Retired four-star General Colin Powell discussed the traits he shared with SAS CEO Jim Goodnight during his morning keynote at the SAS Global Forum Executive Conference yesterday. Among them: A clear passion for education, an appreciation for information and a sincere leadership style.
“I’d like to talk about something that’s important in my life, that is also very important to Jim Goodnight, and that’s education,” Powell said in reference to SAS’ continued philanthropy and the SAS® Analytics U announcement.
Powell, who attended public school from kindergarten through college, discussed how he was unable to enroll in any prestigious military schools, like West Point or Virginia Military Institute, because they had yet to be desegregated.
Yet it was in college when he became interested in ROTC, a path that jumpstarted what would become an illustrious military career.
“What I tell kids as I visit schools all across America is, it’s not where you started in life, it’s what you do in life and where you end up in life,” he said.
Powell went on to graduate school earning his MBA in data processing on the request of the Army. “‘Take two years, go to George Washington University and you’re going to come out smart.’ And so I did that,” he said, paraphrasing the conversation he had with his commanding officers.
It was the age of the IBM 360 and IBM 370 – a time when he could program in Fortran or COBOL, some of the oldest programming languages, Powell said. A time when the military was already at the forefront of business technology long before the civilian world.
His study of data processing switched on an appreciation for information, he said. “I’m a glutton for [it]. You can’t give me too much,” a philosophy that he emphasized as he climbed the ranks.
First computers, then PDAs, and later smartphones became mainstays with his staffs early on.
He even joked about one of his officers who used his smartphone as a “chick magnet,” pulling it out while hitting on women, saying “Oh, excuse me, that’s Secretary Powell on my BlackBerry.”
Powell prided himself on direct reports with whom he had close relationships. He even reminded the janitorial staff in the State Department of the greater purpose behind their work.
As a leader, you must have confidence enough to empower those you work with, “It does wonderful things,” he said. He used the example of a trip to Mexico that President George W. Bush once took during his time in office.
Powell invited Bush to the State Department to be briefed on Mexico by two junior desk officers assigned to Mexican affairs. They had three days to prepare and no outside help.
Powell never reviewed the presentation; he never watched a rehearsal. “I didn’t worry at all,” he said, “they were masters.”
This kind of trust and approachability was a cornerstone of Powell’s philosophy on leadership. “Trust is the glue that holds a group of human beings together and it is also the lubricant that keeps it moving forward,” he said.
He even went so far as to remove his “coat of light,” a military jacket festooned with medals, replacing it with a sweater to appear less intimidating in meetings with his staff.
It was during those meetings where he asked employees about specific issues on which they knew more than he did. He even wanted them to tactfully argue their points, so that he could learn more.
“We’re debating an issue, not arguing about your ego,” he would tell employees. “You know more about this specific problem than I do.”
A humorous conclusion
Now retired, Powell is at a point where he can easily look back on these kinds of life lessons. He even jokes about the day Condoleezza Rice took over as Secretary of State, news he received on his way home, in an armored limousine accompanied by the Secret Service.
After receiving the news over the phone, Powell pulled up to his home to find they were pulling the wires out of his front door already.
“All of my security people looked at me and said, ‘Bye!’ and I said, ‘But they’re still after me?’ 'Your problem,'” he laughed.