Passing Heroes and Thoughts for a New Generation
My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are, it seems
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of
Themselves and their slow-movin' dreams
America lost a hero this week, and I lost one of my personal heroes. Sadly, with age, this is happening more and more frequently.
I remember meeting General Colin Powell. It was 2006, and I was working in the nonprofit world. Our association had contracted to bring in a keynote speaker to open the conference. Our keynote speaker, General Powell, absolutely rocked the house. Until that time, I had only seen the general on TV. I had no idea how personable he was, how funny. It was one of those rare occasions when a speaker seemed to connect with every single person in the audience. A crowd of 7,000 and every one of us felt like we had received a personal message.
General Powel was one of those rare public figures that was as open and honest in public as he was in private. There weren’t two Colin Powells. He was the genuine article in public and in private. An incredible American success story – the child of immigrants whose intelligence and hard work propelled him to tall heights. A personable individual who would shake your hand, look you in the face and remember your name. A family man who married well and loved his wife until the day he died. In his speech, he remarked on one of the great truths of marriage. No matter how great the world thinks you are, or how great you think you are, your wife always knows better. Even if you finished a late-night meeting with President Bush that kept you out past midnight, that still didn’t give you license to leave your socks on the bathroom floor (which Alma told him in no uncertain terms).
General Powell grew up in Harlem and attended City College of New York. While in college, he joined the ROTC. According to Powell, he liked it and was pretty good at it, which he later revealed as a rule of success. “If you find something that you like and you are pretty good at it, you might as well go for it.” Life and career shouldn’t be a lot more complicated than that.
Like most of the world, I never could have planned my career track. When I was in college, I found something that I liked, the newspaper business. I was pretty good at it, and I just went for it. When I was a child, I wanted to be an advertising executive – mostly because that’s what Darin Stevens did, and he married well. I can hear crickets. Because I am now the oldest person in the room, I’ll give you the reference. Google Bewitched.
But once I got into the real world, like many, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. Journalism gave me a life. And a purpose. And a way to give back to the world. Three things that everyone needs.
In General Powell’s second tour in Viet Nam, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for Bravery, surviving a helicopter crash and rescuing the others from the burning aircraft.
When he got back from Viet Nam, he managed to squeeze an MBA in from Georgetown. All the while, making brilliant military career moves, until he was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs by President H.W. Bush (The first President Bush. Another hero of mine who married well – It would have been hard to have been married to Barbara Bush and not have been someone of note. I had the honor of sharing a dinner with the Bushes and was instantly enamored with Mrs. Bush. I have been a fan of her foundation from its inception to his very day. But that is another story. By heroes have always been cowgirls?)
But back to the general. Like many of my heroes, I love to refer to his quotes. Other than Winston Churchill, I seem to come back to Colin Powell more frequently than anyone else.
Here are some of my favorites:
- “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”
- “Don't be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.”
- “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.”
- “Children need to get a high-quality education, avoid violence and the criminal-justice system, and gain jobs. But they deserve more. We want them to learn not only reading and math but fairness, caring, self-respect, family commitment, and civic duty.”
- “Don't expect to always be great. Disappointments, failures and setbacks are a normal part of the lifecycle of a unit or a company and what the leader has to do is constantly be up and say, 'we have a problem, let's go and get it.”
- “There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
- “If a leader doesn't convey passion and intensity then there will be no passion and intensity within the organization and they'll start to fall down and get depressed.”
And then there is this one. It kind of sums everything up. General Colin Powell, arguably one of our nation’s greatest military minds and one of our nation’s greatest statesmen. Here is how he saw his life:
“I was born in Harlem, raised in the South Bronx, went to public school, got out of public college, went into the Army, and then I just stuck with it.”
And maybe that is they key. How many of us were close to greatness and never knew it because we just didn’t stick with it?
Over the next couple weeks, you are going to see a lot of negative things said about General Powell in the social media. It is jealousy, and seems to happen every time one of my heroes dies. It happened when Senator John McCain died, and I am sure it will happen with Secretary Powell. Don’t believe it. Because Colin Powell was the real deal. And though from New York, he most certainly had a bit of cowboy flowing through his veins.
For now, my prayers go out to his family. And to us, his American brethren. Godspeed General. We miss you already.
About the author
Charles Sosnik is an education journalist and editor and serves as Editor in Chief at the Learning Counsel. An EP3 Education Fellow, he uses his deep roots in the education community to add context to the education narrative. Charles is a frequent writer and columnist for some of the most influential media in education, including the Learning Counsel, EdNews Daily, EdTech Digest and edCircuit. Unabashedly Southern, Charles likes to say he is an editor by trade and Southern by the Grace of God.