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Leadership is…refusing to be the enemy

I heard General Colin Powell tell this Gorbachev story at Leaders in London last week. Powell was Secretary of State at the time of the story:

“I remember going to see President Gorbachev when he was leading his country through Perestroika and Glasnost. He said to me “You are not doing enough to help! You know what we are trying to do here and you need to help us do it!” I sat back and made it clear that, well, he was still a Commie, I guess, and the USSR had been the enemy for decades. He leant forward and smiled. “Mr. Secretary,” he said, “I am afraid you will need to find yourself a new enemy.” “

I’m convinced you get glimpses of true leadership in the true firsthand anecdotes people tell rather than in the official versions. Every firsthand anecdote I’ve heard about Gorbachev simply reinforces what a great leader he was, despite the way he is vilified today within Russia. Rene Carayol, for example, tells this story about him:

Carayol on Gorbachev:

“I was part of an event where Gorbachev was due to speak. This was in the days when Raisa, his wife, was still alive. They were, you will remember, devoted to each other. He was sitting next to her at a table. It was a very high-powered meeting.

“When it was his turn to speak, he rose, looking a little tense. But Raisa touched his hand. He looked down at her; she said something to him. He seemed to relax, smiled and went over to the lectern. I couldn’t resist sidling over to his interpreter and asking what she had said. “She said ‘You will be fine. It will be OK’,” he said.

“This man had changed the course of history, had faced down some of the most reactionary power bases in the world, had put in motion forces that had led to the Berlin wall tumbling. Outside Russia he is recognized as a world statesman of great bravery and stature. Yet he was nervous about talking to this gathering of people in a room. It was a nice reminder that brave leaders aren’t fearless; they just conquer that fear; in this case, with a little help.”

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