General Colin Powell: A Legacy of Leadership

Steve Adubato, PhD 

In my latest book, “Lessons in Leadership,” I wrote a chapter featuring the exceptional leadership traits of General Colin Powell. Oddly the chapter is called “Great Leaders Sometimes Piss People Off.” That pithy quote came directly from an interview I did with the late General Powell in 1998 in which I asked him about the keys to great leadership. What struck me is that he said that the best leaders must make tough decisions, including ones that will not be popular with certain team members or key stakeholders, because the leader believes that particular decision is best for the team or organization. General Powell argued that many leaders are either unable or unwilling to make those difficult decisions, whether in the military or in any type of organization. Often, these leaders fail or fall short because the need to be liked or to be popular is such a high priority. Their fear of “pissing people off” is so great that they simply don’t lead in the way that is best for their team.  Some people call this being nice, but I call it being weak.  

I often talk about General Powell in my leadership seminars conducted through our firm, “Stand & Deliver,” and I’ve thought a great deal about him, especially since his passing. While my provocative book chapter title about “pissing people off” is memorable, what I remember and admire most about General Powell goes well beyond this. From every indication, General Powell was that rare leader who combined a well-earned sense of confidence with a genuine degree of humility, empathy, and compassion for others. He also exhibited a passion for excellence and the highest standards of performance for himself and everyone on his team.  

The interview I conducted with him was about a national volunteerism “giving back” initiative that he was heading up at the time. He clearly cared about others, particularly inner-city, often minority, children who face so many challenges, largely because of their zip code. Remember, General Powell was raised in the Bronx and was, in fact, one of those kids who faced such adversity and was able to achieve so much against the odds.  

But beyond his compassion for others, it was General Powell’s integrity and character that stood out. Consider when he publicly and very clearly took responsibility for the failure of his February 2003 United Nations’ testimony in which he emphatically, and with great clarity, claimed that Iraq and Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” – which was largely the justification for the United States going to war at the time. General Powell trusted a variety of government intelligence and military agencies and their conclusions which, ultimately, were proven to be false. They were simply wrong. There were no weapons of mass destruction that were ever found. In turn, the premise of the U.S. going to war in Iraq was faulty and illegitimate.

But while so many leaders – particularly in public life – point fingers, make excuses, scapegoat, and deflect, that’s the opposite of what General Powell did. In fact, he stood up and said HE was wrong, and HE was responsible for accepting those intelligence reports without questioning or challenging them more aggressively. He trusted but acknowledged that he did not verify to the degree he should have.  In spirt of this, he pointed no fingers and blamed no one else. Just think about how rare that is for leaders of any stripe. 

Consider former President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the horrific insurrection at the United States Capitol that took place on January 6, in spite of his speech leading up to it and his inaction while it was occurring. Or, President Joe Biden’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the debacle of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as Americans and Afghans who supported the U.S. remain stuck in that chaotic country and clearly in harm’s way. These are just two notable examples of our current and past presidents falling woefully short as leaders because they simply refused to or were incapable of taking responsibility and owning their actions when things around them had gone terribly wrong.  I could be wrong, but I have a strong sense that if General Colin Powell were in fact our president, he would have led in a very different way.  

So, while we remember General Powell for his many accomplishments, what I admire most about him is that he was the kind of leader who took full responsibility for his actions, words and mistakes. This type of leader shouldn’t be so rare, but obviously is.  So, thank you, General Powell, for all you did for our country and the standard you set for all leaders who must do better and be better, particularly those leaders in public service who have falsely concluded that taking responsibility or admitting one’s own mistakes is somehow a sign of weakness, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Rest in peace, General Powell, you left a legacy of leadership for all of us to follow.