Touching the heartbeat of America
February 18, 2011
- "This is still the same country that welcomed my parents 90 years ago. It is an open, welcoming, democratic country."
- "Even though we have economic problems and foreign policy issues, I still find in audiences that we still have a belief in America."
- "Immigrants still say 'I want to go to America.' It is still the land of hope and dreams and opportunities."
- "Everything they (the Army) taught me was to put followers in the best possible environment to get the job done."
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Despite the political, economic and foreign policy issues facing the nation today, one of America's foremost military leaders and statesmen still finds optimism and confidence in the Americans he meets while traveling on speaking engagements.
From a New York City hot dog vendor to the employees working on digital communications for a Silicon Valley, Calif., company, retired Gen. Colin Powell has witnessed the same beliefs and hopes that his parents brought with them when they immigrated to America from Jamaica.
During a Feb. 7 "Get Motivated" event at the Birmingham-Jefferson County Convention Complex, Powell described a recent visit to his hometown of New York City when he stopped at a street vendor to buy a New York hot dog. The vendor, who recognized Powell, would not allow the former statesman to pay for his hot dog.
"He told me 'You can't pay me. I've already been paid. America has paid me. I'm an American,'" Powell recalled, adding that the vendor's comments reiterated his belief that "this is still the same country that welcomed my parents 90 years ago. It is an open, welcoming, democratic country. Let's never forget that."
Powell, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, and as the secretary of state for President George W. Bush. He was among a high-hitting list of speakers for the "Get Motivated" event that included former first lady Laura Bush, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Microsoft president Rick Belluzzo, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Auburn University coach Gene Chizik. But, it was Powell's words that came across as being the most universal in their reflection of the American spirit.
"In many ways, I am busier now than ever before. I am not in politics or diplomacy. I am into traveling and talking to wonderful audiences. It gets me out in the country. It gives me an opportunity to meet people and see what's going on in our country," he said.
"Even though we have economic problems and foreign policy issues, I still find in audiences like this that we still have a belief in America and an optimism."
Powell said he wishes he could bottle the optimism and enthusiasm of his audiences and take it to Washington, D.C., where he would pour it over the heads of the nation's congressional leaders.
"And I would tell them 'Get on with it. The people are waiting for you to lead,'" he said.
Describing the drive and motivation of Silicon Valley employees working in digital communications, and the way the nation's freedoms have allowed his own grandchildren to have access to all the benefits of that digital technology, Powell said three simple principles - believing in America, studying and working hard - are still the nation's keys to success for all its people.
Even as the international climate changes and other nations grow in their economic capabilities, it is American democracy and determination that has the widest impact around the world, he said. The world's most powerful nations can only remain strong if they grow economically, control their energy resources, protect their environment and educate their children, he said.
"Too many of our kids are dropping out," Powell said. "We need to mentor our kids, not just be pointing fingers at who to blame. America still has so much potential. I still see America in the lead. Immigrants still say 'I want to go to America.' It is still the land of hope and dreams and opportunities."
Powell, now 73, recalled his own childhood growing up in the South Bronx and his years at The City College of New York, where he was a C-student, couldn't decide on a major and had difficulties with the administration.
"But, I made straight As in ROTC, and now I am one of the greatest sons of City College," he said. "I tell my kids that it isn't where you started in life. It's where you ended up and what you did in between."
His affinity with ROTC led Powell on a journey that took him from the familiarity of the South Bronx to the infantry at Fort Benning, Ga., and the life of an active duty officer. The Army is where he learned the many lessons of leadership.
"Everything they taught me was to put followers in the best possible environment to get the job done," he said. "Leaders give a sense of mission and goals. They give a sense of passion and a sense of intensity. They believe in what they are doing. They believe in themselves. They are selfless, always being for the organization and never for themselves."
Leaders want their followers to be self-motivated and inspired toward accomplishing the goal, and that is why leaders must "always try to communicate to every person in the organization the purpose you are trying to serve," Powell said.
That includes employees from the highest level manager to the janitor, the statesman said, recalling that, during his years as secretary of state, he couldn't set the scene for a visit from a foreign dignitary without the help of the janitor and the cleaning service.
Essential to the success of any organization are three aspects - leaders who inspire their people, leaders who ensure that employees have the tools and equipment they need to do the job, and leaders who recognize performance.
"These aspects will move an organization," Powell said. "Getting people to believe in you means caring about them. Human interaction is what leadership is all about."
The strength of a leader is also found in what that leader does when employees are not performing.
"A good leader senses a problem, identifies it and does something about it, even if that means moving an employee, retraining them or firing them," he said. "And, if you can't fire an employee that needs to be fired, then you are hurting your organization and you are not being an effective leader."
Among his post-retirement activities, Powell is working to raise funds for a Martin Luther King Memorial and a Vietnam Wall Education Center, both in Washington, D.C.
Concerning the education center, he said "we want to make sure these names (of those servicemembers who died in Vietnam) never become anonymous. We want you to know they lived and loved America."
The sacrifices of America's military and military families continue, and the nation's tradition of greatness carries on in today's servicemembers.
"America has been blessed at having greatness in every generation," Powell said. "But there is not a generation greater than those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Since 9/11, Powell said the nation has done a better job at "defending ourselves, deterring the enemy and going after the enemy. We are safer after 9/11 because of the policies put in place. But the enemy is still out there and we have to go after them."
Though some terrorists have been discovered in recent years traveling under the claim of being foreign students, Powell said the nation must continue to encourage foreign students to get their education in the U.S. with the hopes they will take what they learn back to their own countries to help grow democracy and economic wellbeing.
And, though terrorism will continue to occur around the world and there could very well be other terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, Powell said "we can't allow them to change who we are and what we are as a free people."
The general mentioned his own adjustments in life, going from the high of national service to the anonymity of public life.
"One day I'm the number one diplomat in the whole world. The next, I am nothing. It was a transformation from the highest to the lowest ... I had to get back to normal," he said.
Joking about missing the 757 airplane he used as secretary of state, and the red carpet treatment he received wherever he went during those years, Powell said he would rather look ahead to new possibilities than pine after what he no longer has.
"I don't miss anything in life. I want to go through life looking through the front window," he said. "I don't want to look out the sides or out the rear window to the past. I want to look ahead."