Here is a powerful quote attributed to Maya Angelou you have probably heard:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This quote occurred to me recently when I heard about the death of Colin Powell, and recalled an incident I have never forgotten during a briefing we had for him at a refugee camp in Northern Iraq in 1991. Let me set the scene, and the story, for you.
I was part of a group within the Army that helped establish a series of refugee camps in Northern Iraq immediately following the Gulf War (aka “Operation Desert Storm”). I have written about that time here and here.
While we were there, General Powell, who was then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to our location for a briefing. While he was talking to our unit I took this picture of him in the sun-dappled space we had set up for the briefing underneath camo netting on a sunny day.
Naturally, his arrival was a Big Deal for everyone in the vicinity, including the Kurdish refugees who had to be kept at a distance since they saw in him an opportunity to plead their case for their own homeland. The only thing I remember from the briefing – aside from the fact that he didn’t react when he heard we had named one of the refugee camps “Margaritaville” – was when a young soldier was introduced to the assembled soldiers and flag officers to recite a poem he had written.
Evidently this soldier had written some poignant words about the human suffering he had witnessed during his deployment. I don’t know what the chain of events were that led him to go from jotting down a poem to then finding himself in front of several dozen US Army personnel and the highest-ranking officer in the United States, but this young man was clearly nervous, which was understandable.
Anyhow he stood up in front of the whole group and read his poem. When he was finished, three things happened almost simultaneously:
- The group clapped politely
- The soldier turned to leave as you would do if you wanted to get the hell off the stage.
- General Powell jumped out of his chair.
Before soldier could leave, and while people were still in the “polite applause” phase, General Powell immediately walked up to the young man, stood very close to him while shaking his hand and spoke to him very quietly for a few moments. None of us could hear what he was saying but clearly he was acknowledging what the soldier had shared. Powell had adopted a fatherly posture as he spoke to the young man before letting him go and continuing on with the business at hand.
General Powell’s autobiography is on my list of great books. Some might skip this autobiography because was written before the later Iraq War and Powell’s important role during that time, but the book is one of the best descriptions of what Army life was like for Powell and those who served during his era.
Outside of a couple comments, I don’t really recall what General Powell said that day. But I do remember how he must have made that young, nervous soldier feel – valued and appreciated.
Hopefully we can tap into a little bit of that magic as we’re interacting with those around us.