Power and Influence: Colin Powell Forged a Reputation of Integrity to Become One of the Nation's Most Respected Leaders

By Vinnedge, Mary | Success, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Power and Influence: Colin Powell Forged a Reputation of Integrity to Become One of the Nation's Most Respected Leaders


Vinnedge, Mary, Success


Colin Powell was--and wasn't--born to greatmess. The son of working-class Jamaican immigrants, Powell was born during the Depression and reared in new York City's tough South Bronx. Those roots wouldn't seem to be a springboard for success, certainly for someone destined to become one of this country's most powerful and influential leaders.

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But Luther and Maud Ariel Powell had high hopes that son Colin and his older sister Marilyn would be achievers, and they laid a strong family foundation. His parents "did not recognize their own strengths," Powell once told a Parade interviewer. "It was the way they lived their lives" that established values the children adopted.

The Powells worked hard, commanded respect and insisted their children attend college." My parents and my minister, my aunts, uncles, cousins--they were nurturing my beginning in life," Powell tell SUCCESS." They said, 'Don't disappoint us and don't shame us.'"

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That admonition was not lost on powell, who ultimately gained admiration and respect from members of both political parties and the American public, His resume would include stints as national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, as well as leader of volunteer initiatives such as America's Promise Alliance.

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Touted as a possible candidate for the presidency in 1996, Powell's popularity crossed party and racial boundaries. In declining to run, he said he was nevertheless heartened that a black man was considered a serious presidential prospect by both parties. "That's the realization of a great dream, even though I may not be the one to fill it," he was quoted by The New York Times as saying. "In one generation, we have moved from denying a black man service at a lunch counter to elevating one to the highest military office in the nation and to being a serious contender for the presidency."

Rewards of Honesty

As a youth, Powell remained a worry to members of his boisterous, supportive family because he did not excel or even apply himself academically as a youngster. "I wasn't a particularly good student," he says.

In his autobiography, My American journey (written with Joseph E. Persico), Powell describes himself as generally well-behaved but a "directionless" youngster. One of his worst transgressions was sneaking away from church camp for beer when he was in his teens in the early 1950s. Powell was sent home where he faced his parents' wrath, but was redeemed by almost-divine intervention. A priest told his parents "Colin stood up and took responsibility. And his example spurred the other boys to admit their guilt." That turned the experience around, Powell writes. "My parents beamed. From juvenile delinquent, 1 had been catapulted to hero. Something from that boyhood experience, the rewards of honesty, hit home and stayed."

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That lesson has played out many times for the soft-spoken Powell. Generally regarded as noncontroversial, he nonetheless has not been afraid to voice his conscience.

Most recently Powell crossed party lines to endorse Democrat Barack Obama for president over Republican John McCain. In an interview with Meet the Press, Powell said he saw Obama as "a transformational figure" and cited "his ability to inspire because of the inclusive nature of his campaign." He also said he regretted disappointing McCain, whose campaign he had supported and whom he considered a friend. Powell's support was critical for Obama as he sought credibility with voters concerned about his lack of experience.

Powell also famously reversed course on the Iraq War. As secretary of state in February 2003, Powell propelled the United States toward an invasion when he asserted in a U.N. statement that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

But in September 2004, two months before resigning from the cabinet, he told a Senate committee the statement was based on erroneous intelligence. …

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