Effective leaders made, not born, Colin Powell says

Colin Powell

Colin Powell

Successful leaders know how to define their mission, convey it to their subordinates and ensure they have the right tools and training needed to get the job done, according to Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state.

The retired four-star general shared his philosophy of leadership with hundreds of business students Nov. 16 during a morning presentation in Memorial Auditorium co-sponsored by the Black Business Students Association and the Graduate School of Business's "View from the Top" lecture series. Powell told his audience of aspiring business executives that what Stanford and its alumni have done as leaders to change the world "is rather incredible."

"I'm sure the time will come for you to transform the world," he added.

Drawing on his broad experiences in military and civilian life, Powell said, "Leadership is all about people…and getting the most out of people." It is about conveying a sense of purpose in a selfless manner, he said, and creating conditions of trust while displaying moral and physical courage. "Never show fear or anger," he added. "You have to have a sense of optimism."

A false leader is someone who fails to get the necessary resources for his or her staff to do their jobs, Powell said. "The first way you take care of the troops is to train them," he said. "Then you have to trust them and let them get on with their work. The best leaders are those who can communicate upward the fears and desires of their subordinates, and are willing to fight for what is needed. If not, the organization will weaken and crumble."

Effective leaders are made, not born, Powell said. They learn from trial and error, and from experience. When something fails, a true leader learns from the experience and puts it behind him. "You don't get reruns in life," he said. "Don't worry about what happened in the past."

Good leaders also must know how to reward those who succeed and know when to retrain, move or fire ineffective staff. "When you get all these together in place the place starts to hum," he said. "You know you're a good leader when people follow you out of curiosity."

Before Powell served as secretary of state (2001-04), he was chairman of America's Promise, a national nonprofit organization supporting youth. During his 35-year military career, he held a range of command and staff positions, including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. His autobiography, My American Journey, was published in 1995. Powell is involved in The Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, which was established in 1997 by his alma mater, the City College of New York. Last summer Powell became a strategic limited partner of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road. In May 2006, he will become chairman of the Eisenhower Fellowship Program that trains young leaders and brings them together in a collaborative global network.