“General Powell, I understand that your wife once suffered from depression, had to take medicine, and was even in a mental hospital. Do you want to comment on that?”
The 8,000-strong audience filling the Dallas Civic Auditorium was aghast. Everyone went quiet. They could hardly believe their ears. Colin Powell — then considered a serious contender for the Presidential nomination — was delivering a stirring, inspiring keynote address. His audience: a leading residential real estate company’s top producers. Speaking to the group of type A, driven sales people, Powell urged them to give back to their communities, his voice filled with gratitude for his family, childhood friends, and opportunities to do well by doing good. He entreated the gathered successful real estate agents and brokers to do the same.
He faced an uphill battle with this crowd. They listened politely enough, but you’d be hard pressed to imagine Powell’s impact having a lasting effect. After all, these were the best deal makers of a profession not known to be circumspect, but who instead appeared to take pride in their “transaction myopia,” namely — find the deal, get the deal, do the deal, next deal.
During the Q&A period, a man asked the above question. Inappropriate is too kind a word for his off-the-wall question. The audience and I listened intently. I wondered how Powell would react. Would he be politically correct and say that he was glad the man asked the question to make the point that mental illness should be treated with parity to medical illness? Would he ignore the man? Would he become hostile? Or would he bring back memories of Edmund Muskie throwing away his presidential hopes 25 years earlier when his wife was similarly attacked, causing the Maine senator to cry?
He looked firmly at the man and responded: “Excuse me sir, the person you love more than anyone is living in hell, and you don’t do whatever you can to get her out? Do you have a problem with that, sir?”
You could hear a pin drop. You felt Powell’s values and principles fuse into deeply felt conviction. Talk about leadership! I said to myself, “I would buy a used country from that guy.”
He so commanded my respect that he made me want to be the best I could be. I went to the breakout session I was scheduled to lead after his keynote and announced that I had changed my content from the previous day on how to sell more effectively to how to do right by your client. I asked the audience how many of them felt it was an honor to hear Powell’s words and felt that they would be dishonoring that privilege to not go back to their communities and give back. Nearly everyone raised their hands.
That incident remains one of the best examples I have witnessed of someone commanding respect through demonstrating
- the judgment to know the right thing to do by stepping in to help a loved one who was defenseless against a foe such as severe depression
- the integrity to do it by not stopping until an effective treatment was found
- the character to stand up to someone who would malign his wife as being weak instead of understanding that she had an illness
In doing these three things, Colin Powell gained the deep admiration of an audience not generally known to value doing the right thing more than landing a big sale.
I also learned from Colin Powell on that day that when you wrap aggression (his reaction to the man asking an inappropriate question denigrating a loved one) around a principle (getting your wife out of hell), it gives you the conviction to stand up to anyone. By allowing the principle to keep you centered, you remain firm of purpose and can look anyone in the eye. Your taking the high ground will silence any foe that comes at you from any place lower than that. I also learned that when you don’t have a principle to stand up for and on, but instead take things personally, you become hostile and usually end up shooting from your hip and then shooting yourself in the foot, making the situation worse.
The leader of the 21st century will be principle driven rather than personally driven. And the principle? Do what’s in the best interest of the company and that is fair to everyone it touches. Merit for merit; effort for effort; value for value.
If in the heat of the moment, you’re tempted to stray from principle to what feels personal, try this three-step tool to get you back.
Step 1 Think of the first thing you want to say or do and don’t do it (this is about retaliation)
Step 2 Think of the second thing you want to say or do and don’t do it (this is about starting a debate)
Step 3 Think about the third think you want to say or do and do do it (this is about finding a solution).
Or perhaps Sara Jane Radin, principal of Performance Advantage Systems, put it best: “Your character is the anchor that grounds you, the compass that guides you, and the magnet that draws others to you. Being aware of your character gives you confidence and increases the probability of achieving your desired results.”
Usable Insight: Aggression + Principle = Conviction; Aggression – Principle = Hostility.