What Working for Colin Powell Taught Me

The former general and ex–secretary of state made hard work fun.

Colin Powell looks past the camera outside the White House.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

About the author: Kori Schake is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

My favorite recollection of Colin Powell was the look he got when he was amused. He’d tilt his head up and look at you under the base of his glasses, smiling, and take joy in the moment. He had such a great capacity for merriment.

Powell died today, at age 84, of complications of COVID-19, his family said. People who only want to judge him for his policy acts and his achievements—creating the Powell Doctrine while he was a mere one-star general; becoming the youngest-ever chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the only soldier since George Marshall to be appointed secretary of state, and the first Black American in so many categories—will miss what made him such a great leader, such a great man: He made hard work fun.

I went to work in his Joint Staff in 1990, when I was 26. Powell was both physically imposing (he once reminded me that he could palm my head) and revered by the 1,500 military officers on that staff. He swept into a room like Darth Vader, everyone tensing up and wanting to pass muster. Seeing a picture of a Marine I was dating, he urged me not to downplay his world-conquering confidence, because it was essential to winning wars. He and Mrs. Powell were thus the matchmakers for my marriage.

The first time he saw me after that marriage unraveled was in the West Wing of the White House in January 2003, on the day France humiliated him by skipping a planned United Nations counterterrorism meeting to announce its opposition to the Iraq War. He’d just come from meeting the president, but he nevertheless picked me up, swung me around, and told me I’d be all right. Then he squinted at me and teased me about how light I was.

The thing is, I had worked for him but wasn’t particularly close to him, wasn’t that special to him—that generosity of spirit is simply who he was. He populated the arc of his light with people he was good to, because that’s how he made his own hard work fun.

Even though he rose early and worked ceaselessly, he rarely came in the office before 7 a.m. as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because he knew that if he did, we’d be in at 6:30; when he slept in his office during the 1991 Gulf War, his closest aides kept it tightly secret so the rest of us wouldn’t follow his lead. When he was aggravated or anxious—like when he feared that President George H. W. Bush would ask him to be vice president—he’d flee Washington to be among soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, because he felt profoundly that the young men and women putting themselves in harm’s way for our country were his constituency. They strengthened him to do the hard work that was his to do. And he felt the same about our diplomats when he was secretary of state.

Powell used to tease me that there were lots of reasons to fire me, but that they were outweighed by two reasons not to: It was fun to watch me do my job, and I was the only NATO expert he’d known who, when he asked me what time it was, would just tell him what time it was instead of giving him the history of the clock.

It was a beautiful fingerprint of his leadership: playful, engendering my loyalty, acknowledging my good work but also telling me and everyone else not to waste his time. RIP Colin Luther Powell, great American.