Sunday, July 22, 2012

Colin Powell - why are you such a beast!?

Thoughts on “My American Journey”
The auto-biography of Colin Powell
 (Joseph E. Persico and Colin L. Powell)

Why I read this book:

A friend recommended this book to me.

My rating for this book:

1. Not worth the paper on which it is written
2. Better than any sleeping pill
3. I guess it is better than watching Jersey Shore
4. I am a richer person because of this book
5. This book changed my life

Thoughts, Reflections, and Take-aways:

Colin’s Powell auto-biography is a quintessential “American dream” story: a child of Jamaican immigrant parents raised in a (relatively) poor Bronx neighborhood rises to the top of the American military and government power structure, at a time when blacks were largely treated as second-class citizens (insert your own thoughts about race relations in today’s age here).

I am not going to spend much time here analyzing Powell’s success in the face of racial discrimination – I am sure there is an army of writers, historians, and reporters who have that covered. Nor am I interested in discussing the odds of someone from Powell’s socio-economic background rising out of the type of neighborhood that seems to trap so many of its inhabitants. Serious people working for serious institutions spend their careers writing serious publications about the “macro” factors such as social and economic opportunities and race relations that shape our society.

No, what fascinates me about General Powell’s life and career is the “micro” story of the individual. What stands out in “My American Journey” is a man’s success despite the lack of scholarly accomplishments and the triumph of a noble character.
Clearly, Colin Powell is a gifted, intelligent man; he would not have gone as far as he has otherwise. At the same time, Powell is not ashamed to admit that he was a very mediocre student. He very plainly describes his lack of motivation for his studies and his lack of aptitude for math. Powell’s life story should be motivational for the vast majority of us who did not get straight A’s through school and will most likely not become Nobel laureates (I am still holding out hope). Success is clearly an outcome of multiple factors of which intelligence is but one.

I think, on some crude, basic level, most successful people can be divided into “thinkers” and “doers”. A stereotypical “thinker” can typically be spotted by her plethora of PhDs, lack of social acumen, and clothes from whatever era they attended high school. A “doer” gets things done. She loves checklists, organization, and results. Powell is very much a “doer”. For example, his ability to lead and execute a mission is what first landed him his NSC position; his boss, Frank Carlucci, was “…looking for someone who knows how to make things work…. someone who can impose order and procedure on the NSC.”

When I say Powell is a “doer” and not a “thinker”, my intention is not to diminish the man’s intelligence.  He is considered one of the most influential Sec. of Defense because he was able to push through forward-thinking ideas. Rather, the “doer” label is a tribute to his ability to carry out the execution of his ideas, a task more challenging in the vast bureaucracy of competing powerful interests than the formulation of those ideas. Some people have “theoretical” intelligence, backed by years of formal study, brilliance of mind, and thick books. Others have the intelligence that comes from experience. Best leaders combine both. Powell’s success stems from the intelligence of character, a trait that seems to be in short supply these days. Just listen to this Meet the Press interview:

How refreshing – a public figure can lay out criteria that is based on the biggest problems facing the country (the economic crisis) as well as on reason and fairness (No, Barack Obama is not a Muslim; but, while we are on the topic, what if he were?) and then make a decision that is sure to cost him some friends by endorsing someone from the other party.
 So why is it so rare nowadays to hear voices of reason among today’s political leaders? Certainly, to be fair, Powell is not running for office so he can express his opinion more freely, but that does not change the fact that some of things you hear from today’s “leaders” make you think you are taking crazy pills.

What then allows Colin Powell to have this “intelligence of character”? Here are the qualities that stand out to me from reading the book:
-        A strong moral foundation – a deep sense of right and wrong. Is this an innate quality? Is this something that one gets from the family, friends, or institutions like church or ROTC?
-        Sense of humility – knowing where you came from, understanding that the mission is bigger than individual, patriotism without excessive chest thumping. Ability to stay grounded during his rise to prominence and power.
-         Commitment to Reason and Truth – Identifying what the right thing to do is and driving towards accomplishing towards that goal, be it unit discipline or drastic reduction in the size of the Armed Forces. Granted, as a career professional, Powell can focus on a given mission. He does not have to pander to the base and worry about his political growth or re-election. Perhaps we should look at more non-career politicians as candidates for high office.
-        Reliance on experience and intuition – Powell often looks back on his experiences in the jungles of Vietnam and the disconnect between objectives and strategy coming out of Washington and realities on the ground and uses this memory to inform his decisions when he reaches the top. Powell spent a lot of time in the National Security establishment, picked up the pulse of it, and absorbed lessons from his peers and superiors. This allowed him to make intuitive decisions in uncertain situations.
-        Pragmatism – A pre-eminent “doer” quality, a commitment to getting things done even if his personal feelings get bruised. An ability to compromise for the sake of the mission.

      The end.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting summary.

    Re: A strong moral foundation

    Do you think the difference between Powell and most people is that most people lack a strong moral foundation, or that most people have a deep sense of what's right and what's wrong... but then are still willing to do what's wrong when it serves themselves?