Author Interviews

Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot

For the past three decades, Colin Powell has been among 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.

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, they are failures nonetheless.

Imperfect Patriot is the fascinating story of Powell’s professional life, and of what we can learn from both his good and bad followership. The book is written for a broad readership, and will be of special interest to readers of military history, political biography, and leadership.

Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot by Jeff J Matthews is a Finalist for the Best Biography of Year award by the Army Historical Foundation

What is the backstory behind your book Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot?

As an American historian and leadership scholar, I found that General Powell presented a perfect cross-disciplinary case study. And while Powell is widely seen as one of the premier leaders of his generation, in fact I determined that his effective followership was central to his rise to power and prominence. We need to think more deeply about what it means to be an exemplary subordinate.    

How has writing a book made you a better thinker and better person?

This project, which transpired over twelve years, frequently reminded me of the importance of remaining curious and open-minded. There were multiple occasions where I had to shift my perspective and my assertions in the manuscript because I uncovered new evidence that persuaded me that I held some preconceived and erroneous notions about General Powell. The book made me a better person because it reminded me how fallible we all are and how important it is that we admit our mistakes, apologize for them, and make proper amends.

Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?

I had the good fortune to interview General Powell at his home. He was very generous with his time and willingly answered my many questions, including difficult ones regarding the Bush administration’s torture program. On my way out of the interview, I told the general that there will be stark criticisms in the book that he will not like. To his credit, he told me, “Write what you think is right.” And that’s what I did.  

Was there anything that you learned about Colin Powell that surprised you?

Absolutely, many things. For example, I had no idea how extensively involved Powell was with the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal. At the time, as a major general he was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s uber loyal senior military assistant. Both men possessed knowledge of the illegal arms shipments to Iran, and they actively participated in the subsequent cover-up to protect the president and each other.

What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will take from your book?

When we think about good and bad leadership we too often focus on the leaders and not on influential followers. Nor do readily acknowledge that all leaders in the military are also followers of someone else, and that the best leader-followers are not only mission-focused, but also ethical in their means to the end.

What are you reading now?

I am reading Jeff Barlow’s Revolt of the Admirals, Thomas Wildenberg’s Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy, and Arthur Herman’s Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior. All of this is research for the first chapter of my next book Bad Generals! Ethical Failures in the U.S. Military from Benedict Arnold to David Petraeus.

What books did you read, and recommend, which influenced your thinking on leadership?

I am a true believer of transformational leadership and the classic starting point is James MacGregor Burns’ Leadership. Sosik and Jung’s Full Range Leadership Development

is a very accessible scholarly guide to becoming a transformational leader. I would add that Harry Laver’s The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant is a superb short read that reminds me of the importance grit and smart determination when faced with daunting challenges. I also recommend that people read Barbara Kellerman’s work, especially her Bad Leadership and Followership books.  

What books had the most impact on you and your development?

Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, The Autobiography of Malcom X, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Rushworth Kidder’s Moral Courage still inspire me to be a better leader, follower, and colleague.  

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Jeffrey J. Matthews is the George Frederick Jewett Distinguished Professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. He teaches American history and leadership, and has written or edited three previous books, including Blacksheep Leadership and The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell.

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