From the Military to Education, Always Lead by Example


“You’re my folks. Education is what it’s all about.”

At the ASCD Empower18 closing general session, General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.), equated being a teacher to his time in the army. He’s an educator in the sense that he spent years training young soldiers, as teachers do with students.

“For 35 years, I was dealing with young people. They were called soldiers,” said Powell, explaining that he was responsible for training and educating soldiers, preparing them for real life.

For more than 50 years, Powell has devoted his life to public service. He served in the U.S. Army for 35 years before shifting to politics in his post-Army career. He served as National Security Advisor for President Ronald Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, and as Secretary of State for President George W. Bush.

Not shying away from the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the retired four-star general relayed a humorous anecdote about learning through the media after the election that he had received three electoral votes.

“That was a close call.”

According to the 12th Amendment, as the second runner up, he would have been eligible for a presidential run-off decided by the House of Representatives if neither of the top two candidates had reached the electoral majority.

Regardless of who won, Powell explained, “I not only want to see a strong defense, but I want to see strong diplomacy. I want to see a nation [that] respects one another, not constantly insults one another.”

Now retired from a prestigious military and political career, Powell continues his public service, chairing the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York and serving as the founding chair of America’s Promise Alliance.

The five “promises” of the Alliance, he explained, share similarities with the ASCD Whole Child approach to education. According to the five promises, all children deserve

  1. A responsible, caring adult in their life
  2. A safe place in which to learn and grow
  3. A healthy start to life
  4. A quality education
  5. To understand the importance of giving back

“The only thing I can still influence in the years I have left is the future, and the future is our children,” said Powell, who has nine elementary and secondary schools named after him.

After his keynote, Powell sat down with ASCD author and thought leader Baruti Kafele for a short question-and-answer session covering his thoughts on school leadership.

Q: What do you think about the current security measures for crisis situations in schools right now?
A: School threats have changed, so we’ve had to respond to that change. We don’t want to see schools become armed camps, but the reality is you have a responsibility to children and parents to make schools as safe as possible. If a student has been acting strange or has been in repeated trouble, we have to make sure the kid is not a threat to everyone else, and that’s about being vigilant. In some cases, the problem was well-known, and that’s about having people who will bring the problem to you so that you can do something about it.

Q: What would you say about ensuring the administration and teaching staff are functioning as one?
A: I believe in the people who are on the line and in the classrooms. They are the ones in charge; they have better knowledge and information about how things are going. It’s the responsibility of the top leadership to convey that the line is usually right, and not the [central office] staff.

Q: What’s the significance of a positive attitude relative as a school leader?
A: You can motivate people with dollars, but you can’t inspire them. You know you’re a good leader if your troops will follow you, if only out of curiosity. They follow you because they trust you.

Q: When you go to visit a school, how do you know when you see effective leadership?
A: I can tell by the interaction between the principal and the teachers. You can tell by the way they look at each other, the way they shake hands. You can also see it by the spirit of the children, that they are not afraid to speak up. No soldier wants to be part of a bad unit. Everyone wants to be part of something that they can brag about. The same thing happens in schools.

This article was originally posted on the Empower Conference News website.