Power and Influence

UPDATED: January 6, 2009
PUBLISHED: January 6, 2009

Colin Powell was—and wasn’t—born to greatness. The son of
working-class Jamaican immigrants, Powell was born during the
Depression and reared in New York City’s tough South Bronx. Those
roots wouldn’t seem to be a springboard for success, certainly for
someone destined to become one of this country’s most powerful and
influential leaders.

But Luther and Maud Ariel Powell had high hopes that son Colin
and his older sister Marilyn would be achievers, and they laid a
strong family foundation. His parents “did not recognize their own
strengths,” Powell once told a Parade interviewer. “It was the way
they lived their lives” that established values the children adopted.

The Powells worked hard, commanded respect and insisted
their children attend college. “My parents and my minister, my
aunts, uncles, cousins—they were nurturing my beginning in life,”
Powell tells SUCCESS. “They said, ‘Don’t disappoint us and don’t
shame us.’ ”

That admonition was not lost on Powell, who ultimately gained
admiration and respect from members of both political parties and
the American public. His résumé would include stints as national
security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary
of state, as well as leader of volunteer initiatives such as America’s
Promise Alliance.

Touted as a possible candidate for the presidency in 1996,
Powell ’s popularity crossed party and racial boundaries.
In declining to run, he said he was nevertheless heartened that a
black man was considered a serious presidential prospect by both
parties. “That’s the realization of a great dream, even though I may
not be the one to fill it,” he was quoted by The New York Times as
saying. “In one generation, we have moved from denying a black
man service at a lunch counter to elevating one to the highest
military office in the nation and to being a serious contender for
the presidency.”

Rewards of Honesty
As a youth, Powell remained a worry to members of his boisterous,
supportive family because he did not excel or even apply himself
academically as a youngster. “I wasn’t a particularly good student,”
he says.

"Every American citizen has an obligation to give back."

In his autobiography, My American Journey (written with Joseph E. Persico), Powell describes
himself as generally well-behaved but a “directionless” youngster. One of his worst transgressions
was sneaking away from church camp for beer when he was in his teens in the early
1950s. Powell was sent home where he faced his parents’ wrath, but was redeemed by almost divine
intervention. A priest told his parents “Colin stood up and took responsibility. And
his example spurred the other boys to admit their guilt.” That turned the experience around,
Powell writes. “My parents beamed. From juvenile delinquent, I had been catapulted to hero.
Something from that boyhood experience, the rewards of honesty, hit home and stayed.”

That lesson has played out many times for the soft-spoken Powell. Generally regarded as
noncontroversial, he nonetheless has not been afraid to voice his conscience.

Most recently Powell crossed party lines to endorse Democrat Barack Obama for president
over Republican John McCain. In an interview with Meet the Press, Powell said he saw Obama
as “a transformational figure” and cited “his ability to inspire because of the inclusive nature
of his campaign.” He also said he regretted disappointing McCain, whose campaign he had
supported and whom he considered a friend. Powell’s support was critical for Obama as he
sought credibility with voters concerned about his lack of experience.

Powell also famously reversed course on the Iraq War. As secretary of state in February
2003, Powell propelled the United States toward an invasion when he asserted in a U.N.
statement that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

But in September 2004, two months before
resigning from the cabinet, he told a Senate
committee the statement was based on erroneous
intelligence. Powell has since called the U.N.
speech a blot on his record.

Earlier in his professional life, Powell’s principles
put his career on the line when he pressed
a couple of thorny issues with his commanding
officer in 1982. The general, who was notoriously
hard to please, later gave then-Brig. Gen. Powell
a lukewarm written review that Powell expected
to end his military service. “I had no regrets,” he
wrote in My American Journey. “I had done what
I thought was right.” After that, Powell retooled
his résumé for the civilian job market. He didn’t
know then that movers and shakers already had
noticed his potential and made sure he got a
second chance.

Finding His

Powell chose a military path when he was
in college. He had been accepted at New York
University where tuition was $750 a year, but
City College of New York required only a $10
fee. So CCNY it would be. Powell’s mother wanted him to study engineering,
but difficulty with mechanical drawing convinced him to
change his major to geology.

He graduated from CCNY with a C average. But Powell gained
something much more important: purpose and direction. At CCNY, he
discovered the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, and that provided a
spark that would fuel his dreams and goals throughout life. “I liked the
order in [cadets’] lives—the order they could put in my life,” he says.

Upon graduation, Powell was commissioned an officer in the U.S.
Army and in 1962 was sent to South Vietnam as a military adviser.
During a second tour of duty in the late 1960s, he was in a helicopter
crash and, despite his own injuries, was able to rescue fellow soldiers
from the burning wreckage. For his heroism, he was awarded the
Soldier’s Medal, one of several commendations earned during his
military career.

During this period of his life, Powell excelled in military and
academic pursuits. Although an average student in his early years, he
made excellent grades in his 30s while earning his MBA at George
Washington University, despite lacking many undergraduate prerequisites
when he enrolled.

Also while in his mid-30s, Powell served a coveted White House
fellowship, honing his knowledge of national issues and the inner
workings of the federal bureaucracy, as well as his understanding of
how the Army functioned within that bureaucracy.

Path to Success
Although Powell considered the fellowship a detour from soldiering
and had been reluctant to apply until the Army ordered him to do
so, the time spent in the White House paved the way for his future
success. In 1987, he was appointed national security adviser, followed
by appointment in 1989 as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In this role,
he oversaw crises including Operation Desert Storm, and gained a
reputation as “the reluctant warrior” who favored diplomatic solutions
before military intervention. Once committed to military intervention,
however, Powell advocated use of overwhelming force to maximize the
potential for success and minimize casualties. He applied this strategy
to Desert Storm and was widely viewed as a hero of the Gulf War.

Powell’s military approach earned him respect among members
of both political parties. Democrats admired his moderate stance
while Republicans associated him with successes attributed to
Republican administrations.

In his later years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell’s name
surfaced among members of both parties as a potential vice presidential
candidate in the 1992 election. But Powell was careful not to
align himself with either
party until the day he
announced he would not
seek the presidency in the
1996 election. On that day,
he reportedly registered as
a Republican, according to
The New York Times—but
he maintained his influence, saying he would
evaluate candidates of both parties before offering
his support.

In declining to seek the presidency, Powell cited
a lack of passion for politics and a desire to spend
more time with his family after so many years of
public service.

Today, Powell says his greatest source of pride is “my
family and my kids—and that’s not a dodge.” He refers
to Alma, his wife of 46 years; their children, Michael,
Linda and Annemarie; and his four grandchildren.
“There’s no single other thing I can point to.”

An Obligation to
Give Back

For all his career achievements, Powell
says he did not build his life around goals:
“I never put chalk marks on the wall [that
indicated] I’ve got to do this. I’ve tried to do
my best at what has come my way…. I’m
not without ambition, but I’m not driven
by ambition. I’ve had a full and active
public life.” Powell says he would like to be
remembered “as a good soldier who served
well and is well thought of by his fellows.”
Those fellows include his greatest mentors,
“the captains and majors who taught
me as a lieutenant and kept me going
straight ahead.”

His best advice for others: “Look for something
you love to do and you do well. Go for
it. It will give you satisfaction in life. It could
mean money, but it may not. It could mean
a lot of titles, but it may not. But it will give
you satisfaction.”

Today Powell lives in McLean, Va., and
lends his influence to youth programs,
many with an educational focus. He is
a key supporter of America’s Promise
Alliance, which aims to ensure that all American children have access
to fundamental resources so they can become productive adults; the
Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center, which helps youths graduate
from high school and go on to further education or training; and the
Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which provide safe, caring sites for
kids to learn and grow when not in school. He also has served on the
boards of Howard University, the United Negro College Fund and
the Children’s Health Fund. He founded the Colin Powell Center
for Policy Studies at his alma mater, City College of New York,
which aims to develop students from underrepresented populations
into leaders.

“Every American citizen has an obligation to give back” to a
nation that has created so much opportunity for him or her, he
tells SUCCESS. “That means being a good citizen… but it also
means performing community service and public service, sitting
on the board of a nonprofit or even running for elective office. They
can also help people through their church and workplace. With
America’s Promise, we encourage people to get involved in the life of
a young person.”

Powell was the America’s Promise founding chairman, and he
and his wife speak on behalf of the organization and other causes
by encouraging donations and volunteerism. He says he respects
generous volunteers, including people
working on HIV/AIDS, Microsoft founder
and billionaire Bill Gates, Berkshire
Hathaway CEO and billionaire Warren
Buffett, and U2 musician and humanitarian
Bono. But Americans “spend
too much time admiring people with
big names,” says Powell, who is more
impressed by a woman in his church
who helps disadvantaged students and
by a retiree who goes every day to a Boys
& Girls Clubs to positively influence
youngsters there. “My admiration is for
the unknowns who give their time, their
talent and their treasure—their money” to
help others.

Lavish in praising others and modest
about his achievements, Powell nevertheless
commands respect and admiration
through his very active retirement. The
ability to lead has been a hallmark of his
career. “I have inspired more people by
example, and I do that by giving them
a sense of purpose that what they do
is important. That must be conveyed
throughout an organization.