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What I learned from Colin Powell

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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In this Feb. 15, 2001 file photo, Secretary of State Colin Powell looks on as President Bush addresses State Department employees at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)
In this Feb. 15, 2001 file photo, Secretary of State Colin Powell looks on as President Bush addresses State Department employees at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)

I was shocked to learn of Colin Powell’s passing this morning. Television news is preempting regular programming to discuss his remarkable life and historic legacy, as they should. 

He served as America’s first African American national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state. Born in Harlem of Jamaican parents, he grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from City College of New York, where he joined the Army through ROTC. He served two decorated combat tours in Vietnam and rose to the rank of four-star general. 

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan selected him to be national security advisor. Two years later, President George H. W. Bush promoted him to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him America’s top soldier. He later served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, a position for which he was unanimously confirmed by the US Senate. 

I will always remember a speech I heard him give years ago as part of a leadership conference. He focused on the importance of humility for a leader, a priority he modeled in ways I’d like to reflect upon today. 

Treat well those you don’t have to treat well 

One of Gen. Powell’s observations was that great leaders treat people well whom they don’t have to treat well. This is an old but true maxim, one that is especially urgent in a materialistic secular culture. 

I watched him model this attribute in ways he may not even have fully recognized. When he took the stage, he thanked by name the staff member who introduced him. He was the only speaker on the program who did this. He also thanked by name other staff members who had helped him with transportation and logistics. He took questions from the audience, asking each person their name and then responding to them by name. Again, he was the only speaker in the daylong session to do these things. 

A CEO once disclosed his unusual hiring practice: whenever a prospective employee came for an interview, he arranged for this person to wait in his outer office for ten to fifteen minutes past their appointment time. Then, after their interview, he asked his administrative assistant how the person treated her. He felt he could learn far more about the applicant this way than from what he or she said during the interview. 

The philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships. The former should characterize the way we relate to people; the latter should describe our relationship with inanimate things. Unfortunately, we often confuse the two, using people as objects in our quest to accumulate things. 

The night Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples and abandoned by the others, he first washed their feet (John 13). This was an act of such abject servitude that no Jew could be made to perform it. Imagine Jesus kneeling before Judas, Peter, and the rest, washing their dirty feet and drying them with his servant’s towel. 

Now hear his command: “You also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). If the Son of God could wash their feet, whose feet can we not wash? 

How will you treat the people who serve you at a restaurant or other business today? How will you treat employees or strangers? Will you say about people what you would not say to them (cf. Matthew 18:15)? Will you say anonymously through social media what you would not say in person? 

How we treat those in need is how we are actually treating Jesus (Matthew 25:40). 

Learn from those with whom you disagree 

In his speech, Gen. Powell repeatedly emphasized the urgency of being a lifelong learner, of constantly acquiring wisdom and applying it in life. Our ability to learn from circumstances, challenges, and other people would set us apart as leaders, he stated. 

He was an example of his message, adapting the military principles he learned in his first career to the diplomacy and political service essential to his second. Not everyone can adapt knowledge and wisdom to new circumstances and challenges, but those who can are typically more successful in every season of their lives. 

The philosopher John Locke believed that we are born as a “blank slate,” a tabula rasa on which life writes its lessons. We are therefore the product of what we learn and what we do with what we learn. The key is to be intentional with what we write on our “slate” and what we then do to use this information wisely. 

We find this strategy modeled in the life of the young Jesus, who “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). We find it modeled in the life of the elderly Paul, who even near the end of his life asked Timothy to bring him “the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). 

I learned this principle from Gen. Powell not only in the positive sense but also in the negative.  

For example, I disagree vehemently with his “pro-choice” position on abortion. We should note that he was not “pro-abortion,” claiming that “a child is a valuable creation,” but he also asserted that “the law of the land says a woman has the right to make that choice.” 

In his political endorsements he frustrated nearly everyone at one time or another, supporting both Bushes and the Republican Party before endorsing the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama and strongly opposing the candidacy of Donald Trump. He made a speech in the 2020 Democratic National Convention supporting Joe Biden’s candidacy and declared himself an independent after the January 6 storming of the US Capitol. 

My point is not that I agreed with all he said and did. It is actually the opposite: we can and must learn from those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. 

If we can learn only from sinless people, we can learn only from the Lord Jesus (cf. Hebrews 4:15). But if we will ask the Lord to show us what we are to learn from every person and circumstance we encounter, life will become a constant classroom in which we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). 

Be ready every day for the last day 

The news is reporting that Gen. Powell died of complications from COVID-19, even though he was fully vaccinated. He was battling multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells that suppresses the body’s immune response. This condition put him at greater risk from the virus. 

His death from coronavirus while fully vaccinated does not indicate that the vaccines are not effective or that we should not be vaccinated. Rather, his death shows us the danger of the disease and the urgency of preparing for it as best we can. If someone dies in a car crash while wearing a seat belt, we don’t stop wearing seat belts. The opposite is true: we are reminded of how dangerous car crashes can be and of how much we need to wear seat belts and take other safety measures. 

Even with all his power and status, Gen. Powell was mortal. So are you. So am I. Death humbles us all and thus prepares us for the life to come. 

In our secularized and yet prosperous culture, we need this reminder. We need to remember that all we have is not enough to guarantee another day of life and that this world is but a means to the next. This is the dot before the line, the classroom from which we graduate into the “real world.” 

Our motto every day should be, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). 

“A good soldier of Jesus Christ” 

In a 2007 interview, Gen. Powell said, “Let others judge me. All I want to do is judge myself as a successful soldier who served his best.” 

In his final letter, Paul exhorted his disciple Timothy, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:3–4). 

If we humble ourselves before the One who enlisted us in his service and make it our aim to please him each day, one day we will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). 

There is no higher calling.