In my book Winners Don’t Cheat I caution against finding role models that only look like you.
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell — who passed away aged 84 — was my rare exception.
Powell, of West Indian heritage, cast a unique figure on his road to becoming a four-star general, chairman of the joint chiefs (1989-93), national security adviser (1987-89) and his nation’s chief diplomat (2001-05).
His image with US President Ronald Reagan, inset with this article, is a favourite of mine.
It shows Powell — then as national security adviser — briefing Reagan, whose counsel Reagan clearly valued.
To say Powell endured hardscrabble beginnings in the South Bronx, New York, would be taking things too far.
There was certainly little surplus in the Powell home.
But it was a stable home, instilled by positive values from his Dad — a shipping clerk — and his Mum — a seamstress.
West Indian migrants to the United States are known for doing well, leapfrogging comparative well-being and socioeconomic indicators in a short space of time.
Powell was no exception.
Various pocket-money jobs in a genuinely multicultural Harlem and South Bronx exposed him to a mix of cultures and ideas.
Yet the image of a future US Secretary of State, he said, wasn’t front of mind as as a young man sweeping floors at a city Coca-Cola bottling factory.
His ‘why’ came not long after as a teenager, joining the ROTC — Australia’s equivalent of cadet-reserves — and learning discipline and enjoying, he said, some of the best days of his life.
In later years, Powell was known for making the iconic case for the Iraq War at the UN Security Council — based on the best intelligence at the time — and for the Powell Doctrine, which basically stipulates that if you want to go to war, be certain you’ll win.
Yet he offered another doctrine — one of self-improvement — that I suspect carries a much more enduring legacy than — or at least alongside — his military experience.
Indeed, Powell’s time in uniform is a magnificent journey for anyone wanting to study the importance of dedication and what career ascendance looks like over three-plus decades and in one organisation.
A Soldier’s Way — certainly not a short read — was the only lengthy autobiography that kept me engaged as a young man from cover to cover.
But studying Powell over the years I came to take away four key lessons, which I’ve often reminded myself in my career and in life.
First, we all make mistakes.
But don’t get too carried away.
“It ain’t as bad as you think,” he was fond of saying in books, speeches and interviews. “It will look better in the morning.”
Second, learn to be calm. This is clearly where other leaders — in fact three US Presidents — saw Powell’s strength. “When he briefed me,” according to the late George H W Bush, “I found there was something about the quiet, efficient way he laid everything out and answered questions that reduced my fears and gave me great confidence.”
Third, do the hard things first. Especially when they’re dictated from on high.
“I worked hard to accomplish the tasks they [those above me] set as quickly and decisively as I could. The sooner I could satisfy my superiors, the sooner they would stop bugging me about them, and the quicker I could move on to my own priorities.”
And finally, Powell was very particular about not losing respect for people. “Count on people,” he said, “more than plans or structures.”
Indeed, toward the end of his public writing and speaking life Powell became almost canonical in mentioning a rubbish collection man, at the Empire State Building, who he once saw being interviewed on TV. As he wrote in It Worked for Me, Lessons in Life and Leadership:
“… the guy smiled and said to the camera, ‘Our job is to make sure that tomorrow morning when people from all over the world come to this wonderful building, it shines, it is clean, and it looks great.'”
It is a neat lesson on dedication and commitment — no matter where you are and what you do — from such an accomplished man. And one we’ll do well to remember.