Colin Powell Shared a Leadership Lesson from Lincoln

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021


Much has been said and written about Colin Powell - his character, his leadership and even his love of the singing group ABBA - following his recent passing. Discussion of leadership was an important theme in his son Michael’s recent eulogy for his father given at the National Cathedral. However, it was Colin Powell himself who spoke of leadership in a David Rubenstein conducted interview which one can find online. In doing so, he revealed a leadership tip he learned from a master, Abraham Lincoln.


In the interview for Bloomberg TV, Rubenstein asked Powell, who had seen many great leaders in his time, “what makes a person a great leader.” Powell immediately identified the trait of understanding that one is leading followers. He further explained that a leader needs to "understand that he or she is there to bring a group of human beings into work that has value and purpose." The leader’s role is to provide the inspiration needed to achieve that purpose. Moreover, Powell emphasized that "everyone, down to the lowest individual in the organization, needs to know that purpose, that vision – and the leader must provide the followers whatever is needed to succeed." Powell noted that whenever he has taken on a job, he ensures that he knows the mission and purpose involved and takes steps so the staff has what they need to get the job done. In short, a “leader’s job is to inspire.”


Powell then added that this discussion reminded him of a story about Abraham Lincoln. That story is well known but worth repeating. Abraham Lincoln received a message during the Civil War that Confederates had raided a Union outpost near Fairfax Station. Captured in the raid were 100 horses and a brigadier general. When told the news, Lincoln commented that he “sure hated to lose those horses.” When asked about the brigadier general, his response was that he could make a brigadier general in five minutes but it’s hard to replace 100 horses. (Historical note: the Confederates raiders were John S. Mosby and his men and the captured brigadier general, Edwin H. Stoughton.)


Powell added that he learned of that story on the day he was made brigadier general and that ever since he had kept a copy of it by his desk in his home. Lincoln’s story reminded him that his job was to “take care of the horses and not to worry about being a brigadier general." Rather, he directs his attention toward the needs of the soldiers, employees, clerks, students, faculty, etc., and whatever is needed to be successful at the particular assignment at hand.


This story is yet another example of how Lincoln continues to inspire us today.