Colin Powell says his erroneous address to the United Nations about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction provides a lesson to business leaders on the importance of staying skeptical and following their intuition.
“Yes, a blot, a failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation,” the former U.S. secretary of state writes in a new book of leadership parables that draws frequently on his Iraq war experience. “I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me.”
Powell, 75, laments that no intelligence officials had the “courage” to warn that he was given false information that Iraq had such weapons during preparations for his February 2003 speech before the U.S. invasion the following month. Regrets are sprinkled through “It Worked For Me,” along with lessons gleaned from a career that carried him from foxholes in Vietnam to senior positions at the Pentagon and the State Department.
In uncorrected page proofs of the book scheduled to be published May 22 and written with Tony Koltz, Powell advises on the virtues of kindness for a leader and a balanced life that shuns an obsession with work. He recommends taking care of and getting to know the “troops,” citing State Department garage attendants he paid a surprise visit and impromptu chats with employees.
Powell, born in New York City to Jamaican immigrants, served as secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, after 35 years in the military. A four-star general, he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. A Republican, Powell endorsed Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2008.
Powell is now a strategic adviser to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm based in Menlo Park, California, that backed Zynga Inc. and Groupon Inc.
‘Cheap Clock Radio’
Powell, who travels giving paid motivational speeches, offers indirect advice to hoteliers with his preferences as a frequent traveler: “Please give me a cheap clock radio; not one that needs printed instructions and plays my iPod. Please, oh please, don’t get fancy shower controls with handles that give you no clue how to turn it, push it, or pull it on and off. I only need one showerhead, not a sprinkler system.”
Commenting on the quirks of fame, Powell recounts receiving portraits given to him by world leaders over the years.
The depictions were a “near-sure giveaway of where they came from,” Powell writes in the book from News Corp.’s HarperCollins. The “one from Romania kind of makes me into Dracula.”
Powell, who served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, recalls a morning in 1988 when he went to see Reagan and described a problem that needed to be solved that day. Reagan gazed past him at squirrels picking up nuts he had put out for them in the morning by the Rose Garden.
It was a lesson in delegating authority and trusting his team to make the right decision, Powell says. “The president was teaching me: ‘Colin, I love you and I will sit here as long as you want me to, listening to your problem. Let me know when you have a problem that I have to solve,’” Powell writes.
Powell lists among the top accomplishments of former President George W. Bush’s administration that “we got rid of the horrific Hussein” regime in Iraq and ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Still, he says “there would have been no war” in Iraq if Bush and his advisers had known that country’s regime had no weapons of mass destruction.
“There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t,” Powell writes in a chapter entitled, “Tell Me What You Know.”
Powell’s UN speech, part of the Bush administration’s public case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with its unsupported assertions of mobile Iraqi biological-warfare labs and a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda terrorists, was based on “deeply flawed” evidence, Powell writes.
“So why did no one stand up and speak out during the intense hours we worked on the speech?” Powell writes. “Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I have relied on such deeply flawed evidence.”
Powell, who has quarreled over policy for years with former Vice President Dick Cheney, writes that Cheney had his chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, make the case for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction “as a lawyer’s brief and not as an intelligence estimate.”
Because Libby’s material was “unusable,” Powell writes, he enlisted the help of the Central Intelligence Agency to prepare for his UN speech. Powell didn’t know that “much of the evidence was wrong,” he says.
‘Get Over Failure’
While Powell returns to Iraq repeatedly in the book, he advises leaders to “try to get over failure quickly. Learn from it. Study how you contributed to it. If you are responsible, own up to it.”
Bush wanted to keep lower-level officials and workers in Iraq who had the education, skills and training needed to run the nation even though he wanted the U.S. to dissolve the ruling Baath party after Saddam Hussein’s fall, Powell writes.
“The plan that the president had approved was not implemented,” Powell says. Instead, he writes, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority, eliminated all the officials and institutions “we should have been building on, and left thousands of the most highly skilled people in the country jobless and angry -- prime recruits for insurgency.”
‘Pottery Barn Rule’
Powell says that violated the leadership lesson that has become known as his “Pottery Barn Rule.”
“If you break it, you own it,” Powell said in cautioning Bush about the consequences of invading Iraq and its aftermath.
“It was shorthand for the profound reality that if we take out another country’s government by force, we instantly become the new government, responsible for governing the country and for the security of its people until we can turn all that over to a new, stable and functioning government,” he writes. “For me the rule is all about personal responsibility; when you are in charge you have to take charge. The rule has nothing to do with Pottery Barn or any other store.”
The media dubbed it the “Pottery Barn Rule,” which Powell says made the home-furnishings retailer owned by Williams-Sonoma Inc. unhappy because it had no such policy.
“Truth to tell, I wasn’t sorry,” he writes. “Pottery Barn got spectacular publicity out of their non-policy.”