A few years back, I had the honor of keynoting alongside Colin Powell at a conference on leadership. The true honor was hearing him tell stories like this one. According to Powell, at the height of the Civil War, when the Union wasn’t doing so well, Abraham Lincoln went to visit soldiers at a nearby fort to lift their spirits. The fighting in the area had been fierce, and Lincoln had been encouraged not to go. But he, much like Powell, believed he and his soldiers were in the fight together, as equals, each needing to do their job and help the other do theirs. While talking with some of the soldiers, a messenger from the front appeared. He reported to Lincoln the loss of a general in battle, and other misfortunes, including the loss of over 100 war horses. “Damn shame about those horses,” Powell shared was Lincoln’s response. A bit dismayed, the messenger repeated that a general had been killed. Lincoln mused further on the horses. Incredulous, the messenger pleaded the case for the greater importance of the general’s loss, to which Lincoln is said to have replied, “Son, I can make a general in the stroke of a pen, but it’s darn hard to replace 100 good horses.”
No matter how you knew of Colin Powell, as a storyteller, army General, Secretary of State, war hero, father of 3, married close to 60 years, he was an exceptional leader – exceptional not simply for who he was, but for his lasting impact on others. That ability not only to impact others, but to consciously and constantly encourage and enable others to rise to be leaders in their own right – that is the true job of a leader of worth.
To guide himself, Powell famously lived by his 13 Rules of Leadership. He lived by these not just when he reached the top of the leadership ladder, but along the way. They enabled his success he said. And then, once at the top, he worked to project them back to others. Those rules included these tenets: #6: Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision. #9 Share credit. #11: Have a vision, and be demanding – or as he often put it, have a purpose and a clear set of standards for pursuing it. Notably, and as affirmed by people from every turn of his career, Powell also fervently believed in being kind (#10), not what one would automatically expect from a career military man. By these rules, he didn’t just shape himself into a capable leader on multiple fronts, he created the environment in which everyone could lead. He was a maker of war horses, far more than he ever was a maker of generals.
On November 5, 2021, Powell was honored and eulogized by four Presidents, a former Secretary of State, representatives from all branches of the military, and close colleagues. Beyond his famed public accomplishments, each made a point of mentioning his commitment to and pride in his family, or shared a story of how Powell sought out as a matter of course those within his organizations who did the real war horse work, not just to inspire them, but to seek their insights. “He was a great leader, because he was a great follower,” his son Michael said. Michael Powell told his own story about the dedication that his father had as a leader to establishing an environment, indeed a culture of leadership wherever he went. Accompanying his dad on a military base one day, they encountered a Captain standing in front of a soldier who was saluting the Captain, over and over again. The General approached and asked, not with an assumption of superiority, but a true sense of curiosity, what the Captain was doing. The officer told General Powell that the soldier had failed to salute when he passed, and so he was making the soldier salute him 100 times to make sure he learned the lesson. According to Michael, his father was the real teacher that day. He didn’t undermine the Captain’s authority, he simply said, “Fine. And each time he salutes you, you salute him back as a symbol of mutual respect.”
Powell’s son shared that people often asked about his father, “Are we still making his kind?” In his response, Michael Powell offered a lesson of his own, and an opportunity for every one of us – leaders, or leaders-yet-to-be. “I believe,” he said, “the answer to that question is up to us.”
Each leader faces two pivotal choices as they grow into the role. The first, is to choose what kind of leader they want to be. The second, is the choice to create an environment where others are given the same opportunity, and the support they need to grow in the direction of exceptional, collective leadership. There will always be rules and ranks in leadership, but that is the greatest lesson.