James M. Berklan

What do you call a 77-year-old who has worked with — indeed been one of — the most powerful people in the world, traveled the globe extensively, served his country with honor for decades and then charms, compliments and entertains you for over an hour — without the help of a teleprompter? The perfect keynote speaker for your conference, that’s what.

That was the universal sentiment after Gen. Colin Powell (ret.), the former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a wide-ranging address at the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living’s annual convention Monday in Washington. Perfect.

How did he universally wow the diverse crowd? First and foremost, this trailblazer who never has to work another day in his life, showed immediately that he works hard to customize a delivery for his audience.

It was obvious (and subsequent research confirmed) that the General arrived early for his 10:30 speech — and then attentively listened from backstage to those who preceded him on stage. Extra emphasis earned because this is rare. Many a captain of industry, former politician or supposed celebrity practices a more cynical routine, one that many long-term care conferences have experienced: Speaker pops in, recites a well-worn spiel without modifying the content, makes sure the amount on the paycheck is right, and then flees. (By the way, is this the barbers’ convention or the plumbers’?)

While it is true that Powell fed the audience many time-tested anecdotes and speaking points, he also improvised often to bond with his audience. The esteemed military and political figure bordered on hammy at times (“At this point in my life, I’m glad to be anywhere,” he mugged to loud guffaws). But who cared? This was entertaining, and substantive, stuff in the end.

Within moments of taking the stage to a standing ovation, Powell had deftly made smooth and indirect references to things the four previous speakers had talked about. In one case, he was actually quite direct. His opening salvo complimented AHCA/NCAL President and CEO Mark Parkinson on his explanation of the group’s choice to armor up with top lobbyists and go on the offensive in Washington.

“I like that,” the nation’s former top military man declared. “The only reason you go on the defensive is to create conditions to go on the offensive.”

Powell proceeded to command the attention of the roughly 4,000 on hand with ponderings on his and his wife’s next home (“it’s going to be assisted living” he said for laughs) and wondering where they’ll fall on the care-needs spectrum.

While openly acknowledging he has access to great healthcare himself, he lamented the plight of a hard-working neighbor who didn’t. It opened his endorsement of universal healthcare. (“I don’t know if you call it Obamacare or some other care. Congress needs to come together. Make sure every single American has healthcare. It’s doable.”) He also expressed hope for better race relations and better education options.

And better results from do-nothing lawmakers. “It’s a disgrace!” he sputtered about Congress not getting an appropriations bill passed. “If they’re not doing anything, vote them out!” he thundered.

Over and over, he returned to his hosts’ mission. No other organization of the thousands he has spoken to gets greater respect than the long-term care providers before him, he said. Continually referring to himself as a “fellow citizen,” he praised long-term care providers for their “remarkable” work.

When he spoke of a core belief, such as immigration reform, he’d lash himself back to his audience. “As you go on offense, you have to think about immigration,” he said like a teacher giving instructions. “Immigration reform brings vibrance. We need it.”

This man who had been courted by “every president, king and prince, and TV reporter” spoke with humility and self-deprecation throughout, endearing him to his audience. (The day Condoleezza Rice succeeded him as Secretary of State and the Secret Service started stripping his home of “hotline” phones, Powell beseeched them, “Hey, man, leave one so I can call 9-1-1 and Domino’s!”)

The biggest thunderbolt for me came 59 minutes into his talk. After discussions of meeting foreign leaders in Korea, the Gulf War, life as Ronald Reagan’s security adviser, and talk about his interests in Silicon Valley and new pursuits as a venture capitalist. After he proudly spoke of being born in Harlem and growing up in the South Bronx, getting high grades in ROTC to boost his overall GPA to just average but still rising to the top military and diplomatic posts in the world’s most powerful country.

It came after he had recounted his humorous initiation into social media via his grandchildren, and his swearing off of TV (he watches only foreign news outlets now). After he talked of having his own 757 airliner, whose movements were based on his own (“It was sooo cool!”). After he told of discussions with hotdog vendors and cleaning people, and his theories on management and leadership traits (give every person a purpose to their job and then give them resources).

The biggest jolt came after he explained that he doesn’t seek to “motivate” but rather “inspire.” And that what comes next must be trust — “the glue that keeps everything together — and then lubricates.”

This is what allows leaders to make their mark, Powell added, perhaps by keeping track of details, such as “what color flower that lady needs” and “does she like chocolate?”

Attentive audience members were dumbstruck at the lines. Powell’s reference was to an anecdote Parkinson had made some 90 minutes earlier. As a young long-term care owner and operator, Parkinson had explained he also was his facility’s groundskeeper. When he found out a certain resident’s favorite color was red, he planted and replanted items numerous times throughout the year to make sure the resident always had red flowers blooming outside her window.

“That’s what leaders do!” Powell boomed.

Another quick anecdote about the virtue of treating people of all walks of life with kindness and civility (just “like the work you do,” he told the audience). And then his exit was set.

“We’re a nation of nations,” he said, calling for optimism despite numerous conflicts facing the country. “We’ll continue to be a leader of leaders. Remember that. We’ll be fine.”

With a shouted “Thank you!” and two hands waving over his head, he was gone. One of a kind. Perfect.

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Editor. Follow him @LTCEditorsDesk.