We measure service in a variety of ways — by its length of time, the courage required, the breadth of assignments and the depth of accomplishments. In these, and other ways, the service rendered by Gen. Colin Powell is widely acknowledged by a grateful nation as distinguished and exemplary. Indeed, for many years he has been recognized as one of the most admired Americans.
We last met in mid-July. He was characteristically cheerful, optimistic, engaging and positive. When asked how he was feeling he responded without hesitation: “Other than my multiple myeloma cancer and Parkinson’s disease, I feel fine.” Our discussion ranged widely, and his energy, quick mind and forward focus suggested that he did not expect an abbreviated future. He was an optimist to the end.
Powell titled his memoir “My American Journey.” The son of Jamaican immigrants, his 84 years embraced much that is exceptional about America at its finest, a place where hard work, determination and opportunities seized can carry one to the highest realms of leadership and influence.
Powell’s distinguished service came in three distinct yet interrelated arenas. The first and longest was his military service. He spent 35 years in the U.S. Army after graduating from the ROTC program at the City University of New York. His command and staff positions ranged from Asia to Europe and the United States.
He earned the confidence of the soldiers he commanded in the field and the flag officers he led at the Pentagon attaining the rank of four-star general. In his military career he was a trailblazer serving as our youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first African American to hold that position, and the only ROTC graduate. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was an integral part of the group that advised the president and built the coalition that led to the remarkable victory in the first Gulf War.
His second major arena of service was as a diplomat and shaper of foreign policy. He served as deputy and then national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan and later as secretary of state (unanimously confirmed by the Senate) during the first term of President George W. Bush.
Success in the world of diplomacy requires earning the trust of both allies and adversaries, exercising wise judgment in shaping decisions, and developing a strategy and vision that will stand the test of time. As national security adviser he built a reliable and effective interagency process for advising the president and as secretary of state he did much to attract, develop and retain a talented group of diplomats across the world.
He gave his best advice to the presidents whom he served and then faithfully carried out their decisions. President Gerald Ford once told me within five months of taking office that he had discovered there were lots of people eager to tell you what they thought you wanted to hear and fewer willing to tell you what they thought you needed to know. Powell always conveyed what he thought the president needed to know rather than what he wanted to hear.
His third major arena of service was inspiring and investing in future generations of Americans through chairing America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth, a national nonprofit organization he founded with his wife, Alma, dedicated to mobilizing people from every sector of American life to build the character and competence of young people.
Powell’s convictions about politics were consistent with his philosophy of life. He was not defined by his race. He believed that meritocracy was a great motivator and brought out the best in people. One should try to find the person best qualified for a job and support them. Public policy involved solving challenges rather than winning arguments.
He believed that the nation needed two strong political parties and that policymakers entered dangerous territory when they became “dug in and nasty.” He worried that when positions get so hardened, we cannot find our way to the center where the country is.
He was always thinking about the future — not burdening but blessing those who would come after — not leaving them with a mountain of debt but with a rising plain of opportunity.
In meetings he articulated what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine that a successful military venture had four defining characteristics: a clear political and military objective; the support of the American people; an overwhelming force; and a realistic exit strategy.
His cautious views on war were borne out of his experience as a soldier in Vietnam. He referred to himself as a reluctant warrior. He loved the Army and the men and women with whom served. He admired their courage and applauded their patriotic service. At the same time, he believed deeply that the way in is often easy and the way out is often hard.
Citizens, young and older, need role models. We select role models in part by what they do and in part by who they are. What do they demonstrate through their choices? What are their priorities? What qualities of character do they exhibit when pursuing those priorities?
For Powell people were as important as policies. For those of us privileged to work with him he inspired without hubris and did not allow the things that matter most to be at the mercy of the things that matter least.
Roger B. Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University, served as the assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy from 1989-93.
Correction: An earlier version misstated that Colin Powell was a son of Haitian immigrants. His parents were Jamaican immigrants.