Powell’s lessons in leadership hit home

Retired Gen. Colin Powell addresses 102nd commencement ceremony at Rice University 

Leaders know what followers need to succeed and make sure they have it, said retired Gen. Colin Powell, who knows his subject well.

Colin Powell made leadership his theme at Rice University's 102nd commencement ceremony May 16.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell made leadership his theme at Rice University's 102nd commencement ceremony May 16. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

The retired four-star general who served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan and secretary of state to President George W. Bush made leadership his theme at Rice University’s 102nd commencement ceremony May 16. Powell was the first African-American to serve as secretary of state and also chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Rice President David Leebron introduced Powell as an “icon of American and indeed global leadership” for his military career, including command during the first Gulf War, his extensive government service and his continued inspiration to new generations through the school for leadership that carries his name at his alma mater, City College of New York (CCNY).

“Everything I learned about leadership started in the Army,” Powell told the graduates and their families, recalling his arrival at Fort Benning as a young lieutenant. “You drive onto the post; you see the motto of the institute, ‘Follow me.’

“Leadership is all about followership. Leaders put followers in the best possible environment to accomplish a unit mission or an organizational mission. It works in the Army; it works in the university; it works in any endeavor in the world where humans come together to achieve a purpose.

“And what they drilled into us is that you have to have a purpose: to defend the United States. That was a simple purpose that was given to me as a soldier. … Human beings need to not just have missions and goals but a purpose.”

President David Leebron

President David Leebron

He said leaders “need to make sure that your followers are given what they need to get the job done. They’re looking to you as the leader to give them inspiration. They’re looking to you to be a selfless person.

“My young friends, go through life being totally selfless, always helping others,” Powell said. “If you do that, if you act selfless and people can see that’s all that drives you, that will take you to the top. It’s the selfish ones who look good at the moment but will fail.”

Powell said the Doerr Institute for New Leaders, established earlier in the week with a $50 million gift by the private family foundation of Rice alumni John and Ann Doerr, parallels the mission of CCNY’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.

“The gift they have given to Rice University is absolutely wonderful,” he said of the Doerrs. “They have position, they have money, they have influence, but they care for the university that gave it to them, and they care about their fellow citizens.” Powell called upon the Doerrs and their center’s director, retired Brig. Gen. Tom Kolditz, to stand and be recognized during the ceremony. For more information on the Doerr Institute, visit http://doerrinstitute.rice.edu/.

Powell finds great pleasure in his rise, considering his own academic career. “I wasn’t considered at the time one of CCNY’s great successes,” he said. “In fact, the only reason I graduated was that they took a look at my overall record. I was in my fifth year at CCNY and they said, ‘What are we going to do with this guy?’ And finally they noticed that I got straight A’s in ROTC. So they took my GPA from ROTC and rolled it into my overall GPA, brought me up to a 2.0. ‘Good enough for government work. Give him to the Army. We’ll never see him again.’

“Well, I’m back and I’m now considered one of the greatest sons City College of New York has ever had,” he said. “They give me all kinds of awards; they name all sorts of things after me.

“So for those of you who are not graduating at 3.5 or higher, have faith. Have faith, my young friends. It isn’t where you start out in life; it’s what you do with life which will determine where you end up.”

Powell reminded students that he went into the Army to become a soldier, not a general. “I didn’t have to become a general to find satisfaction in my career,” he said. “I found satisfaction every day knowing that I was trying to do the very best for my country, that I was serving my country, that I was serving my fellow citizens.

“I became a general but I always considered myself just a soldier trying to do his very best for the country. You should go through life trying to do your very, very best every single day.”

After commencement, in recognition of a leader who inspired him, Powell helped Leebron plant a replacement for the Pershing pecan tree in Rice’s Founder’s Court. The original tree was planted by Gen. John Pershing in 1920; Powell himself was a member of the Pershing Rifles, the oldest operating college fraternal organization dedicated to military drill, during his time at City College.

Leebron announced this year’s winner of an annual award named in honor of the commencement speaker. Daniel Cortez, who majored in Latin American and policy studies, was presented the Gen. Colin Powell Commencement Award for Leadership. Cortez was selected for his passion for supporting minority engagement in public service. (Read more about the award here. See a list of other award recipients here.)

Two students — Ravi Sheth, past president of the Undergraduate Student Association and the recent winner of a Hertz Fellowship, and Alessandra Forcucci, past president of the Graduate Student Association and one-time manager of Valhalla – spoke about their Rice experience.

Help us tell the story of Rice’s 102nd commencement. Use #OwlGrad15 in your tweets, pics and posts, and see them here.

Rice awarded 1,920 degrees, with some students earning degrees in double and even triple majors. The university awarded 1,033 undergraduate and undergraduate professional degrees, and 877 graduate (master’s and Ph.D.) degrees. Separate ceremonies were held indoors May 15 to individually recognize the recipients of bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and business degrees, and then all degrees were conferred during a plenary commencement Saturday morning in the Academic Quad.




About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.