416 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: January 2023
- ISBN: 9780268105105
- Published: March 2019
- ISBN: 9780268105099
- Published: March 2019
- ISBN: 9780268105129
- Army Historical Foundation Book Awards, Finalist
- Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award: War & Military, Gold Medal
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.
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)
“This work should be read by all national security professionals, uniformed service members, or any other governmental agency including the department of state and the intelligence community.” —The Strategy Bridge
"This is no hagiography. Consisting of equal parts admiration and critical scrutiny, it is a tough and insightful portrayal of a commanding personality who was capable of both towering professional achievements and astonishing failures of judgment and ethics. Beyond pure biography, Matthews has produced a fascinating case study of the human elements of public service and leadership.” —Malcolm Byrne, deputy director, National Security Archive
"Jeffrey Matthews's excellent biography rightly praises Colin Powell's distinguished service over the past half-century, while also delineating how Powell faltered at crucial moments while serving as George W. Bush's secretary of state. This is a comprehensive and compelling analysis." —Walter LaFeber, the Andrew and James Tisch University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University
"At its base is a very well-written story about Colin Powell as fallible everyman. It is an almost existential portrait of the human condition. We all make choices every day; some are good, but some are grave errors in judgment that can have disastrous consequences for a family or for a nation. In my opinion, this book is the most important of the publications focusing on this turbulent period of American political and military history." —Howard Ball, author of Bush, the Detainees, and the Constitution
"This work . . . covers the lofty career of Powell, who eventually became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. The author highlights both the successes and failures of his subject, revealing a human being navigating the complexities of leadership and power at the highest levels. It showcases the difficulties and consequences of decision making at the strategic level." —Military Heritage
"Colin Powell was a good soldier all his life. Trustworthy, loyal, he obeyed orders while exercising a measure of judgment and initiative within the scope of his authority. . . . Powell’s judgment and initiative went only so far, Jeffrey Matthews writes in his biography. . . . Matthews examines Powell’s formative experience and finds the key to his success as well as his limitations." —Shepherd Express
"The consummate general, national security advisor, Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State and Patriot is profiled and on full display in Matthews’ work. Well-researched and full of rich detail, the book seems to be a balanced, albeit critical, review of Powell’s 40+ years of service. . . . Matthews makes note of Powell’s followership as an ‘assistant’ and ‘deputy’ in many of his duties throughout his career, contributing to why he was a great leader. Yet ultimately, even the best leaders make mistakes and are fallible, and we can all learn from that." —Brigadier General Chad Manske, Commandant of the National War College
"A captivating and balanced story of Powell’s remarkable career, and of what we can learn from both his good and bad followership. . . . The book is of special interest to readers of military history, political biography, and leadership." —Northern Kentucky Tribune
“Jeffrey Matthews . . . offers a well-constructed, well-written . . . biography of Colin Powell, who was born in 1937 and remained a popular public figure long after his retirement from government in 2005. . . . Powell comes alive in these pages.” —Law and Liberty
“Jeffrey Matthews’ Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot is a thorough biography of Powell. . . . Relying on government documents and first-hand accounts, including a four-hour interview with Powell, Matthews presents a chronological appraisal of Powell’s life that is comprehensively researched and readable.” —The VVAA Veteran
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.