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The Resource for the Global Finance Profession

Gen. Colin Powell Reflects on Life, Leadership at AFP 2013

  • By Andrew Deichler
  • Published: 2013-10-28

LAS VEGAS—Treasury and finance professionals gathered at the Opening General Session of the 2013 AFP Annual Conference Sunday to hear a keynote address by General Colin L. Powell. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd, Gen. Powell shared his perspective on leadership, which has guided his illustrious career and made him one of the most highly revered figures in history.  He also shared his thoughts on some of the most pertinent issues today, such as the political gridlock in Washington and healthcare.

A decorated four-star general, Gen. Powell served as the 65th Secretary of State (2001 to 2005), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-1993), National Security Advisor (1987-1989) and Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command (1989). Throughout his career, he was known for using the power of diplomacy to build trust and forge alliances.

Gen. Powell discussed the insights he gained serving in the top ranks of the military and in four presidential administrations, which are the basis of his new book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. The basis of Gen. Powell’s leadership philosophy are his 13 Rules:

  1. It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done!
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
  6. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can't make someone else’s choices.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
  12. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Gen. Powell noted that the rule about optimism is especially crucial for treasury and finance professionals and relates specifically to the 2013 AFP Conference’s theme, ideas multiply. He explained that in the in battle, you put all of your forces together to execute a strategy. “The rule says that optimism is a force multiplier—meaning simply that you do everything you can to gain an advantage over the situation, and you don’t do it in a linear fashion,” he said. “You do everything you can to multiply your force, so when the enemy thinks perhaps he’s facing one increment of power; he’s facing four increments of power. And one of those increments is your very great spirit of optimism.

“So as you think about the things you’re going to study for the next couple of days before you go back to your organizations, just remember that one of the great things you have to do as you plan your battles, as you deal with your daily challenges, is to make sure that you always create a sense of optimism within an organization. And not only do you need to have it, but you have to infect everybody who works with you with a sense of optimism.”

Gen. Powell added that as an investor, his interest in the day-to-day responsibilities of treasury and finance professionals has increased significantly in recent years. He has tremendous respect for practitioners because he understands their importance. “You play such a vital role in the financial institutions of America, Canada and the other countries that are represented here,” he said to the attendees. “You’re the ones that guys like me are supposed to believe in. You’re the ones that are protecting my interests. You’re the ones that have to have the moral fortitude to say to somebody that is in a management level above you, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. We can’t do this.’”

On the current political gridlock in Washington, Powell emphasized that even though problems persist, he still sees a “built-in optimism” in the U.S.  “I only wish I could bottle up what I see out in the countryside, bottle it up and take it back to Washington, D.C. and pour it over the heads of all our politicians and tell them, ‘You guys better get going; they’re really getting mad out there. We’re going to fix you guys if you don’t fix yourselves,’” he said.  

On healthcare, Gen. Powell explained that he didn’t want to get into the problems with the healthcare.gov website that have been dominating headlines. Instead, he simply stated his position on the issue. “In a country with all our wealth, and all the money we spend on healthcare, we should be able to have universal healthcare like our Canadian friends do, for every single citizen,” he said. This statement drew thunderous applause from attendees.

Gen. Powell concluded his speech with some leadership advice to attendees. He noted that the most high-performing organizations are the ones that have built bonds of trust. “Don’t always think that you’re the smartest one in the room; usually you’re not,” he said. “Always take advantage of the human talent that you have within an organization. The science of management says you can get 100 percent out of an organization. The art of leadership says if you do it right you can get 120 percent by giving them a purpose and inspiring them. Motivation isn’t enough. You want people inspired. That’s what I’ve tried to do throughout my career.”

Copyright © 2015 Association for Financial Professionals, Inc.
All rights reserved.

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