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Powell, Leno share stories about leadership and presidents

3 min read

Modern Money

Gen. Colin Powell, USA (Ret.) and legendary comedian Jay Leno share quite a history. Not only have the two spent a great deal of time together, they have each spent significant time interacting with numerous presidents. Better yet … Powell spent years working for four different presidents, while Leno spent years making fun of them.

Time with Reagan

During a joint appearance during the gala dinner at CME Group’s annual Global Financial Leadership Conference this week in Naples, Fla., Leno tried to lure Powell into revealing which of his former bosses was the best leader. Powell was too savvy to take the bait, saying each president had their own unique leadership styles. However, Powell did say he had a special place in his heart for former President Ronald Reagan. Powell shared tales of not only his most memorable dealings with Reagan in the Oval Office, but also one very special visit Powell paid to Reagan at his home in California after he had left office. Powell explained that when pulled up to Reagan’s home in Beverly Hills, the army sergeant who was his driver asked Powell to thank Reagan for what he had done to improve military morale. When Powell told Reagan what the driver had said, the pair decided to invite the driver into Reagan’s home so he could meet the former commander in chief.

Leno, who has recently done his own bit of work supporting the military, shared one of his own Reagan stories. In the mid-1980s, Leno was the comedian set to perform at the normally raucous White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Just before he took the stage, a military general threatened Leno that he had better not poke fun at Reagan. Seconds later, Leno was confronted by then-U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who implored him to level his best jokes at the president and “Get Ronnie!” When Leno took the stage, he didn’t quite know which advice to follow. When he opened with a punchline about first Lady Nancy Reagan and Mother Teresa, he shot a quick glance at the president. when he saw Reagan laughing hysterically, he knew the rest of his material would be fine.

On Leadership

Powell is renown for his direct chain of command leadership style. So when the career military man shed his army uniform to take the helm of the U.S. Department of State, he was confronted with a most bureaucratic of problems: The law required that he have not one, but two deputy secretaries. Powell saw the requirement as nothing more than a recipe for organizational confusion, but the law was the law. How did the general-turn-diplomat solve the problem? He phoned a friend with what he described as good and bad news. “I am nominating you for this very distinguished position. … But I am also going to have a senator put a hold on your nomination so you never get confirmed.” Turns out the Army man was a quick study on the ways of politics in Washington.