Why Leadership Matters In the Department of State

2003 Leadership Lecture

 

Secretary Colin L. Powell Dean Acheson Auditorium Washington, DC October 28, 2003

 

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SECRETARY POWELL: Thank you, Kathy [Kathy Peterson, Director of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)], for that nice introduction. And for those of you who are sitting on the floors or standing against the walls, I won't keep you long. This is not going to be a long lecture.

 

Kathy hit the nail on the head when she said that before I took office I studied all the reports that have been done on the Department in the years past, and I came in with a particular focus on making sure you understood that we understood our responsibilities, not only as the senior diplomatic advisors to the President, but as the leaders of a wonderful Department full of wonderful people.

 

This was not anything in the way of a bifurcation of my responsibilities or of Rich Armitage’s [Deputy Secretary of State] or Grant Green’s [Under Secretary of State for Management] responsibilities. You can't be a good chief foreign policy advisor to the President unless you are also deeply involved in and concerned about the welfare of the people who are executing the foreign policy of the President. So it isn't as if we separated these two. They can't be separated. They have to be one and the same.

 

In an organization such as ours, what we do and how we prepare to do it are one and the same. It's all part of the same mission. And that's why leadership took on such an important focus for us, and why we asked Kathy and all of the great folks over at FSI to come up with a leadership program so that we could train leaders at every level, from the junior officer entry level all the way up.

 

Now, the fact is that I'm an Army officer, Grant Green is an Army officer, Rich Armitage is a Naval officer – but nevertheless, we let him play [laughter]. So it won't surprise you to know that the attitude and the approach we bring to this comes from our experience in the military.

 

Leadership is a personal thing. It's a very intensely personal thing. I can talk about leadership for days at a time, but I'm not sure I can really teach leadership or give classes about leadership. I can just sort of muse with you about leadership, which is what I'm going to do this morning. And as I understand it, we'll do that for about 10 or 15 minutes. I'll try to keep it to 10 or 15 minutes, and then we'll open it up to comments and questions.

 

Leadership is certainly something that is written about. You can go to any bookstore; there are shelves full of books on leadership. In fact, if you go to an airport and look at the bookstores in an airport or if you go over to one of our big bookstores, you'll find lots of books on, principally, three subjects: cooking, diets and leadership. (Laughter.) Cooking to make you fat, diets to make you small, and leadership to figure out which one you should be doing. (Laughter.)

 

So, leadership is something that is just written about constantly. And each of us has to internalize in our mind what leadership means to us, and how we go about it. There are all kinds of models. There are all kinds of theories: power up, power down, decentralize, centralize, theory X, theory Y, you're an A-type, you're a B-type, you're a C-type – all that is quite interesting, but ultimately, you have to internalize and find out what kind of a leader you are and what kind of a leadership environment you want to create around you.

 

As I said, my experience comes from the military. I started learning about leadership when I was a brand new 2nd Lieutenant, as Grant did, and some of the others in the room may have. And it happens the same way in the Marines, the Air Force and other places. It usually starts with some sergeant grabbing you by the back of your neck and starting to teach you about taking care of troops, and how to accomplish your mission.

 

And I'll never forget some of those early lessons I learned at Fort Benning, Georgia, with some sergeant shouting at me, “Lieutenant, just don't stand there, do something!” That’s the essence of leadership -- leaders do not just stand there, they do something. They are not just passive. Don't have any leaders say to me that, “Well, I have a good outfit. It can run just as well without me.”

 

Oh? Well, then why do I need you?
(Laughter.)

 

Leaders make a difference. They don't stand there. They do something. How do they make that difference? What is leadership all about?

 

My own personal definition is that leadership is the art of getting people to do more than the science of management says is possible. There are lots of variations and corollaries on that. Good leadership is getting people to do a lot more than the science of management says. If the science of management says that the capacity of this organization is at 100 percent, good leaders take it to 110 percent.

 

Now, Powell's Corollary and Powell's Rule says a bad leader, somebody who is a bad leader, can take it well under what its designed capability is. And we've all seen that in the course of our career. The key word in that sentence, however, is “people.” Leadership is all about people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people -- motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people-centered. People are the followers.

 

At Fort Benning, Georgia, when you go to the infantry school and you drive onto the base, the first thing you will see in front of the headquarters building is a statue. It's called “Iron Mike.” And it's a statue of an infantry lieutenant, an infantry officer, who is posed with a rifle in one hand and he is pointing with the other hand.

 

And the motto of the infantry school, beneath the statue, is there, and there is no infantry officer or soldier who doesn't know what it is. It's “Follow me.” That motto means: I am the leader. You are the follower. “Follow me.” I know what I am doing. I am in charge. I am going to take you into the darkest night and bring you out safely. “Follow me.”

 

So it's all about people, how you interact with people. The single word that captures what leadership is really all about and how you know when you have it and when you don't have it is the word “trust.” Leaders have to be trusted by their followers. Leaders also have to be good followers. If a leader is a good follower, then the person above you, your leader, has confidence and trust in you.

 

And so everything I have tried to do -- and Grant and Rich and the rest of us have tried to do in the Department -- is to create a bond of trust between those of us on the seventh floor [the floor at the Department of State building which houses the top leadership of the Department, including the Office of the Secretary]and, for example, somebody in an embassy or a consular office just as far away as you can imagine. “Trust” meaning that they know we are doing everything we can to put them in the best possible environment to carry out our mission, and I'll come back to “mission” in a few moments.

 

Trust is the essence of leadership. Why do people follow you in the first place as a leader? Two reasons: One, they have to. They have no choice. You pay them. (Laughter.) You have authority over them. (Laughter.) Don't make any mistake about this, any of you. Because they have to follow you, they have no choice. They're in an organization and they have to follow you.

 

And that's a foundation. But the real thing you're after is not their following you because they have to, but their following you because they want to. And how do you make them want to follow you? You create conditions of trust within an organization, a bond between people. I don't like to say “within an organization,” when I really mean a bond between people.

 

The same sergeant at Fort Benning said to me in one of our conversations, we were chatting about it, and he said, “Well, you're coming along, lieutenant. You might make it. I ain't sure, but you might make it.” (Laughter.)

 

I said, “Sergeant, how do you know when you're really a good leader?”

 

And he says, “Very simple. A good leader is someone whose people will follow him or her, if only out of curiosity.” (Laughter.)

 

That is exceptionally profound, and I've never forgotten it, because it means that we may not be sure, exactly, where you're going. We may be a little confused. We may be tired. We may be afraid. We may be cold. We may be hungry. We may want to be anywhere else on earth but with you right now, but we will follow you just to see what you think is around the corner. And why will we follow you? Because we trust you -- we trust you with our lives. We are prepared for you to take us into battle. Follow me. Trust me.

 

Now, how do you develop that level of trust within an organization, which is the essence of leadership? A couple things: One, there has to be a focus on mission. There has to be a purpose of the activity around which the followers and leaders, together, can draw and give all of their soul and energy to.

 

And so, the first thing you're taught in the military is the mission is your first consideration. The mission is what you exist for, and everything is secondary to the mission. The mission is what will take people up the hill, what will send people to the furthest embassy posts that we have -- people, for example, who will be willing to sacrifice and go to Baghdad because the mission is there and the mission is important.

 

In order to make a mission important, it has to be a mission that not only exists up on the seventh floor. The mission has to be driven down through every level of the organization so everybody understands what we are trying to accomplish and is committed to its accomplishment. The mission has to be clear. It has to be straightforward. It has to be understandable. But above all, it has to be achievable, and it has to be something that will cause people to believe so that they will want to follow you and not just have to follow you.

 

And so one of the things we have tried to do in the time we have been here in the Department is to make it clear what we are trying to achieve. And sometimes it's difficult -- far more difficult in the diplomatic service, I've learned, than it is in the military. In the military, you just come in the morning, “This is what we're going to do! That's it! Let's go!” (Laughter.) A little harder in the interagency process. (Laughter.)

 

But nevertheless, we have a President who has given us clear direction and clear ideas about what he wants to accomplish in the name of the American people: the global war against terrorism; dealing with those nations out there who mean ill to us; HIV/AIDS; the Millennium Challenge Account; better relations with our allies. We have gotten clear guidance and instructions from our President. He has made the mission clear: to advance America's values of democracy and the free enterprise system; respect for human dignity around the world; respect for human rights. This is all part of a mission that is clear.

 

But the mission doesn't count unless everybody understands it -- not just me and my Deputy and the 8:30 staff meeting crowd, but everybody, to include the guys downstairs who are moving cars around all day long in our parking areas. That's an essential part of it. One of my favorite stories, which my senior staff has heard but I haven't used that widely around the Department, has to do with a television show I saw that was a documentary on the Empire State Building, a beautiful building. It told the history of the building and how it was built and what it took, and all that goes into running it -- how many elevators, how many people come in every day. And they started up at the top office floors of the building, talking to the manager and the owner, and he just gave a wonderful presentation.

 

And then, toward the end of the documentary, finally, they were down in the basement of the building talking to people who work down there, and finally, they got to this one room, the lowest part of the basement, the back of the building where the trash was taken out. And there was this huge room. And the room was filled with plastic bags -- hundreds and hundreds of plastic trash bags, these 33-gallon things. And there were these six guys standing there in blue work uniforms with work gloves on, and it was clear that their job was to spend their shift, from midnight to whatever it was, taking these trash bags out of the building, knowing with certainty that when they came back tomorrow evening, the room would be filled with trash bags all over again.

 

And the camera went up to the guy in charge of the group, and the interviewer said to him, “What's your job?” And the guy looked right back at the camera with a smile on his face and he says, “My job is to make sure that every morning when people come from all over the world to see this building, this historic beautiful building, my job is to make sure it’s clean and it's ready for them.” Don't call him a trash handler -- somebody who would have said, “Well, I've got to get rid of this trash.” No, his job is far more important than that. His job was the same as the guy up on the 86th floor or whatever.

 

Somebody had communicated to this guy and that crew, their part of the mission. So the mission isn't just something that exists on butcher paper charts or on a strategic plan. It's how you take that overall mission and you translate it down throughout the organization so that everybody knows what their part of the mission is and what they have to do to make sure that the whole organization accomplishes the mission.

 

And that's what leaders do. Leaders set the mission, set the standards for the accomplishment of the mission. And leaders make sure that the standards they set are high standards. I have never been in a good organization that did not have high standards. I have never seen a good military unit that coasted or was satisfied with “getting by.” It was not good, it was not happy.

 

I'll never forget, I was in a brigade in the 101st Airborne Division, and we used to go out and run all the time in the morning, great fun, and there was this one soldier I would catch up with every few days, and he just couldn't keep up. He just had said to himself that he couldn't keep up. And we said, “No, you've got to keep up. You're going to be part of this outfit, that's the standard you've got to meet and you will meet it.”

 

And so one day I was running with him – this was when I was considerably younger than I am now and was able to do such things – but this kid was about 19 years old, and I took him – it almost broke my heart, but I forced him to meet the standard that day. And he was – the last 500 yards, he was complaining, crying, grousing, mad, you know, “Why are you making me do this? You're down on me. Why are you making me do this?” And then he crossed the line and he did it. You should have seen him. “Yes, sir, that was me, man!” (Laughter.) He had to have a high standard. He never knew what he was capable of accomplishing until somebody put that high standard up there for him and pulled him across it. That's what leaders do. And when you do that, you create a bond of trust between leader and follower that will not easily be broken.

 

And each and every one of you, I charge you here today, and in your daily life, in whatever you do in your office or your place of work, work on that bond of trust between leader and led, and between follower and followed. It's not just leader-down, it's follower-up, and it's also sideways – trust among equals at every level so that nobody is gaining on anybody else. We are all bound together by trust.

 

The second key element of my training in the Army with respect to leadership was “take care of your people.” This is second only to mission. It means know your troops. It means take care of your troops. The simple reason is that they accomplish the mission. They are the ones who ultimately get it done, they are the ones who ultimately, in an infantry context, are going to climb the hill and say, “This is now ours. We won.” Just as an ambassador or DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] or consular officer out there somewhere is saying, “We have accomplished the mission. We've won.” So work gets done by followers, by people, and you have to take care of them.

 

How do you take care of them? One, you train them. We have to make sure that, as we send people out on their missions, they're qualified and they have all the skills and we have done our very best to give them the very best training possible for their job. And that's why we're focusing so much on that aspect of training as well as leadership training at FSI. It is not fair to send people out to accomplish a mission if you haven't prepared them.

 

Another quick war story, and I'll keep it short. I was a battalion commander in Korea. I was walking across the battalion area one day and I saw one of my soldiers walking by and he was down, he looked depressed, he was all dressed in his greens. It's his formal uniform, as opposed to his work clothes.

 

I said: “Hey, son, where are you going?” He replied: “I'm going back to the barracks, sir. I've just been over at brigade headquarters.”

 

“Doing what?” I asked. “Well, they sent me over there to compete for Soldier of the Month to see if I can win being soldier of the month for the battalion, my battalion, and they had sent me over there to compete.”

 

I said, "Well, how did you do?" He said, “Well, I didn't do very well. I came in third.”

 

So, I said, “Well, when did you learn that you had to compete?” And he said, “Well, they didn't tell me until last night.” I said, “Thank you, son, for representing us,” and then I went back to our headquarters, and I went nuts. I got all of my leaders together. I said, “We will never, ever put a soldier in my battalion in that set of circumstances again.” If it's important enough for us to do and participate in, then it's important enough for us to invest in the people that we are asking to do it. You should never set up anyone for failure, as long as you have the ability to do something about it. That’s as true for this Department as it was for that battalion.

 

And that's why we have fought so hard for resources. That's why we have fought to get the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative put in place. That's why we have fought to get our Information Technology up to speed. That's why we have fought to get the Overseas Building Offices program squared away, so that we're giving our people the equipment, the skills, the resources they need to be successful, so that they trust us when we send them out. Know your people, take care of your people, and it begins with training them.

 

It also begins with recognizing and rewarding them for good performance. It also includes professional development to make sure that people are promoted. It also involves discipline. An organization that is undisciplined, where people who are not performing get by with it -- that is, continue their non-performance -- is an organization that is not running at full RPM. It's not going to get that 110 percent that I'm looking for. I'm looking for more than 100 percent.

 

And so discipline is part of it. And it's also the toughest part of leadership. Nobody likes to look someone in the face and say, “You're not doing the job.” Or, even worse, to look someone in the face and say, “You're not doing the job and we can't improve you, we can't fix it, you've got to be moved.” That is about one of the hardest things that one has to do as a leader and a manager. But it has to be done if you're going to keep the organization vibrant, if you're going to have a level of trust within the organization.

 

Every time I have faced this over the years where, you know, you couldn't look away from a problem any longer and you couldn't fix it, you couldn't manage your way out of it, and finally you had to take that kind of action, it was difficult, it was painful, but I always found that afterwards, everybody else in the organization was waiting for you to do it. Each of them knew it long before you did. And what each of them is doing is sitting around saying, “How come that person's getting over and I'm working like a dog and the boss is not doing anything about it?”

 

Discipline is an essential part of keeping an organization healthy and moving forward.

 

And so leadership is intensely personal. In my view, it comes down to a matter of trust, it comes down to a matter of loyalty: loyalty to each other, loyalty to followers, loyalty upward to leaders – loyalty in all directions.

 

And so I challenge all of you to keep that in mind and to do everything you can to develop that level of trust within your offices, within your parts of the State Department. I challenge you also, if you reflect on this later, to think about the mission of your bureaus, your branches, your offices, and is it clear enough? Are you giving out the right kind of direction? Am I giving out the right kind of direction? If you guys don't tell me, I won't know whether I'm doing it right or wrong.

 

We're blessed with Assistant Secretaries and Under Secretaries who are not reluctant to come up and tell me I've got my head in the wrong place. They do it carefully and with some caution. (Laughter.) But nevertheless, they do it. And they don't serve me if they don't do it. You are not serving your boss by keeping bad news from him or by not telling him when the emperor has no clothes on.

 

A good friend of mine, General Butch Saint, when we were brigadier generals together, had an ugly meeting with the Chief of Staff of the Army. It was just awful. And Butch came sailing out of the Chief's office, the Chief was mad, the Secretary was mad, everybody was mad. And Butch and I were walking down the hallway and I said, “Whew, that was bad, Butch.” And Butch said, “Well, that's just the way it is. He doesn't pay me to give him happy talk. He pays me to tell him the truth. And the day he doesn’t want me to tell him the truth, I'll go.” And Butch rose to become a four-star general, one of our very best.

 

But I'll never forget that day, because Butch put it all on the line. He didn't care what the Chief of Staff thought. He didn't care whether he was going to get in trouble or not, which comes to the last point I will make in this little sermonette, just in the interest of time, and maybe we'll do this again some other day and we will expand this in other directions -- I’ve got lots of other stories to tell. (Laughter.)

 

But the essence of leadership also has to be selfless service. It has to be more than you. You have to be willing to put it all on the line and, you know, go out the door when necessary. You have to be prepared to serve the organization, serve your leaders at whatever risk it puts you in. That, also, is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership, one of the most essential aspects of leadership as well.

 

So, it's all about people. People accomplish work, not organizations, not plans, not strategies. People. People are the most valuable resource we have, especially in a Department like ours. Do I have weapons? No. Do I have cranes and things that, you know, move dirt or do something? No. We are all about people. And so we have got to develop throughout the organization at every level the leadership skills and talents and experiences that we can spread throughout the organization.

 

But remember: leadership is about people. Remember that you are not only leaders, you are followers. And you are a leader and a follower whether you are in a two-person organization or whether you are up at the highest levels of the Department on the seventh floor.

 

Beyond that, remember that the mission is important. Have clear ideas of what we're trying to accomplish, and then once that is clear and communicated in a way that everybody in the organization understands their part of the mission and believes that they are part of the team and that they are an essential part of the team and essential to the accomplishment of the mission, then you’re on the right path. And that's what we have to work on every day.

 

And then finally, above all, take care of people. I work hard at trying to take care of the people entrusted to my care. Kathy mentioned that every evening four of us get together -- me, Rich, Grant and Marc Grossman [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs]. And we spend a little bit of time in policy, but most of that time in the evening -- just the four of us, no one else -- we deal with the leadership and management issues of the Department. What do we need to do differently? What have we fouled up? What have we done well? How are we working within our broader team in the interagency group? How are we dealing with the challenges we face? What do we have to do tomorrow to make sure our people know that we believe in them, we trust them, and we are doing everything we can to give them the resources they need?

 

I would simply ask you to take that attitude back to all of your offices and all of your departments: get the mission out, take care of your people, and remember that leadership is the art of getting more out of a group of people than anyone ever predicted you'd be able to. Remember that and you will be carrying out the mission that I have for each and every one of you.

 

Thank you.

 

 

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Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell delivered this speech to a standing-room-only crowd of State Department employees in the Department of State's Dean Acheson Auditorium on October 28, 2003.

 

Source: www.State.gov