In 2009, I was nominated for the position of the 16th Allied Supreme Commander of NATO. Although I’ve been in charge of one of the Army’s 11 combat orders—US Southern Command, which focuses on Latin America, for three years—this new job would leap to the deep end of the complex.
First of all, I will be the first Rear Admiral to take up this position – all my predecessors were generals with extensive NATO experience. (My dream four-star job was thousands of miles away: captain of the US Pacific Command in Honolulu, a traditional position as a Navy officer.) But Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted me to be in Europe, so I went.
Another problem is that NATO was involved in a brutal ground war in Afghanistan with about 150,000 soldiers hundreds of kilometers from the sea. Given the complexity of this alliance, I was concerned about my ability to lead. When Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported my suspicions, they both said, “Go talk to Colin.”
I’ve known Colin Powell, who died Monday of complications related to COVID-19, since I was a young captain and chief of staff. General Powell – to us in uniform, he will always be General Powell, not Secretary of State Powell – has always been generous with his time and advice as I have progressed through leadership positions. This included, when I was a senior military aide to Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld in the early 2000s, the position Powell held in the 1980s under Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
When I knocked on the door of his suburban Washington home, I hoped he could sum up the essential elements of leading a great coalition in combat, dealing with the diplomatic elements of NATO and other allies, and dealing with personal pressure. and challenges. We spent two hours together and in the end I left quiet and thought more optimistically than I knew about the assignment.
First, he said, you have to put your ego on the door. Working with you, they will treat you like royalty: a stately Belgian mansion set on several dozen acres; The largest security component of the armed forces (Belgian and American). Your personal collection of Black Hawk helicopters; The best Gulfstream jet-powered vehicle. chef and diplomatic entertainment staff; And still around.
“Remember who you are, Stavridis,” he said. “They won’t send you there to get a 21st century copy of Charlemagne.” Humility was at the heart of Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants and a graduate of City College, New York, his first job.
Then continue the trap. (The military says it will stay above everything else.) Known for every job he’s ever held, Powell constantly picks up the phone to take the temperature of his senior military counterparts, civilian peers from other agencies, the Washington media and their foreign counterparts. And friends on contracts. His web was endless, and he pushed for information and intuition with his own thoughts and advice, creating a mosaic of every challenge and filling in small colored stones until the image appeared. He told me that a good NATO commander is an intelligence officer who gathers a little bit of necessary information.
Third, to keep the alliance together, you must marry another man. He said he should stop and think about history, culture, language and, above all, the demands your peers face – in Paris, London, Berlin and Rome of course, but also in smaller capitals in countries like Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia and Belgium. Same goes for Moscow – get there quickly and talk to the Russians about your experience in Afghanistan.
Finally, stay optimistic. If you look at Powell’s “13 Rules of Success,” which I cut and kept under glass on a table in Belgium, four of the 13 rules are about optimism: It’ll look better in the morning (No. 1); This can be done! (#4); Do not consult your concerns or your appraiser (#12); Constant optimism is a force multiplier (No. 13).
Then he signed two copies of his fond memories of my American trip and sent me on a trip. Four hours in two hours: humility, communication, empathy and optimism. A good recipe, and often for the next four years and decades after that, when I’m faced with a challenge, I think of Colin Powell. Good luck and opening the waters to you, General.
James Stavridis is a publicist for Bloomberg. He is a retired US Navy admiral, former Supreme Commander of NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Rockefeller Foundation and Vice President of Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group. His last book is 2034: A Novel of Another World War.