Westmont College spends a great deal of time talking and thinking about the importance of leadership. The private, Christian liberal arts school in the Montecito foothills instills in its students — and demands of itself — the principles of leadership that create a culture of character and integrity in both public and private life.
Retired Gen. Colin Powell, a highly decorated four-star Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as a former secretary of state, was the very embodiment of leadership as he rose to the top echelons of military, political and diplomatic power.
So it was fitting that the paths would intersect Friday at the Eighth Annual Westmont President’s Breakfast, held before an audience of nearly 800 guests at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort in Santa Barbara.
Ignoring the dais, a relaxed Powell instead strolled around the stage as he talked. He fondly remembered his time spent in Santa Barbara in the 1980s when it served as President Ronald Reagan’s Western White House. He warmly described his personal relationship with Reagan, for whom he worked as national security adviser. And he paid tribute to the late Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, a fast friend and colleague whom he had eulogized the day before in a ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“He believed in this country deeply,” he said. “He loved his family, and he cared about his troops.”
Powell noted that most Americans are justifiably concerned about the nation’s dire fiscal condition and mounting foreign challenges, but he expressed his belief that there are far more Americans who believe — as French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in the 1800s — that America can overcome any challenge.
All it takes, he said, is leadership, and the ability to inspire others.
“Leaders can’t accomplish anything without inspiring followers,” he said.
To illustrate his point, he recalled a one-on-one meeting he had with Reagan in the Oval Office. Throughout the briefing, which consisted of Powell describing problems he was having with various agencies and personnel, Reagan’s attention was riveted on something in the Rose Garden, out the window behind the young aide. He soldiered through with his report, unnerved by the seeming lack of attention from the commander-in-chief. As he was wrapping up his presentation, Reagan suddenly pointed to the garden and exclaimed, “Colin, look! Those squirrels just took the nuts I put out for them this morning.”
As Powell walked back to his office, shaking his head at what had happened, he said it dawned on him that Reagan had just imparted a critical lesson.
“The president didn’t hire me to tell him when I was having a problem,” Powell said. “I was hired to tell him when he was having a problem. When it was his problem, he was completely focused.
“Reagan believed in getting the best people around him and empowering them,” he continued. “They were entrusted with a zone and, within that zone, they absolutely knew what they could do before they involved him.”
Ever since, Powell said, he adopted Reagan’s philosophy of trying to avoid getting pulled down into the weeds on an issue.
Powell briefly discussed the news of the day: the federal sequester.
“The world isn’t going to end,” he said dismissively of those who were forecasting catastrophe because of automatic spending reductions taking effect March 1. “But it is unthinkable that this is happening. ... You couldn’t run a 7-Eleven the way we’re running this country.”
He pointed out that today’s political leaders “are trapped in the orthodoxy of their parties.” The only solution is to figure out a way for people to begin talking to each other again, he said, citing the Founding Fathers at the nascent nation’s Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Powell, who was born to immigrant parents, also stressed that immigration is a uniquely American strength.
“Ours is a nation of nations,” he said.
With one more anecdote, he recalled how he had enjoyed stopping for street-vendor hot dogs when he visited New York City as secretary of state under President George W. Bush. He recently did so again and, this time, the vendor recognized who he was and thanked him for his service. They struck up a conversation, and Powell learned that the man had arrived in the United States just a few years before. As Powell tried to pay for his food, the vendor refused.
“No, General, you can’t pay me,” he said. “I’ve already been paid. I’m an American now.”
As Powell walked away, he said he had another epiphany.
“My God,” he thought with pride. “We’re still the great country that my parents came to back in the 1930s.”
The Westmont President’s Breakfast has the highest profile of the Westmont College Foundation’s work on behalf of the school and the community. Launched in 1997 with the leadership of philanthropist Larry Crandell, the foundation also hosts the Westmont Downtown lecture series and provides student scholarships. Among this year’s Westmont Foundation Scholars are Westmont students Kaci Mexico, a Santa Ynez Valley Union High School graduate, and Nicole Provost, a graduate of Righetti High School in Santa Maria, and Nicholas Alpers and Grady Goff of Camarillo.
Westmont President Gayle Beebe gave the opening remarks Friday, and he bestowed on Powell the school’s inaugural Westmont Leadership Award in recognition of his accomplishments. Beebe was introduced by John Davies, chairman of the President’s Breakfast Committee, and Westmont Foundation board chairman Brad Frohling, himself a Westmont alumnus.
The Rev. Simon Thomas, pastor of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, gave the invocation, and the Westmont College Choir, under the direction of Michael Shashberger, opened the morning with a hymn, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” and an interpretation of Elton John’s “Circle of Life.”
Lead sponsor of Friday’s breakfast was Santa Barbara Bank & Trust and its parent company, Union Bank. Other sponsors included Axia, Chronicle Family Offices, Davies, ergomotion, HUB International, La Arcada, Jo and Carl Lindros, Matt Construction, Mosher Foundation, Laurie and Lindsay Patton, Rabobank, V3 Corp. and Northern Trust.