Colin Powell
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This fascinating biography of the late Colin Powell brings to light his towering achievements and errors in judgment during a lifetime devoted to public service.

Until he passed away in 2021, Colin Powell was revered as one of America’s most trusted and admired leaders. This biography demonstrates that Powell’s decades-long development as an exemplary subordinate is crucial to understanding his astonishing rise from a working-class immigrant neighborhood to the highest echelons of military and political power, including his roles as the country’s first Black national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state.

Once an aimless, ambitionless teenager who barely graduated from college, Powell became an extraordinarily effective and staunchly loyal subordinate to many powerful superiors who, in turn, helped to advance his career. By the time Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had developed into the consummate follower—motivated, competent, composed, honorable, and independent. The quality of Powell's followership faltered at times, however, while in Vietnam, during the Iran-Contra scandal, and after he became George W. Bush's secretary of state. Powell proved a fallible patriot, and in the course of a long and distinguished career he made some grave and consequential errors in judgment. While those blunders do not erase the significance of his commendable achievements amid decades of public service, we can learn much from his good and bad leadership.

At the time of invasion, before it was known that Iraq no longer possessed WMD, Powell’s performance in the preparation and delivery of the U.N. speech appeared a model of excellent followership in service to his president and country. Bush had assigned Powell an important and challenging mission, one that tested his abilities and leveraged his enormous prestige. The secretary responded with considerable competency, composure, and dedication. Moreover, he demonstrated characteristic initiative and resourcefulness, and exercised his capacity for independent critical judgment. Above all perhaps, Powell had acted honorably; he believed what he said. In building the U.N. briefing, he rejected information that he considered spurious and included only intelligence that he or the CIA leadership appraised as credible and reliable. That President Bush and so many Americans thought so highly of Powell’s conduct was completely understandable.

The thesis of this book is that Powell’s decades-long development as an exemplary subordinate was crucial to his extraordinary rise from a working-class immigrant neighborhood in the South Bronx to the highest echelons of American military and political power. Although once an aimless teenager, Powell joined the U.S. Army in 1958 with unbridled enthusiasm and a commitment to cultivating his professional skills and serving his superiors. He succeeded brilliantly. During thirty-five years in the military, Powell earned the respect and fidelity of numerous bosses and mentors who intervened regularly to advance his career. Early on, his superiors judged him as having unlimited potential and unswerving loyalty. They described Powell as “a young ambitious officer” who “immediately responds to suggestion and correction” and who “is completely dedicated to the service.” While stationed in South Vietnam as a junior officer, Powell’s commanders extolled his virtues as a model subordinate who “has demonstrated constantly his complete competence, levelheadedness, and dependability.” One major general even characterized Powell as “the most outstanding staff officer that I have seen in 32 years of service.”

Similarly, Powell’s conduct as a senior Army officer garnered profuse praise from civilian superiors. National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci characterized him as “totally dedicated,” as “unfailingly loyal to me,” and as “indefatigable in ensuring that I have been properly supported.” Defense Secretary Weinberger assessed Powell as being “categorically superlative,” writing that the major general’s performance as his senior military assistant “only confirms my belief that I could not have chosen a more loyal, capable, or dependable officer to fill this position of special trust and confidence.” By the time Powell was appointed as President George H.W. Bush’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had become the consummate subordinate: a highly experienced professional who personified competence, commitment, thoughtfulness, agreeableness, composure, independence, and integrity.

Powell’s exemplary followership notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that he also exercised effective leadership, both during his military career and thereafter at the State Department. Subordinates, superiors, and outside observers regularly assessed Powell as a capable, ethical, and inspirational leader. As early as 1961 when he was a twenty-four year old first lieutenant, his Army evaluator wrote: “[Powell is] a truly outstanding officer in every aspect and attribute of leadership….This young lieutenant has the professional knowledge equivalent to an officer of higher rank and greater experience.” A decade later, after successfully leading a once troubled American battalion in South Korea, Powell’s boss, the colorful and exacting Major General Henry E. Emerson, concluded: “Goddamn, this son of a bitch can command soldiers. He was charismatic. He really raised the morale, especially the esprit of that unit….He sure as shit showed me what he could do as a commander.”

By 1991, in the afterglow of decisive U.S. military victories in Panama and the Persian Gulf, Republican senator John McCain boldly proclaimed that General Powell was “the greatest military leader this country has produced since World War II.” After his retirement from the Army, during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, Powell continued to demonstrate able leadership at the helm of the State Department. According to John Naland, former president of the American Foreign Service Association, “Powell [was] easily the best leader and manager State has seen since George Schultz….As far as the Foreign Service is concerned, Powell has been an absolute standout.”

While acknowledging Powell’s praiseworthy leadership, this book’s primary focus is on his development and performance as a follower. Throughout his forty-year public career, Powell was always somebody’s subordinate. Even if one excludes Powell’s R.O.T.C. training at City College of New York, he spent years, more than ten percent of his active duty Army career, as a full-time student, a definitive follower role. Furthermore, as a senior military officer—serving at the rank of colonel and higher—most of Powell’s job titles reflected not his expanding leadership authority, but rather the persistence of his follower status: executive assistant to the special assistant to the secretary and the deputy secretary of defense, military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, executive assistant to the secretary of energy, senior military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, deputy senior military assistant to the secretary of defense, deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, and assistant to the president for national security affairs. Moreover, even after securing the exalted positions of national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state, Powell’s principal duty was to serve as a chief counselor to four presidents and three secretaries of defense.

Powell’s performance as a subordinate reveals not only core elements of superior followership, but also human fallibility and central characteristics of bad followership. Too often successful military officers such as Powell have prioritized career ambition, excessive obedience, and blind loyalty over independent critical reasoning and ethical principles.




Part I – The Military Years

1. Obedient Son (1937-1957)

2. Dutiful Soldier (1958-1969)

3. Follower and Commander (1970-1982)

4. Loyalist (1983-1988)

5. Chairman (1989-1993)

Part II – The Civilian Years

Chapter 6: Most Trusted Man (1993-2000)

7. Leader, Follower, and Odd Man Out (2001-2004)

8. Counselor – Iraq and the Rush to War (2002-2003)

9. Defender-in-Chief – Iraq and the Search for WMD (2003-2004)







Publié par
Date de parution 15 mars 2019
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9780268105129
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,1450€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


★ ★ ★ ★
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey J. Matthews
All Rights Reserved
Published in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Matthews, Jeffrey J., 1965– author.
Title: Colin Powell : imperfect patriot / Jeffrey J. Matthews.
Description: Notre Dame, Indiana : University of Notre Dame Press, [2019] | Includes bibliographical references and index. |
Identifiers: LCCN 2018055514 (print) | LCCN 2018057014 (ebook) | ISBN 9780268105112 (pdf) | ISBN 9780268105129 (epub) | ISBN 9780268105099 (hardback : alk. paper) | ISBN 026810509X (hardback : alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Powell, Colin L. | African American generals—Biography. | Generals—United States—Biography. | United States. Army—Officers—Biography. | Statesmen—United States—Biography. | Cabinet officers—United States—Biography. | Iraq War, 2003–2011—Causes. | Leadership—United States. | Followership. | United State—Politics and government—2001–2009.
Classification: LCC E840.5.P68 (ebook) | LCC E840.5.P68 M38 2019 (print) | DDC 327.730092 [B] —dc23
LC record available at
∞ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper) .
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at
To Emily and Kate,
carpe diem
Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources . These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence .
Certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cocksure of many things that were not so.
ONE Obedient Son (1937–1957)
TWO Dutiful Soldier (1958–1969)
THREE Follower and Commander (1970–1982)
FOUR Loyalist (1983–1988)
FIVE Chairman (1989–1993)
SIX Presidential Icon (1993–2000)
SEVEN Leader, Follower, Odd Man Out (2001–2004)

EIGHT Adviser (2002–2003)
NINE Defender in Chief (2003–2004)
By early spring 2017, I had completed a draft of this Colin Powell biography and was planning to contact the general to request an interview. Before I did, he reached out to me. On the evening of March 26, I was on my way to a birthday dinner with my daughters when I received an email from “Colin Powell” with the subject line “Re: Colin Powell.” I was surprised and enormously suspicious of the email’s authenticity. Years earlier, through his assistant, Powell had granted me permission to examine his personal papers, which are archived at the library of the National Defense University (NDU), but we had never communicated directly. Here is our first email exchange:
CP: Dear Professor Matthews, is this a good email address for you? I’d like to send a message. Colin Powell
JM: General Powell, although I doubt you would be emailing me, feel free to send any message. Jeff
CP: Thanks, I really am. Thought your book on Command was quite good. Will be back to you in a day or so. It relates to the piece you had in the HuffPost about HR and me. cp
JM: Thank you, General. Looking forward to it. Jeff
The book he referred to is The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell , which includes a chapter I wrote about the general’s “exemplary followership” in the U.S. Army. The “HuffPost” piece was actually a March 14, 2017, article I wrote for The Hill , a political newspaper in Washington, DC.
The Hill op-ed, titled “How H. R. McMaster can win on the political battlefield of Washington,” identified lessons that McMaster, Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, could learn from Powell’s experience. While the article was largely positive about Powell’s performance as a public servant, it also criticized him for not cultivating a closer relationship with President George W. Bush and for failing to exercise sufficient independent judgment regarding the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These criticisms, not the substantive compliments, had prompted Powell to contact me.
On March 27 the general emailed again to offer a vigorous self-defense. Nothing he wrote was surprising to me, and having no desire to debate a former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via email, I maneuvered for a personal interview. Here is our exchange:
CP: Dear Professor Matthews ,
I thought your article in The Hill was quite good, but I take exception to your glancing paragraph about my “failures.”
You have no idea about my relationship with President Bush. I am amused how you tied “close, and thus more open and influential” together as a failure. On 5 August 2002 I met privately with him in his WH residence. After a relaxing dinner, I told him I was not comfortable with the political and diplomatic considerations relevant to a potential conflict with Iraq. I told him it would probably suction all the air out of his presidency and that he needed to understand that when you take out a government, you become the government. “If you break it, you own it.” He asked what he should do. My answer was to take it to the UN, they are the offended party and see if we could get what we needed from Iraq on WMD [weapons of mass destruction] to avoid a war. I also asked him if he was prepared to accept Saddam in place if there were no WMD. He said, “yes.” We sold that position to the rest of the reluctant NSC members. That is what the president did in his famous 12 Sept UN speech. It took me six weeks of intense negotiations to get a unanimous resolution that gave Hussein a “get out of jail card.” Pretty open .
Hussein failed the test and in January 2003 the President decided on military action. On 4 days’ notice I gave my famous UN speech on 5 Feb to present our case to the world. Since I set the President on this diplomatic path I told him if he chose war I would support. You said I did not give enough “independent and critical thought” to the WMD issue. Independent of what? Sixteen intelligence agencies, to include my INR, concurred in the intel, 376 members of Congress had access to the NIE they requested and voted for a resolution that opened the path to war. The President, the VP, the Cabinet, the CJCS, JCS, Cinc, NS Adviser all bought into it. Most of the serious charges in my speech were in the State of Union speech a few weeks earlier. Hillary, Kerry, et al were full-throated in support. Do they all deserve the same hit you place on me? Every word in the speech was approved by the DCI. What “sufficient independence” do you think I should have had? In my recent book and in interviews I express my regret and regret my instincts failed me. Maybe I failed myself, but please don’t lecture me that I failed the President and Country. If I did we all did .
By the way, if you read General Tommy Franks’ memoir you will find a page discussing my phone call to him when I suggested he didn’t have enough troops for the unknowns that might occur. Keep writing! All the best, Colin Powell
JM: Dear General Powell ,
First, let me extend my sincere appreciation for your emails and expressed concerns. Certainly, my objective as a historian is to be accurate and fair, and I will take into account everything that you have written here and elsewhere. After many years of research and writing, I am finishing my book on your professional career this summer. I benefited immensely from reading your papers at NDU, so thank you for that access as well. Susan and the staff were exceedingly helpful .
To better understand your perspective on multiple issues, would it be possible to set up an interview(s) sometime between April and August? I am a frequent visitor to DC for research, plus my brother (Maj. Gen. Earl Matthews, USAF Ret.) lives in Alexandria. I know for sure I will be there in latter June. I would be more than happy to provide questions in advance .
General, I do realize that you get hundreds of interview requests, but I have purposely waited to ask until I was at the tail end of the biography, which, in large part, focuses on the idea of what makes for an exemplary subordinate. As you have said, “Leadership is all about followership.” Respectfully, Jeff
Powell ultimately agreed to an interview, which occurred at his home in June 2017. I began our meeting by explaining the book’s premise, and when I stated that even America’s greatest presidents were flawed human beings who made consequential mistakes, the general smiled broadly and pointed to himself with both hands. Although we did not set a time limit for the meeting, I suspect that the four hours we spent together were much more time than he had anticipated. The general had originally asked that the interview be conducted “on background,” but afterward he gave me p

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