Leadership: You are what you endorse...and the tragedy of Colin Powell's leadership

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I attended the Get Motivated! seminar in Portland recently with a few friends. If you live anywhere near a large city, you've probably seen the advertisements for it. For a mere $1.95, you are promised to be motivated and charged up by some of the leading personalities in the media.

Now, I don't claim to be the smartest guy around however I have been around long enough to smell a pitch. Regardless, I wanted to see the headliners.

I've been speaking publicly for a number of years and wanted to see how the 'big dogs' performed.

I also wanted to see Colin Powell in particular. He is one of my icons.

I have had tremendous respect in the past for his leadership and his world view, even given the mistakes he's made, most notoriously giving testimony to the UN on WMD in Iraq. Ouch...

Regardless, I still follow Powell and was looking forward to hearing him speak and was not disappointed. He is as personable as he appears in the media, a great story teller and left the packed arena of 18,000 plus to a standing ovation.

There were other speakers, equally as notable but in my estimation, none as dynamic.

As expected however, what followed was  the pitch and the seminar delivered in bucket loads. We were subjected to two pitch men for an hour and a half each.

The audience was hyped on products and schemes promising financial freedom and prosperity for a mere $100 investment. And they had them lining up in droves. No surprise here.

Like I said, we expected this was coming and no different than in late night infomercials on TV, the promises were equally as fantastic and in some cases allegedly illegal (one of my friends attending with me is a mortgage law expert and said one of the schemes being pitched was highly illegal in several states).

My issue however is not with the snake oil. That was expected and from an organizational behavior point of view, it was fascinating to watch (in a morbid sort of way) all the people lining up to buy. Kind of like driving past on a car wreck, not being able to avert your eyes though you know it will not be good.

I left the seminar troubled however and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I stewed on this for a few days until it came to me.

Why the hell is General Colin Powell endorsing this seminar? Does he know what is being pitched when he walks off the stage?

Does he know how they are using the service men and women in the audience to become de facto endorsers of the snake oil? Does he see how the organizers weave faith and patriotism into the program to build credibility for the fleecing schemes?  

Does Powell realize the seminar organizers are getting people who are desperate in this recession, to fork over money they probably don't have? (which by the way, if you do any kind of research on these schemes, the fleecing doesn't stop at the initial $100. By several accounts, the 'investment' can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars...).

I would love the opportunity to ask General Powell and few other of the headliners these questions, however that's beside the point (and sincerely doubt I'd get the chance).

There is however, a HUGE lesson on leadership here. You are what you endorse, even if you do not know or had any idea what the organization is doing before or after you speak (or otherwise promote their organization or platform). There is no plausible deniability in this case.

The nuance of leadership lost on General Powell, for all his experience and knowledge, is with leadership there comes an implicit trust that you have the best intentions at heart for the organization.

When your activities either directly or indirectly support something that goes against the best interests of the people that make up the organization, as a leader you have committed a breach of integrity. In this case, Powell has committed a significant breach and I don't think he gets it. At least I'd like to think he doesn't. To imagine he understands and would be still willing to take the check...I don't even want to go there. We can learn from this however.

As leaders, don't assume who you endorse is acting in the best interest of the people they are promoting to. Ask questions. Know who else is on the platform. Are they the kind of people you want to be associated with, no matter how much you are compensated? The hard lesson is once your integrity is for sale, it is virtually impossible to buy it back, at any price.

PS - For a really good article on the GetMotivated! seminar and all it's tricks, check out this article on the seminar's recent stop in St. Louis: http://www.riverfronttimes.com/2011-05-05/news/get-motivated-peter-lowe-investools-wealth-magazine/.