The son of immigrant parents who came from Jamaica to the United States in search of a better life, former Secretary of State Colin Powell grew up with a hard-working immigrant mentality.
That blue-collar mind-set never left him, even when he walked down Park Avenue in New York City surrounded by bodyguards and escorted by police cruisers.
Powell told an audience of local and international business leaders at the Alltech Rebelation conference Monday in Rupp Arena that this spirit is what made America the land of opportunity, and to not forget that hope and positivity are key in motivating everyone from small business employees to presidents. Powell was given the Alltech Medal of Excellence, presented annually to "someone of great achievement and character," according to Alltech's website.
Cindy Liu, who accompanied her husband to see Powell speak, said the retired four-star general showed his integrity through stories of connecting with common people.
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"He gets in touch with his roots, everyday people," Liu said. "There are few politicians like General Powell."
One of the New York City native's stories that stood out to Liu was when Powell requested that low-level State Department employees, rather than deputy officers, brief President George W. Bush before his first state visit to Mexico.
"I want the two lowest junior officers in that department to brief the president," Powell said he told his staff. Powell followed up by telling the junior officers that he wanted no rehearsal and no pre-briefing.
Powell knew they would "bust their butts" to prepare for the meeting, and knew that showing confidence in people at the bottom of the ladder would motivate the entire staff to work hard and have pride in themselves.
"It made all the difference in the world as I took over that department," Powell said. "That's what leadership is all about; turning people on, getting people to believe in what you believe in, getting people to operate in harmony with you. Getting people to believe is what leadership is all about."
Bill Snapp, chief financial officer of Ephraim McDowell Health in Danville, said business leaders could learn a lot from Powell about how to manage employees.
"I think he's a great leader and a great American," Snapp said. "I actually wish he would run for president."
Powell ended his speech by telling the audience not to forget that America was born of immigrants and that their spirit is what continues to make America great.
"That's what makes us so unique in this world; immigrants come here to become Americans; that's not the same with respect to Europe or other parts of the world," Powell said. "As long as my fellow citizens remember that immigration is the lifeblood that created this country and keeps it moving forward, as long as we keep embodying that spirit in the American citizenry, I can assure you that America will continue to be the inspiration for the world that wants to be free."