Colin Powell kept a picture of the enemy in his office. Here’s why

Reflections on the two great lessons the general taught me

America has lost a true statesman, but I pray that we’ll never lose Powell’s sterling example of patriotism and consecrated service to our nation.

Powell, who died Monday at age 84, was revered by so many of us in the Reagan and Bush administrations for his character, steadiness and judgment. He was one of the wisest of the “wise men” guiding U.S. international policy during decades of turbulent change and challenges.

My personal recollections of Powell began in 1984, when I was privileged to serve as a White House Fellow for President Ronald Reagan. At that time, Powell was a rapidly rising two-star Army general serving as the military adviser to the secretary of defense.  

As a former White House Fellow himself many years earlier, Powell invited me as one of the new fellows to a private meeting with him in the Pentagon for a welcome to Washington, D.C. I will never forget his gracious and unhurried time visiting with me, despite having to adeptly juggle several phone calls from the secretary’s staff during our initial meeting together.

After one apparently pesky phone call ended, he looked over at me and used a term that I learned to understand many times in the years ahead: “When will these folks learn that was OBE?”

As a newcomer, I had to ask: “What’s OBE mean” With that classic Powell charm, he looked at me and grinned: “Overtaken By Events.” If you’re too late to perform, it doesn’t matter how good you are.” It was my first lesson in Washington provided by Powell.

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A second lesson from Powell from that day: After our initial Pentagon meeting, he sent me a handwritten thank-you note for meeting with him! What an impression that made on a new nobody to Washington meeting a superstar. When I thanked Powell for his thank-you note, he told me: “If you send a note after meeting someone for the first time, I guarantee you that person will NEVER forget you.”

Absolutely accurate and invaluable advice for business, politics and life.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell poses in his Pentagon office on Thursday, Sept. 9, 1993, in Washington. Powell, former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, has died from COVID-19 complications. In an announcement on social media Monday, the family said Powell had been fully vaccinated. He was 84.  | Barry Thumma, Associated Press
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, right, and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speak to members of the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing from Myrtle Beach, S.C., at their air base in Saudi Arabia on Friday, Dec. 12, 1990. Powell, former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, has died from COVID-19 complications. In an announcement on social media Monday, Oct. 18, 2021 the family said Powell had been fully vaccinated. He was 84. | Bob Daugherty, Associated Press

When Powell published his “13 Rules of Leadership,” all of his many admirers had to reflect that he had not only shared these key principles with us many times before, but that he truly lived them in his own life — he was the living embodiment of a supreme leader, with those hard lessons learned and nurtured by his 35 years of Army experience in courageously commanding men and women in combat and many other challenging circumstances giving him extraordinary personal credibility. 

During the depths of the Cold War, I also remember visiting his headquarters office in Frankfurt, Germany, when he was commanding the Army’s huge V Corps, responsible for defending Germany against constant threats of Soviet invasion from East Germany. There in his personal office was a large photograph of a Soviet general. I asked why in the world would that particular enemy’s picture be prominently displayed?

Powell’s immediate answer: “Because when I see that (expletive) coming through the Fulda Gap battlefield, I want to know who I’m looking for!”

We will all miss Powell for so many reasons, but particularly in these difficult times, we will miss him for being the living example of one of my favorites of his “13 Rules of Leadership”: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” He brought that critical optimism to this nation in trying times, and we honor him for it, today more than ever.

What a man, what a leader, what a patriot — farewell, beloved Gen. Colin Powell. 

Lew Cramer served in senior positions in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He is currently CEO of Colliers Utah in Salt Lake City.