Q & A: Gen. Colin Powell On Leadership In Times Of Change

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks with <i>InformationWeek</i> about "commander's risk," cybersecurity, H1-B visas, Facebook, and his most immediate concerns for the United States.

Rob Preston, VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

April 28, 2009

10 Min Read

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an exclusive interview with InformationWeek editor in chief Rob Preston, offered his views on leadership, information security, H1-B visas, and the pervasiveness of IT, among other issues. The retired general spoke with InformationWeek in advance of his keynote speech, titled "Leadership In Times Of Change," at The Fortify Executive Summit and ISE Mid-Atlantic Awards program, to take place in Washington on May 4. Following are excerpts of that interview.

InformationWeek: "Leadership In Times Of Change." What's the gist of what you'll be discussing next week in Washington?

Gen. Powell: I'll be talking about how the world has changed from the days when I first came into the Army and we were living in an almost monolithic world, with a Soviet Union, the United States, and the Chinese empire, and now we are a flattening, globalized world driven as much by economic forces as political or military forces and how it is being reshaped by the information revolution. I can't keep up. I was born analog, was raised analog, and lived most of my life analog. I had to become digital over the last 20 years, and I've had to work hard at it because my business required it either as a solider or a diplomat or in my private life. But I've also had to draw the line and I'm not going to go into all of these -- let me not offend anyone -- Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

I'm pretty good with all this stuff. Right now as I talk with you, I have three computers going in my home office and I'm constantly on the Net. One of my associates e-mailed me and said you really have to get on Facebook, and I said I know all about Facebook, but I'm really so consumed with all the stuff I do now I don't think I want any more. I've got to hold on here to a little bit of my time. And the young lady e-mailed me back the very next day and said, not to worry, you're already on Facebook. Somebody already signed you up, complete with a picture. And I said, well, I'm going to get my lawyers. They can't do that. And she said, before you sue, you already have 16,000 friends.

My 14-year-old grandson won't answer e-mail. He'll only answer texts or tweets. I'm fascinated by all this and watching how these kids are inhaling this stuff and how they are born to this stuff, while I have to constantly convert from analog to digital.

InformationWeek: You've been quoted as saying: "Experts often possess more data than judgment." Please explain. In our line of business, data is considered critical to informed decision-making, but where can reliance on data go too far?

Gen. Powell: There are two Powell sayings that are applicable here. When I became a more senior officer, a general, and I was running wars and large military operations, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who were experts in their field: communicators, artillery men, you name it, and I drew on their expertise. It was important for me to know what they think. But I was trained to be a general, and I was supposed to bring my 25, 30, 35 years of experience and my broader picture of the whole battlefield and environment.

After listening to all the experts, I was supposed to use that expertise to inform my instinct. That is not a swag. It is an educated, informed instinct that is daily being shaped by my experts, but at the same time you've got to apply judgment to it. That's where the human dimension comes in. So if anyone tells me that they're just listening to their data guys and not applying judgment…have we seen how that helped us in the recent financial crisis?

Once when I was commanding all deployable combat forces in the United States I went down to one of my corps commanders, who was holding a command post exercise -- no troops, just all on maps. I was at his corps headquarters at 2 in the morning, and he was sensibly sleeping, but I'm watching his staff, and they had put a matrix together of what the enemy that was opposing them was doing. Every time the enemy did something the matrix anticipated they filled in a block.

And only when a certain number of blocks had been filled in did they think they had the right picture of the enemy, and they'd go wake up the general. As I watched them filling in all these matrices, I could look beyond the data and see what the enemy was doing, and the enemy was gaming their matrix and trying to create a picture that wasn't real. When the general was awakened and he came into the headquarters -- he was an experienced 3-star general -- he took one look at the map and said, what are you guys doing? And so he applied his experience to it.

And so you've got to have CEOs who not only apply their experience, but are willing to take the risks that your data people and subordinates aren't willing to take, because that's not their job.

There's another rule I follow that relates to the first one, and that's to make decisions at some point between p40 and p70, and I'll explain what this means. As you're facing a problem and dealing with a situation, you accumulate information and knowledge and data. Your data people are flooding you. When you think you've got about 40% of all the available information, start to think about alternatives and start to think about making a decision as you keep accumulating data and knowledge. When you get to about 70% of all possible data, it's probably time to make a decision and not wait for the last 30. That's judgment.

Let me offer another example. Gen. Grant at the battle of Petersburg was fast asleep. Somebody came into his tent yelling, we've just received information that Gen. Lee senses the trap that he is in and he's pulled his forces from the northwest and they're now streaming around Richmond into the southeast to attack us. Grant rubbed his eyes clear and asked the guy to repeat it. He did, and Grant asked where the information came from, and the guy told him, and Gen. Grant took a deep breath and said that's not possible, and he went back to sleep. And he was right. Now, had he been wrong! That's what we call commander's risk. That's why you have the star, because you take that risk.

InformationWeek: How big an issue is national cybersecurity? Before 9/11, we underestimated the scale of the terrorist threat. Is there a parallel in cybersecurity today?

Gen. Powell: Yes, but I wouldn't relate it directly to 9/11. I would just say that it's a function of both the explosion of information systems and the accumulated knowledge of how systems work in every country among people who have grown up with this stuff over the past 10 or 15 years, including terrorists. That's what makes it so dangerous -- the system capability and the knowledge that's out there. Not only the terrorists but the guys trying to break into my bank account.

The real challenge is, how do you defend yourself against all that while putting security systems in that don't get in the way. To get just a little parochial, Fortify Software -- you know I'm a limited partner in Kleiner Perkins and we've invested in Fortify -- what they're trying to do is get into the heart of the source code and start the protection there, instead of putting barbed wire fences around everything. We've got to keep finding creative ways to protect our systems but not to the point where the systems lose their effectiveness of the very reason we have them.

There's a parallel here to how we make it hard for people to get visas. At some point you're paying too much for your protection. I faced this as Secretary of State because I owned the visa system. After 9/11 we had to shut it down. We started opening it up, but we're still not where we ought to be in terms of letting people into this country and getting them visas in a proper way. Not that I want terrorists to get in. I want people who want to come here to go to school, who want to work in our hospitals. After 9/11, we were protecting ourselves but at a tremendous cost, because these people we wanted in our schools were going to France and Britain and Australia, and we were not only losing them but losing their money and talents.

Look at the two guys who were just appointed to cyberbusiness here in Washington [Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra]. They're both of Indian descent. The technical infrastructure of this country has been enriched by the immigrants who have come here to study, picked up the skills, and have stayed to apply them here. Many of them are now going home.

InformationWeek: Have you changed your view at all given the scarcity of jobs in the U.S.?

Gen. Powell: No. Sometimes jobs are scarce and other times jobs are there. You go through these cycles. You've got to make sure that you do everything you can to hire qualified Americans for the jobs, but the fact of the matter is that some of the best technical abilities rest in other countries and we cannot afford to deny ourselves that opportunity. So let's have a sensible H-1B visa process that brings in what we need and gives them a chance for citizenship. I think it enriches our country and our economy.

InformationWeek: I assume you're an optimist about this country, but what's your single biggest concern for the future of the United States and future generations of citizens?

Gen. Powell: My immediate concern is the economy. We need to get the economy back on track. It's partly a matter of getting Wall Street back on track. We've got a lot of people in the countryside who are hurting, who have lost their homes, who have lost their jobs.

For the future of this country, longer term, we have to fix our education system. We have the greatest universities in the world -- seven of the top 10 are American. But a third of all of our kids don't finish high school. And if they're inner-city minority, Black or Hispanic, 50% don't finish high school. In some inner cities, 74% don't finish high school. That is a moral failure. It is an educational tragedy. These kids will then produce kids who are not achievers. It is an economic hit we cannot afford, especially when we're competing with hundreds of millions of people around the world who used to be our enemies but now are our trading partners.

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis on government IT priorities. Download the report here (registration required).

About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights