Three Lessons in Speaking Out

Anyone following the news in the past year or knows of Fiona Hill, the White House advisor for Eastern European affairs. She was called to testify before Congress as a “fact witness” related to the Trump Administration’s interactions with Russia and Ukraine. Her testimony was solid, and she gained positive recognition for her steadfast demeanor and professionalism.

We did not know that Fiona Hill was also acting—not dissembling but delivering her presentation in an ice-cold room. As she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Hill had been given a heads up by a woman colleague who said that men in suits liked the room cold so they would not be seen sweating under the lights. That is cold comfort for women, of course. 

The backstory

Ms. Hill’s insights into the presentation, which come from her memoir, There Is Nothing for You Here, provides an inside look at the relations between Trump and Vladimir Putin and the Administration’s handling of the Ukraine issue.

Before she testified in public, she was subject to scrutiny. Immediately, the team of lawyers told her, ‘Well, we’ll need to have someone to do your hair and your makeup, and we’ll need to kind of figure out how you look on the day.’ And I felt, ‘Really? Do they do this for men as well?’” As she explained, she thought she had put such things behind her, but as she concluded, “I always thought when I was younger, like ‘God, I’m not going to be 14 forever, and eventually this won’t matter.’ And you get to be 54, and it still matters, particularly if you’re a woman.”

Years earlier, however, Hill’s undistinguished looks may have given her a front-row seat to history. It was 2004, and she was seated next to Vladimir Putin. Hill was told later that it was because she was not beautiful and would not draw attention to herself. A man, she was told, would be noticed and the subject to speculation about who he was. A woman in her late thirties who was dressed plainly would not.

Steel yourself to speak

These stories, and many more, illustrate the discrepancy between how women and men are treated in public settings. None of her stories are unusual, save for the backdrop of international affairs and history. What is remarkable is Fiona Hill’s strong sense of self. And for that reason, her insight into public presentation has relevance. 

Plan ahead. For presentations, know your audience. What do they expect from you, and what will you deliver? Ideally, you constantly tailor your presentation to the audience, but you may want to hold sensitive topics back until asked in certain situations. 

Know the terrain. Fiona Hill knew the room would be cold, and she took the advice of a woman colleague who told her to plant her feet firmly on the floor as a means of physically grounding herself against the chill. Such a stance also enabled Ms. Hill to stay calm and allow her adrenaline to kick in.

Believe in yourself. Self-awareness is essential to demeanor. What you know about yourself can give you the confidence to stand up to challenges, either verbal or career-wise. In addition, taking stock of your strengths will buttress the negative emotions that may arise in times of crisis.

Fiona Hill has served her adopted country for decades as an analyst and advisor.  When the light of history shone its brightest on her, she delivered a lesson in maintaining composure as well as credibility.

Adapted from 00.00.2021

Colin Powell: Legacy Matters

Listening to the comments of those he worked with, we come away with a picture of Colin Powell that is very much aligned with our impressions of him, but more so now that he has died.

A general. A warfighter. A peacemaker. A diplomat. A mentor. 

Retired admiral James Stavridisspeaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Powell’s sense of civility and grace. Our impression of generals is too often that of bold, brash and take charge. Powell did the latter well, but he did it with a worldview shaped by his background and his service as a frontline combat soldier. 

No one hates war more than soldiers do, Stravridis said, quoting William Tecumseh Sherman and applying it to Powell. Having seen the cost of war up close and personally in Vietnam, he sought to avoid it. But, if it were inevitable, as seen in the first Gulf War, it must be waged vigorously and with the end in sight. 

Sadly, no exit strategy was in sight, as Secretary of State in 2003 made a case for war in Iraq because it was believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, at least by the Bush administration. None were found. Powell advised President Bush against the war and later came to regret his role in it and admitted it publicly. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” Powell told Barbara Walters on ABC News, acknowledging that his presentation “will always be a part of my record.”

Working the system

Fortunately, Powell contributed much more. He was a pragmatist. As a diplomat, Powell understood how governments work and how governance needed to be in place. 

Powell was a people person. Richard Haass, a friend of more than 40 years who first worked with him at the Pentagon, recalls seeing then Col. Powell make phone calls every morning, something Powell referred to as checking the “trap lines.” Haass explained that Powell was seeking information. 

Information was a currency Powell could use to understand the bigger picture. And when used appropriately could lead to greater understanding between individuals and even government agencies. “Anybody who becomes a senior officer had better have some political instincts or you’re going to get ground up,” Powell told the New York Times. “We are a political nation. It is not a dirty word.”

Powell was proud of being the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black Secretary of State. Quite a leap for the son of immigrants from Jamaica. Yet, as John Meacham noted on Morning Joe, Powell said his race should not matter. What should matter is a commitment to service and the competency to do the job well.

A mentor to many

There is another side of Powell that amplifies his humanity. Powell was a mentor to many young women and men in the military and State Department. Stravridis recalls that when he was named the NATO Commander, the first person he went to see was Powell, who had once held that position. Stavridis told him to remember to do his job and remind himself that he was not Charlemagne. That is, keep humble and understand you can only do so much as an American general in Europe. 

Lloyd Austin, the current Secretary of Defense, said, “I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He always made time for me, and I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel. We will certainly miss him. I feel as if I have a hole in my heart.”

Colin Powell—soldier-statesman, mentor-leader—left a leadership legacy to remember.

First posted on 10.18.2021