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"Never let your position get so close to your ego, that when your position goes, your ego goes with it".

-Colin Powell

I chose a quote from Colin Powell intentionally for this week’s message because I was thinking about him recently and how devastated I was about a year ago when I heard of his unexpected death due to COVID complications in the midst of cancer treatment which left him quite vulnerable despite being fully vaccinated. Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when I was a young lieutenant and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, and just starting out in my leadership career and life of public service. I was privileged to be influenced by his life story and leadership style and I read his autobiography and later books, being particularly impressed by his style of humility and servant leadership.

Along my journey I eventually memorized what came to be called “Powellisms,” which were leadership tenets and quotes Powell was known for and was heard to utter frequently. One of these was to “be kind to the people you meet on your way up the ladder because they’re the same people you’ll meet on your way back down.” Powell was known for that same behavior and those same humble values by everyone who knew him from the time he was a West Point cadet until he was the single most powerful leader in uniform. Nothing about his kindness, candor, and service ever changed despite the rank which changed on his collar over the years.

I attribute today’s quote to a large part of my reasoning in why in 2007 I chose not to complete my doctoral degree in healthcare administration despite having finished all coursework, passing my comprehensive exams, and being more than half way through my dissertation. It was at that time while working in the South African “township” of Mamelodi that I met a woman who lived in a very tiny tin shack with a dirt floor and a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. I learned that in the previous two years her husband and her four adult children had all died of AIDS which was ravaging parts of Africa in those years. The woman was beaming with love and kindness as she welcomed us into her “home.” After speaking for a time, I asked her respectfully how it was that she could be so happy after having experienced so much loss and devastation in her life. She told me she had learned that “when you get to the place that God is truly ALL you have left, that is when you discover that God is all you ever needed.” Her comment hit me like a bullet between the eyes and I thought about what she said for days.

It was two days later when I felt an epiphany and realized that the real reason I had pursued the PhD was for the credential and title and that really, even if I finished that degree, I would still be “Keith” and not “Dr. Welsh” as had somehow become important at some level of my thinking. It was also at that time that Colin Powell’s words about ego and position resonated so strongly in me that I told my wife I felt it was important to live the rest of my life as “Keith” and not to become “Dr. Welsh.” It was a hard decision after more than four years of time, long hours, travel, and considerable cost, but my wife and I both came to agreement and realized it was the right thing for me, so I quit my doctoral program and have never been sorry for that decision.

There is nothing wrong with a credential or a PhD of course and for many it is the right training and commitment. For me, the moment of ultimate humility in South Africa along with words from Colin Powell I had heard years earlier made me realize my ego had somehow gotten in the way of my servant mission. So yes, Colin Powell influenced me in powerful and positive ways and I will greatly miss his presence in this world, but I am thankful for his selfless ideals which live on within me while I also hope to impart those to others in the rest of my days on earth.

I hope you have a great week!

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