Many times, sitting with Colin Powell and a foreign leader, or in meetings with State’s political, foreign, and civil service officers, or at the National Security Council (NSC) with deputies, horse-holders (junior staff), and principals, or even with family, Powell performed a magic trick.
With everyone focused, this former National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under GHW Bush, and Secretary of State would pull a rabbit from his hat. How?
Not a trick, really; what he did reflected his life, a black man growing up in the 1950s, a can-do leader in the military, private sector, and civilian world, a believer in the American Dream who worked hard, laughed often, took nothing personally, no wild ambition, just a sense of mission.
He knew who he was, where he had come from, and how many people helped him get there. How important selfless service was when entrusted, how important to entrust, and how unique America is in human history. He had reflexive respect for people.
Whatever topic was on the table, whether a policy of mutual interest to a foreign leader, maybe fighting corruption or drug trafficking in Colombia, training Iraq’s police, assessing a recent event, advancing an American cause, introducing a controversial idea at the NSC, or just recognizing those who ringed the room and were unrecognized, he was about respect.
To some, in an era where respect is in retrograde, the last thought in a political discussion, interview, or comment on the economy, elections, or Supreme Court decisions, the notion of starting with respect will seem naïve, trite, unnecessary, a show of weakness, and maybe offensive.
It is not. It is the glue that holds fruitful conversations, serious negotiations, and material advancement together – whether on a personal, national, or international level. It is the force that binds and heals, disarms, quiets, clarifies, and penetrates to get to the heart of the matter.
Opening with an offer of respect and understanding the world from eyes not your own will not always bridge the gap, solve the problem, or achieve an immediate aim, but it is the right thing to do. It demonstrates – as Powell did reflexively – caring and humility and makes “the other” central.
Time and again, Powell did this – and it produced one of the most productive stretches in modern diplomatic history and calming tumultuous waters in the US during a time of war.
A dozen examples come to mind as we now watch diplomacy stumble, international order erode, respect between institutions decline, and civic order shiver with regular body blows, the rule of law challenged, political violence rising, and truth constantly under fire.
When Colin Powell was Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary would daily challenge him in personal terms, often without the respect, you would expect for a decorated veteran, four-star general, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State.
Powell could have lowered the bar, shot back, responded in kind, derailed a policy to defend himself, or gone to the press. He did not. He would say, without emotion, “I think what he is looking for is …” or “we all have bad days…” or “let’s see what we can do to help…”
What effect? Huge. It kept the US government functioning, elevated the mission to a national, not parochial, level, and set an example for everyone watching – even inside the Pentagon. When one party takes the high road, everyone is forced to ask, “Is that the road we should be on?” Powell made them ask that question, again and again.
Internally, and in front of all, Powell also showed respect for political, foreign, and civil service officers, causing them to follow his lead, respect each other. Again, this turned the dial, caused them to cooperate when he was not present, created a new paradigm elevating them all.
On a personal level, he practiced what he preached. If someone was absent from the room, their equites were raised not ignored. If someone made a mistake, knew it, felt badly, they were forgiven, error forgotten. If showing respect meant admitting his own stumbles, that happened.
Once with my wider family, a little niece – perhaps five or six – asked, when he leaned down, “Are you the very important man?” Dropping everything, Powell got eye-to-eye, and smiled at her. “No, you are the very important one.” She smiled back, and they talked.
When my daughter picked apples for him, the whim of a young child, he responded with a personal note, written in big letters so she could read that her apples were appreciated. Likewise, when a new member joined his team, they were featured not left out.
In foreign settings, Powell offered respect to the host, not only remembering top foreign names, but names of second-tier foreign participants and what they did.
The value in this kind of leadership, starting with genuine respect, understanding that you do not know everything, can be wrong, are listening, mean to make things substantive, not one-sided, and yet – at the same time – know yourself, are deep in what you bring, is extraordinary.
As Secretary of State, Powell not only helped the President, NSC, State and Defense, internal State Department, Administration and Congress, and foreign allies advance countless issues, resolve disputes, bridge gaps, and reinforce mutual trust, he changed the way people thought about and interacted with each other – long after he was gone.
So, while stories are just stories, traits personal, politics insensible, off the rails, rancorous, and exhausting, remember progress is based on personal relations. Powell knew that.
Those who internalize the idea of respect for what we have in common, including our humanity – among Americans, our shared history, accomplishments, constitutional rights, and the American Dream – tend to get things done, make a mark, turn the dial, secure the future.
Real differences do exist. Political violence, lawlessness, disrespect for our institutions, and malice are not tolerable. They are anti-American and globally corrosive. But we overlook simple things. Powell knew the all-American magic and used it. Offer respect. Everything changes.
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