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Colin Powell talking to some members of the University community.

Before his speech, Colin Powell met with Humphrey Institute grad students chosen through a lottery. To his left is Barbara Carlson Gage, whose family supports the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series.

Colin Powell looks at leadership

Former Secretary of State delivers the Distinguished Carlson Lecture

By Martha Coventry

Oct. 4, 2006

Americans are used to a stern and commanding presence from the 65th Secretary of State. But the audience at Northrop Auditorium on Tuesday, Oct. 2, saw a slightly different image when Colin Powell stood behind the podium to give the Humphrey Institute's Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series.

Freed now from his role as a major player on the world stage, Powell began with jokes about retirement, about having to give up his 747 to "Condi," and about his sudden change in status--"One day you're Secretary of State, then you ain't," he quipped.

Though after he loosened up the crowd of nearly 5,000 people, he launched into a more serious topic: What does it mean to be leader, both as an individual and as a nation?

For Powell to speak on leadership was a natural. He moved from second lieutenant after graduating from City College of New York to four-star general to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of State. His leadership, said Humphrey Institute dean J. Brian Atwood in the introduction, is of the "integrative" kind. Powell not only provided on-the-ground leadership for his troops, but moral, international and now community leadership in his work with the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center in the Phillips and Central Minneapolis neighborhoods.

"You can do all the interrogating you want inside the Geneva Convention," Powell told the audience. "Are we a nation of laws and international conventions or are we not? We don't want the world to say, 'If you can cut corners, we can cut corners.'"

"Leadership is leadership is leadership," said Powell, dashing any mystique. "You're only there because of your followers. As a leader, you need a mission, you need inspiration and you need to take care of the people who follow you. You set them on a path to accomplish things, and they get the work done."

Powell told stories of meetings with, among others, former Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi and Mikhail Gorbachev. Great leaders, like these two men, "must face reality and not turn away," said Powell.

Eventually, he spoke of America and what will set it apart in history as a leader--or not.

"Iraq is the most defining moment of our time," he said. Leadership from both the administration and the Iraq government is what is needed to turn the tide in Iraq. It is when your followers trust you, Powell believes, that you can truly become a leader.

Before his talk, Powell had met for an hour of candid and challenging discussion with Humphrey Institute graduate students chosen though a lottery. They provided written questions for Powell to answer after his lecture. One asked, "What can the United States do to restore the world's faith and trust in us?"

To answer, Powell turned to the most recent challenge to America's moral leadership in the world--the debate on how to treat terrorism suspects. He referred to the letter, mentioned earlier in the talk, that he wrote to Senator John McCain on Sept. 13 urging him not to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. "You can do all the interrogating you want inside the Geneva Convention," Powell told the audience. "Are we a nation of laws and international conventions or are we not? We don't want the world to say, 'If you can cut corners, we can cut corners.'"

As for the United States maintaining a world leadership based on trust, Powell said, "I think our reputation is recoverable--if we can show we're a nation of laws, if we can resolve Guantanamo and if we can just keep talking of the goodness that still exists [in our country.] We still have a reservoir of understanding and trust."

Another question asked whether misstatements leading to war are ever justified. Clearly, Powell acknowledged, this referred to his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations about Iraq's cache of weapons of mass destruction.

"I sat in a room with 40-50 people in the intelligence services for four days," said Powell. "Any information that didn't have multiple sources, I tossed aside. What we chose was the best information we had. But we were dead wrong in light of the stockpiles [of WMD]. All of us believed they were there, but Iraq didn't have them. I went forward [into that speech] believing we were right. It is never proper for anyone in power do anything other than put forward the facts."

Powell ended his speech with a look at where U.S. foreign policy has gone well in the past six years, like expanding NATO, quadrupling assistance to Africa and getting Charles Taylor out of Liberia.

"As you watch problems unfold, don't overlook successes," he told the audience. "We lead a world that wants to be free. Have faith in this great country of ours."

Curtis Carlson founded the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series to honor Hubert H. Humphrey and his dedication to innovative, creative and humane public service and to an educated citizenry. Powell was in good company--former lecturers include Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel, Rigoberta Menchu and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and true to the University's commitment to nonpartisanship, have ranged politically from George Bush and William F. Buckley, Jr., to Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro.