The General Colin L. Powell (Ret.) keynote presentation Sunday at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago touched upon the process of change and effective leadership.
The speech, titled “Diplomacy: Persuasion, Trust & Values” began with an acknowledgement of the restaurant industry’s significant contributions to the workforce by providing key entry level jobs that teach fundamental principles such as dedication and hard work.
“I am such an admirer of the (restaurant industry) because you serve every single American. I appreciate you not just for the food, but for what you do for our workforce,” he said.
Powell then talked about the difficult transition from work to retirement, and the importance of finding something else to fill a “depressing void” before joking that he did so with a new Corvette.
His true retirement callings have been speaking engagements, investments in technology and working with youth organizations. Powell said he is particularly interested in technology because of the excitement it presents and because he’s “desperately trying to keep up” with his grandkids.
“Something is coming after the smartphone and we don’t know what it is, but I cannot wait to see it,” he said.
Powell said he follows the same basic leadership principles he learned when he was 21 years old after having just joined the Army, adding that they’re relevant across the board.
“Leadership is all about followers – putting your followers in the best possible position to get the job done. That means having missions, goals, and especially a sense of purpose,” he said.
Also important is being disciplined enough to do something about people who aren’t performing as well as they could be.
“You have to have a finger on the pulse of your organization. If someone isn’t performing, you have to know about it and have the guts to either re-train, move or fire them. Always do it for the good of the organization – for the good of the troops,” he said.
Perhaps the best leadership quality, Powell added, is the ability to recognize performance, and tell people that they’re doing a great job.
“The best kind of leadership is seeing every single person as a person of value,” he said.
Powell’s involvement in youth organizations is particularly close to his heart, and revolves around five principles:
• Making sure kids have responsible adults in their lives;
• Making sure there are safe places for kids;
• Providing children with a healthy start;
• Making sure kids get a marketable skill; and
• Making sure youngsters have the opportunity to give back to others.
Politics and change
Powell closed by touching upon his political work with both humor and seriousness, recalling his time under President Ronald Reagan when the Iron Curtain fell and Germany became unified.
“It was an enormous time, an enormous triumph for American principles,” he said.
Powell said the current atmosphere in the Middle East – dubbed as the Arab Spring in reference to the “tsunami” of demonstrations and protests against dictatorial rule – has been moving to watch.
“I don’t know what will happen, but people are tired of dictators. They’re tired of corruption, and it’s an exciting time,” he said.
Domestically, Powell said the United States’ reputation is still solid, despite what some may think. He closed with a story about an immigrant food vendor in his hometown, New York City, who insisted on giving Powell a free hot dog upon recognizing him. The vendor said he had already been paid by America, which provided him with citizenship.
“When he said that to me, I realized this is still the same country that greeted my parents 90 years ago,” Powell said.