Advice to CEOs from Gen. Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.)

A four-star general, the first African-American Secretary of State and a public figure known worldwide, the late Gen. Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.) reached grand heights on his leadership journey — a climb that started when he graduated from the City College of New York and received a commission as an Army second lieutenant in 1958.

In an interview with Vistage CEO Sam Reese this summer, Powell recounted that 35 years in the Army taught him a lot about leadership. But one of the most important lessons — and one that profoundly benefitted him — was to invest in your people. The Army saw fit to invest in Powell every step of the way.

“They saw something in me — this kid from Harlem and the south Bronx — and they prepared me to go up the ranks. I went to every school they wanted me to go to. I’m a ranger, I’m a paratrooper, I’m a Pathfinder. I graduated with honors from the infantry advanced course. I learned about using nuclear weapons,” Powell said. “I just had a ton of education because the Army understands — just like business leaders do — that you have to keep up. You have to constantly improve yourself.”

That means anticipating the skills and competencies required for the future, both for you as a leader and your team.

When the Army told Powell he was going to graduate school at George Washington University, he said he assumed he’d be learning about foreign policy. Wrong. They wanted him to learn about computers because they knew that’s what they were going to need. So, from 1969 to 1971, Powell was in a graduate course learning about computers when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still in their teens.

Ever since then, Powell said he had been on a quest to stretch and learn new things, and reach out for new experiences.

As a business leader, Powell’s experience serves as a reminder and prompt to consider how you’re developing your employees and growing yourself.

Here are a four questions to consider:

  1. Who are your most promising employees and how are you investing in them?
  2. Do you have a vision for “bringing them up the ranks?”
  3. Are you yourself on a constant path of growth and learning?
  4. Powell was learning about computers in 1969; what is your team learning about to prepare for the future?

Related resources 

[Vistage members only] Full presentation from Gen. Colin L. Powell

Employee Development: The CEO’s Competitive Advantage [Report]

Leadership development areas most CEOs tend to overlook

11 questions with Jocko Willink: How to own your leadership role

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Joe Galvin

Joe Galvin is the Chief Research Officer for Vistage Worldwide. Vistage members receive the most credible, data-driven and actionable thought leadership on the strategic issues facing CEOs. Through collaboration with the Vistage community of…

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