Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business on September 27 to discuss his experience with leadership in his former military and government roles. The McDonough Military Association, an MBA student club for military veterans, and the Stanton Distinguished Leaders Series hosted the event.
Powell began by touching on an important turning point in his life: receiving his MBA. Receiving a business education enabled him to focus on the more human elements of leadership, and understanding basic human psychology improved both his management and leadership skills, he said.
Throughout his career, Powell often was pulled in unforeseen directions, sometimes to his disappointment. Before his appointment as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State officially ended his military career, Powell had a history of being unexpectedly thrust into public service positions.
“You serve where you are needed,” Powell said. “This is what service is all about.”
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell emphasized that the key to being an effective leader was “building bonds of trust.” Although he was in a position of authority, he “never tried to seek authority [he] wasn’t entitled to,” instead seeking influence over his fellow Joint Chiefs of Staff. His leadership style revolved around helping others, stressing the human element of an organization, and building trust.
Powell emphasized that “leadership and followership are completely enmeshed,” encouraging leaders in the audience to focus on the humanity of their followers.
“It ain’t you who gets it done,” he said. “It’s the troops who get it done.”
Powell shared his habit of arriving to airports early and spending hours in the terminals speaking to workers, highlighting the importance of “two human beings exchanging a greeting, acknowledging each other.”
Powell also touched on the importance of diversity, both in regard to building a stronger America and in terms of leadership. He is the son of Jamaican immigrants and was raised in Harlem, an ethnically diverse neighborhood of New York.
“We are a vibrant economy because of immigration,” he said. “We shouldn’t demonize anyone.”