected me in turn.

“That causes an organization to be high performing.”

Empower your staff and meet their needs, too, Powell advises.


“Once you establish that kind of trust, they will do anything for you,” he says. “They will also tell you what you are doing wrong because they don’t want you to make a mistake.”

On education

Ten schools have been named for Powell, including the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership of his alma mater, the City College of New York in Harlem. Powell was born in Harlem of Jamaican immigrant parents and raised in the South Bronx. At CCNY he joined the Army ROTC program and discovered his true calling, which, he says, enabled him to boost his grade point average to a solid C.

“I went from kindergarten through college at the City College of New York, and got my geology degree all on the basis of it cost nothing. And I was a C student. I love to tell students that where you start in life is not where you end up in life. And in my public school education I learned more than I thought. Today the student body of the City College of New York is 90 percent minority and 80 percent immigrant. I love referring to them as my Ellis Island kids. That is the future of America. In 2043 our so-called minorities will be the majority of Americans. I want to keep this the school for the Ellis Island kids.”

On why he didn’t buy his wife, Alma, an engagement ring:

“My engagement went something like this. I was dating a nice young lady for eight months, and I got orders to go to Vietnam. I told her I would be leaving in a few months and I asked her to write me letters, because I would be gone for the better part of a year. She looked at me and said, `That’s all you want, to receive letters? You expect me to sit here for a year and wait, while you are going to be in Vietnam, and do nothing but write letters?’ She said, `I don’t think so.’

“So I went home and thought about it and the next day I said, `Will you marry me?’ She said “yes” and I said “fine,” but we had to do this very quickly. We planned it 13 days ahead. Then we had to talk about rings. I was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army infantry making $290 a month. And we didn’t have much time to shop. We bought two gold bands, and that was it. We were married in Birmingham, I went off to Vietnam”

When he came back, Alma had given birth to their first child, Michael, was 9 months old by the time he met him.


“But I want you to know that I tried to make up for it over the years,” he says. “I have bought her things that you would consider gems, including a nice gold ring with diamonds all the way around, but when she wears it it’s worn on top of that gold band that she has worn for 54 years.”

On retirement

One day Powell was being chauffeured home in a limo when he got a phone call informing him that his responsibilities as secretary of state had come to an end and that Condoleeza Rice would take over his position.

His entourage and Secret Service detail vanished immediately.

“One day you are sitting there and you are the top diplomat of the free world,” Powell says. “And the next day you aren’t. Suddenly you are alone and you’ve got to start a new life. An emptiness comes upon you. But I knew I had to get through this. The morning after, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a leisurely cup of coffee with my wife, I said, `Darling, this is the first day of the rest of our lives. I don’t have to leave at 6:30 a.m. any more,’ and she mumbled under her breath, `Oh, my God. Doesn’t the idiot know how this marriage has survived this long?’

“I knew this wasn’t going to be a sustainable situation. So I fixed it immediately. I bought a Corvette. The only trouble is every cop in Northern Virginia knows me and knows the car. And whenever they see me doing the slightest thing wrong they chase me down and pull me over. The only problem is they are all ex-GIs and they come over to my window and they salute. And then they write me a ticket.”



She Wanted to Spend More Time with Her Kids. She Called Wilkerson.

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