Meeting the Man: Gen. Colin Powell at ASIS 2005

Sept. 13, 2005
Powell shares to ASIS members a clear sense of America's mission in diplomacy

Keynotes on the second day of a big show make a lot of sense. They ensure that anyone who was traveling on the morning of the first day of the show is now in town to give a big turnout to your speaker. And a big turnout was just the case Tuesday morning at General Colin Powell's keynote address to the ASIS membership.

Clocking in with a time slot that started around 8:30 and running right up to the 9 o'clock hour, Powell held the attention of ASIS 2005 inside the "packed house" of the Orlando Convention Center's West Valencia Ballroom.

For those of you who remember Powell from his days leading the U.S. State Department, dispel your earlier notions of a stern leader -- this was a very different person. Powell was known for his terse discussions in those days, focusing on strictly State Department business as he kept the diplomacy of our country under fairly tight wraps, choosing instead to deal with the business at hand rather than get bogged down in the endless political bullying that surrounds our government.

On Tuesday morning, though, Powell was a new kind of Powell. He was the returning hero to an audience of security professionals. He was the diplomat. He was allowed to be the citizen who had to live inside when pressed with the daily briefings of his former job. A jovial face greeted the crowd, one who shared with all the heart-wrenching and the trust-building and light-hearted moments that were hidden behind the podium when we watched him under the Bush administration from 2001 until January of this year.

Powell's chief message on Tuesday morning was one not of security but of America's leadership as a force of good. Of course, on close examination, that message really is one that pertains directly to our mission as a security industry -- protection of that which is good.

Powell stressed that America's attribute which can lead it as a force of good in the world is our unfailing generosity, and he credited that "spirit of openness and generosity" for U.S. success in world diplomacy.

Always a leader, Powell addressed the ASIS membership also on issues of what it means to lead.

"Leadership," he said, "is about providing a sense of mission. It's about having a belief and having a point of view and being able to communicate that to everyone in the organization."

"Plans don't accomplish anything," Powell continued, "Great ideas don't accomplish anything. It's the people."

He related the story of when early in his military career, one of his own leaders gave him a unique understanding of what leadership means: "You're a good leader when the troops will follow you, if only out of curiosity."

The quip brought a round of laughter from his morning's audience, but Powell explained that the statement has a bit of seriousness to it as well. "The mission of leaders," he explained, "is to create conditions of trust within your organization."

Indeed that trust served Powell well over his years as Secretary, from smoothing over rough situations between Spain and Morocco (another funny story that we don't have the room for here), to working with Gorbachev.

Reflecting back on his early days as the general/diplomat, Powell talked about his early meetings with Gorbachev and how Gorbachev surprised him. "Russian leaders," he said, "were supposed to be the same: they were short, fat, wore a bad suit and had a homely wife, and occasionally were supposed to take their shoes off and pound them on the diplomacy table." Gorbachev, he explains, was a new kind of leader, one who didn't fit the stereotype of the day. Powell said he was unsure and suspicious of this "commie" leader who promised openness and reform in the Soviet state, and that suspicion of Gorbachev lasted until one day when Gorbachev confronted Powell at the discussion table and explained to Powell in precise terms, "General, I'm sorry, but you will have to find a new enemy."

"I was thinking, 'I don't want to find a new enemy," recalls Powell. "I don't want to change my security system. Do you know how much I've invested in this security system?," he joked to the receptive audience.

His speech to ASIS hit upon these and many more world-changing points of his career, but when he had to wrap up his time and catch a plane, Powell gave an invective of sorts to the security industry.

"Governments are instituted to secure rights, not to give rights," he said. "And as long as we remain that open, generous society of a nation, the world will want to see an America that is protected."