A Strong Foundation
Michael Powell understands what it’s like to be a patient with complex needs. While serving in the U.S. Army in 1987, an overseas training mission nearly took his life, leading to numerous surgeries and a full year of recovery. Today, he sits on the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees to honor the Army care team who treated him, teaching him firsthand the importance of coordinated care.
It was a lesson Michael never hoped to learn, but one he holds close to his heart today.
“The opportunity to be part of Mayo Clinic, a medical institution that is so committed to providing exceptional, lifesaving care, was irresistible,” Michael says. “Mayo Clinic is a place where miracles can happen. Serving on the board has shown me that this is one of the finest, most thoroughly excellent institutions I’ve ever seen or been a part of.”
Michael was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in March 1963 — the height of the civil rights movement. While his father was fighting in Vietnam, 5-month-old Michael and his mother, Alma Johnson Powell, were four blocks away when a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four and injuring more than a dozen.
“The intersection of my mother’s experiences during the civil rights movement and my father’s in Vietnam certainly helped shape who I am today,” Michael says. “Like every child, you get half of your formative life from one parent and half from the other.”
Values Transcend Differences
Michael learned early on the importance of strong values and morals from his father, retired U.S. Army four-star general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Watching his dad rise up in the ranks demonstrated to Michael that black men can succeed based on their merits — witnessed by the desegregation of the Army, which occurred well before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Jamaica, Gen. Powell’s family instilled the value of hard work, while setting high expectations and achieving them.
“You never wanted to shame your family, those who have worked so hard for you to have these opportunities,” Michael says. “The phrase ‘It takes a village’ was well-understood in a big Jamaican immigrant family.”
Michael’s mother came from a family of educators who passionately believed education was the pathway to move beyond segregation and poverty. In 1997, the Powells helped establish America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit emphasizing that every child should have the ability to succeed through caring adults, safe places, a healthy start to life, effective education and opportunities to help others.
Together, his parents taught Michael and his siblings three core principles: what is right, what is wrong and to take responsibility for your own actions. Embedded in those formative years was a powerful lesson: Values transcend differences.
Growing up in a military family, Michael moved often and was forced to make new friends and assimilate into vastly different communities. It would later become a valuable skill he’d tap into as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Michael led the FCC from 2001 to 2005 as the internet exploded into a widely used consumer network at the same time as the proliferation of cellphones and an increasing dependence on wireless services across the U.S. Guiding his every decision was a personal commitment to values and virtues, a foundation that proved essential with the entire nation watching.
A Profound Legacy
With more than 63,000 staff members at Mayo Clinic, Michael sees Mayo’s values as the golden thread that weaves together the clinic’s unparalleled experts and staff. The institution’s primary value — putting the needs of the patient first — drives forward every decision. As a member of the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees, it’s one of the many areas of Mayo that Michael is proud to boast about.
“The values here emanate into the lives of patients so powerfully,” Michael says. “It is an honor to be able to offer leadership and stewardship to such a timeless institution. We’re living in an exciting chapter of the very long story of Mayo Clinic transforming medicine. Our values give every task we do purpose.”
Mayo’s values are an expression of the vision and intent of its founders, the Mayo family and the Sisters of Saint Francis. This legacy is championed by the Program in Professionalism and Values as well as the Mayo Clinic Values Council, empowering staff to be Mayo’s flag-bearers and promote the values of Mayo Clinic to everyone they encounter. From the first moments of a new staff member’s orientation to the education, training and seminars made available to staff throughout their careers at Mayo, this program ensures the strong, values driven culture is protected and perpetuated.
“For an institution to live long into the future, those tending to it in the present have to be committed stewards. They have to appreciate and take to heart that they are not just responsible for doing a great job in the relatively brief time that they are here,” Michael says. “They also have a sacred responsibility for preserving the long legacy that preceded them — ensuring that their institution in all its glory be around to serve yet unborn generations.”
Understanding the important role of stewardship empowers Michael and the other trustees to continue positioning Mayo as the global health care leader, solving the most serious and complex medical challenges one patient at a time. To Michael, that commitment is what truly sets Mayo apart and why he is proud to be a benefactor today. “There’s a reason that so many of Mayo’s benefactors are grateful patients,” Michael says. “Once you see it, once you experience Mayo, you leave saying, ‘I must be a part of this; I must help them keep doing what they did for me or my daughter or my son or friend.’ There are too few bright light institutions in the world doing these kinds of things that are unflinchingly good. And that’s what Mayo does, and they’re able to do it because of the commitment to those core values.” ■