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September 1, 2014, 7:40 am

Colin Powell memoir offers leadership lessons

In “It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership” (Harper, $27.99), four-star general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell reveals the unique lessons that have shaped his life and legendary career in public service. “I wrote this book for the average person,” explains Powell, 75. “I didn’t write it as a political memoir. I didn’t want to just produce another typical Washington political book — there are some political issues in there that I couldn’t ignore — but for the most part it’s a book for young people; for older people. It’s a book for my fellow soldiers who might find some inspiration in it. And, there’s even a couple of chapters in there some pastors may want to preach on, but I wouldn’t predict that.”

Throughout the book, Powell offers engaging parables that convey valuable words of wisdom for achieving success both in the workplace and in life. He encourages readers to “Trust your people,” and describes how he delegated presidential briefing responsibilities to two junior aides. Recalling his teenage summers shipping cases of soda, Powell offers insight to those at the bottom of the totem pole.

“I am from the street,” said Powell. “I was the man on the street: I was born in Harlem, raised in the Bronx, grew up of lower income parents who never made more than $60 a week each and I went to public schools from kindergarten through college — never paying a penny for it because the citizens of New York felt it was important to educate the kids — Black, white, blue, green, poor or rich. That’s the kind of education I got, and it stuck more so than I realized because when I got in the Army I realized that the public school education I received allowed me to compete with West Pointers, with people from the Citadel, VMI, you name it, and to be measured by my performance and by the potential that my superiors felt I had. It was a time when we were just coming out of the total segregated army. I came in in ‘58, and it was in ‘54 that the last segregated army was closed out. And so, I was in that first generation of minorities officers who were told that the only thing they were concerned with was performance and potential. I look back now at that wonderful public school education and wonder where I would have been without it? Where would I have been if I dropped out or hadn’t finished school? I don’t know where I would be. So, education was the way up for me.”

At the age of 49, Powell became Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor, serving from 1987 to 1989 while retaining his Army commission as a lieutenant general. After his tenure with the National Security Council, Powell was promoted to a full general under President George H.W. Bush and briefly served as Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of Forces Command (FORSCOM), overseeing all Army, Army Reserve and National Guard units in the Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

His last military assignment, from October 1, 1989 to September 30, 1993, was as the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. At age 52, he became the youngest officer, and first Afro-Caribbean American, to serve in this position. In 1989, he joined Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alexander Haig as the third general since World War II to reach four-star rank without ever being a divisional commander.

After Powell retired from the military in 1993, he was often mentioned as a potential candidate for president. While many hoped that he would run for president in 1996, he announced in 1995 that he would not do so. Instead, Powell supported George W. Bush in the campaign that led to Bush’s election in 2000. On Dec. 16, 2000, Bush announced that he would name Powell as his secretary of state, the nation’s top foreign policy position. Powell was the first African American named to this post.

This August, Powell and his wife, Alma, will mark the Golden Anniversary of their 50-year union. The couple’s three children are Michael Kevin Powell, 49, president of the National Cable and Telecommunication Association; Linda Margaret Powell, 47, an actress, and Annemarie Powell, 42, the former president of ESPN.

Powell says he and Alma met on a blind date and were married eight months later. “She had our first child while I was off in Vietnam. She has really been the dominant partner. She is the matriarch of the family, and she made sure the family was doing what it was supposed to do when I was away or busy. I played my role — I was a good provider and I took care of my kids. It’s a very loving relationship that we all have. What also blessed the kids was that they saw their grandparents. They had four grandparents for a good portion of their growing up years. They saw family, they had cousins, so they learned from each other what was expected of them. And they were also in a military organization where there was a certain structure — you don’t mess around if you’re a military kid, particularly if you’re a general’s kid.”

The Powell’s are the proud grandparents of four and continue to advocate for education initiatives through the America’s Promise Alliance.

“I am deeply, deeply troubled by where we are in the African-American and Spanish communities in respect to education,” noted Powell. “My wife and I work with America’s Promise Alliance — I created the Alliance in Philadelphia in 1997 at the Summit for America’s future with all of our presidents — and now my wife is the chair of it after I had to give it up when I went to the State Department. The focus that we have is to make us, once again, a country of graduates, and especially among our minority kids. Twenty-five to thirty percent of all Americans do not finish high school, but when you look at the African-American and Hispanic population it’s 50 percent. That’s intolerable because we are becoming a nation of minorities. In another generation, the young kids now who are the majority of the children being born will be the adults running this country, and if we don’t educate them we’re going to be in trouble.”

The Powell’s are teaming up with the NAACP this summer to share their message nationally via the organization’s 1200 chapters. Powell noted: “There were three words that we used in my family that you don’t hear much anymore: one, we have expectations for you — we don’t work everyday so you can put stuff up you nose. Two, have a sense of shame — don’t shame this family. And three, mind your manners, mind your adults, mind your teachers. We don’t do these like we used to.”

And, like President Barack Obama, Powell supports legal same-sex marriage. “The point I make is that I think an ideal family is with a mother and a dad who are committed to each other and committed to raising their children in a proper manner and to show their children how to behave,” explained Powell. “But I’ve learned over the years through experience and watching other people that there are other family models that work. Two gays or two lesbians who are committed to each to each other can raise a child just as well as a heterosexual couple. I also have the greatest respect for single parents, particularly women because it is usually a single woman raising a child. And most of these women who have a job and have a potential for the future, they can raise a great child — there is nothing that says you can’t do that. There’s also married couples who mess their kids up, so there’s no magic wand, but I think the start of it all is when two people who have brought a child into the world and are committed to that child’s welfare — and the relationship has to be a long loving one or else the child will not know what he’s supposed to learn from watching his parents.”

Over the years, Powell has developed “13 Rules of Leadership” and he kickstarts his missive with those principals and values. Among these rules are “Get mad, then get over it,” “It can be done,” “Share credit” and “Remain calm. Be kind.” To illustrate these rules, Powell shares personal stories that introduce and expand upon his principles for effective leadership: conviction, hard work, and, above all, respect for others. “When I was writing this book I thought maybe people want to know what the 13 Rules mean because I never had to explain them before; people sort of got them. And so, that whole first chapter is is explaining how I tripped over these rules, or where they came from or what they mean to me. I think a lot of people will enjoy it.”

“It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership” is available at major bookstores and online at


Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .