It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell with Tony Koltz. Published by HarperCollins, New York. 2012, 304 pages.
General Colin Powell's latest book is a semi autobiographical, and takes readers into what he has learned from a lifetime of public service in the United States military, and as Secretary of State. He stresses that his story does not offer conclusions, and that every person has a life story. He also underscores that these life lessons worked for and served him well, which means he urges readers not to emulate his decisions and philosophy, but to find their own path to contentment and professional fulfillment.
Among the chapters in the book is "Get Mad, Then Get Over It," in which Powell shares his interactions with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. The French Foreign Minister would be Powell's adversary on the Iraq issue, but he knew he could not treat him as an enemy. Powell understood that de Villepin was representing his government and did not personalize his attempts to garner an alliance against Saddam Hussein. In 2004, Powell would work with de Villepin in deploying French forces to keep the peace in Haiti. Powell advises avoiding having one's ego so close to their position, and to accept that the position was faulty, not the ego. This is great advice for a staff officer serving on major staffs like the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, or the Service Chiefs, as readers will encounter many positions to an issue, and the art of compromise. At the very least, a reader will learn the importance of representing a superior's position in meetings is all that can be expected, as a representative is not there to force an agenda or throw a tantrum. His words really resonated with me, as I have served four years in the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on Middle East affairs.
A powerful recollection is not letting adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision, and Powell reveals how as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he managed an attempted coup by members of the Philippine Air Force against President Corazon Aquino. The government in Manila authorized the destruction of planes taking off, Powell overruled this and recommended destroying the runways and providing air cover. General Fidel Ramos was thankful that planes were not shot down and the coup was avoided simply by denying runway use.
Powell urges that leaders share credit and that while medals, pay, and promotions are nice, you need to reach people through a kind word. A lesson Powell learned mopping the floors of a Coca Cola plant, "if you take the pay, earn it," and "there are true fewly degrading jobs." One of the stories he shares is that of a street sweeper whose aspiration was to drive the street sweeping truck, worked for decades, was beloved by his community, educated his children, had a robust family life, and could not have asked for more. For this person, this was contentment. He also discusses how staff work is for people in the field, and to always remember that. Avoid "'The General Wants' syndrome" and never keep anybody waiting on the phone. Powell provides his perspective on the United Nations speech on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction; he said while the leader is not absolved of blame, the source, in hindsight, was deeply flawed and unreliable, yet no one spoke up during the meetings in preparation for the speech. He also said the President was not informed early about the events at Iraq's Abu Ghraib Prison, mentioning that subordinates should bring bad news to their superiors early, so they can manage it. Powell ends by stating, "The people in my life made me who I am."
A recommended read about leadership, tough choices, and the importance of the team in the major events of our history, you can also find this book on CD.
Editor's Note: Cmdr. Aboul-Enein teaches part time at the National Defense University, he maintains a regular column in the NDW Waterline. He is author of two books on the Middle East with Naval Institute Press.