Greenbuild 2010: Colin Powell Commands Green Movement to Build Better Leaders

Greenbuild 2010: Colin Powell Commands Green Movement to Build Better Leaders

Speaking on leadership, resilience and the value of diversity, retired four-star general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell helped officially open the Greenbuild conference, the green building industry's largest international convention.

Powell joined U.S. Green Building Council President, CEO and Founding Chair Rick Fedrizzi today in welcoming the more than 23,000 people attending the USGBC's ninth Greenbuild conference, whose trade show, international forum and briefing sessions began Tuesday.

A friendly crowd greeted Powell. They gave him a standing ovation before and after he spoke and laughed at his self-deprecating anecdotes about a long and varied career that included appointments as national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President George H.W. Bush.

"All of you should be saying to yourself, 'Excuse me, he was secretary of state --- but what does he know about green stuff, what does he know about green building?' " Powell said. "Actually, I know more about it than you think."

His first association with green was figuratively and literally a result of his Army uniform. Powell became acquainted with issues related to building during his career in the military and ultimately became the top man in an organization that has since made LEED-Silver certification a minimum requirement for new permanent buildings and major renovations.

As secretary of state, he had an annual building budget of about $1 billion for embassies and made it his mission to make structures more secure -- and what is now popularly called green.

And as the namesake of many buildings, Powell said he is particularly proud of the Habitat for Humanity's General Colin Powell Apartments in New York's South Bronx neighborhood. The LEED-Platinum building -- the highest level of USGBC green building certification possible -- provides affordable housing to 50 families, some of whom contributed sweat equity to the construction project.

The apartment building is "three blocks away from the house I was raised in," said Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants. "We called it a tenement, but in later years they called it a slum, and I watched as the neighborhood I was raised in was ruined by drugs."

Speaking of the rejuvenation of the neighborhood and the construction of the apartment building bearing his name, Powell threaded the themes of resilience, reinvention and transformation -- all tenets of the green building movement -- into his talk.

Now a strategic limited partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a member of the board of directors of Bloom Energy, Powell said green tech and environmental issues play an increasingly prominent role in his life.

And as he takes on new roles and ventures, basic principles in leadership -- lessons he learned as a second lieutenant almost five decades ago -- guide his activities. He underscored that the concepts can be applied to green building as well as other spheres, and he urged green building leaders to embrace them.

They include:

  • Be passionate about your mission and communicate that passion to your team.
  • Provide your team the tools it needs to do its job. "You've got to take care of your troops," he said.
  • Recognize the importance and function of every individual on your team regardless of rank or role.
  • Be tough when necessary, especially when it comes to performance.
  • Be clear with expectations, provide opportunities to improve, and don't shy away from making hard decisions to make positive change happen. Good leaders let it be known that "nothing holds back my team," he said.


"I believe that leadership is universal and (its principles) apply to any organization," said Powell. More and more, he added, people are looking for "leaders with the highest ethical standards ... leaders who are selfless, not selfish ... leaders who understand the needs of the organization are important, not the needs of the leader."

Fedrizzi also had thoughts to share on leadership and took the opportunity to praise leaders in the green building movement. As of last week, Fedrizzi said, the USGBC has certified more than 1 billion square feet of commercial real estate since its introduction in 2000. "This is only possible because of the massive commitment to performance leadership by companies and organizations," he said.

The firms Fedrizzi lauded included PNC banks, which now has more than 100 LEED-certified sites; United Technologies Corp., the founding sponsor of the UGBC's Center for Green Schools; and the Bank of America and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, which sponsors The Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grant Program in collaboration with the USGBC.

Many organizations also have contributed to the green building movement. They include the Leonardo Academy, which for the ninth consecutive year has donated its services and made it possible for Greenbuild to be carbon neutral.

Greenbuild came to the Windy City in 2007 and returns at nearly twice the size. Some 1,800 exhibitors are attending the trade show this year. Greenbuild's overall attendance topped 27,000 last year in Phoenix, and organizers are hoping to push the 30,000-mark before the event closes on Friday.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Monika Thorpe.