General Colin Powell and The Need for Purpose

This past week, General Colin Powell graced San Antonio with his presence at Trinity University as the guest speaker for the 2011 Flora Cameron Lecture on Politics and Public Affairs. General Powell caught me by surprise, with his speech being so interesting, humorous and his global view being vast. He shared stories of speeding around Northern Virginia in his Corvette, where the police frequently pull him over, greet and salute him because many of the officers are former GI’s, quickly write him a ticket for speeding and zip off. Later he shared a story where he had found himself defending a small area to make sure Russian soldiers could not penetrate, later his rank and influence grew and he had to defend a larger area against them. As time past, he found himself repeatedly defending against and working to contain Communism. Then, in the 1980’s when Gorbachev came into power and Gorbachev was interested in hosting President Reagan, Reagan sent Powell over first. Gorbachev had been working to change the way the USSR was doing business, but the USA was still working their containment angle. When General Powell went to the Kremlin to meet Gorbachev, Gorbachev ranted, shaking his fists in frustration about the USA not being receptive to their changes and shifts. Finally, after all the yelling, Gorbachev stopped, looked up, captured a thought and smiled. He looked at General Powell and said “You will have to find a new enemy.” I felt connected to a piece of history as he shared his stories.

General Powell served as a four-star general, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With such experiences, he had some wise words to share with the crowd at Trinity.

According to General Powell, leadership is about followership. It’s the followers that get the tasks done, so find the best place to put each of them to perform. He went on to say that it is critical to give them a mission, goals and a sense of purpose. The purpose need to connect you to a greater good – an overall benefit to the needs of the society. The entire followership then needs an overall common purpose to serve. The leadership needs to be selfless and be committed to the purpose above their jobs as well. Additionally, great leaders are required to take great care of their followers. As he described, his soldiers are the ones going up the hill, so he had to ensure that they were well outfitted to take on the task. As the Secretary of State, General Powell purchased 44,258 new computers for the State Department. He knew he had to do so to properly outfit his team to perform at their best. Finally, he said “don’t just motivate, inspire with the purpose that you’re trying to serve.”

In the time we were with the General, his entire presentation wrapped around the concept of greater purpose. Does your organization have an overarching greater purpose that can be fulfilled by the activities your people are involved in daily? If not, learn from one of the top leaders in the world, find the heart behind your organization and develop your purpose so your team can push together to achieve it.

Photo from L to R: Donna Tuttle, General Powell, Nora Frost, Joe Ruiz

Author: Nan Palmero, MBA

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