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Colin Powell Leadership Characteristics Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 20th, 2020


“I consider myself a moderate Republican. I have very, very moderate social views, and I am pretty strong on, on defense matters” (BookRags Media Network, 2011, p. 23).

This was Powell’s assertion of his life as a leader. Powell has been admired and loathed by many, perhaps because of his involvement in the American-Iraq conflict or his ability to play “fair” in the Bush administration. Powell’s nature as a moderate republican influenced the perception republicans and democrats (alike) because both parties had similar views about him (Waxman, 2005, p. 1).

Considered a high-ranking member of the Bush administration, Powell was a “fair” leader. Many people may agree or differ with this view, but this paper acknowledges that, Powell’s leadership characteristics were participative and democratic. Participative and democratic leadership has always been assumed to be the inclusion of all stakeholders in the decision-making process.

In the organizational setup, the participative style of leadership would mainly include the inclusion of employees in the decision-making processes of the organization. However, in the context of this study, the participative style of leadership will be understood within the context of an informed and multifaceted leadership style. In contrast, this leadership style can be compared to the authoritarian and the free-reign styles of leadership.

This paper explores different dynamics of Powell’s leadership characteristics. However, there is a strong focus on the extent Powell exhibited ethical behavior, political acumen, emotional intelligence, charismatic behavior, transformational leadership, and overall leadership effectiveness.

These leadership dynamics will comprehensively be used to support the arguments of this paper, but before this analogy is undertaken, an analysis of Powell’s life and accomplishments will be done. This analysis provides a thorough understanding of Powell’s transitions from an ordinary citizen to a position of enormous responsibility in the American government.

Background Summary

Colin Powell is known to be the first African-American personality to serve in the position of the Secretary of State for the US government (Waxman, 2005, p. 1). Powell was born from immigrant parents (who came from Jamaica). Certain reports however say that, Powell also has a Scottish ancestry.

Powell studied at Morris high school where he graduated with a high school diploma (in 1954) and later joined the City College of New York where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Science (Waxman, 2005, p. 3). He later pursued his postgraduate studies at the George Washington University where he graduated with a master’s degree in Business Administration.

Powell joined the US army at a cadet level (in the Reserve Officers Training Corps). In June, 1958, Powell was promoted to be a second lieutenant in the US army (Waxman, 2005). This promotion kicked of a series of other promotions which saw him scale up the ranks of the US army, through the positions of: first lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant-colonel, colonel, brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and general (respectively). These promotions occurred between 1959 and 1989 (Waxman, 2005).

Nonetheless, Powel’s influence in government started when he was appointed to be a Whitehouse fellowship under the presidency of Richard Nixon. In the early 1980s, Powell was appointed to be a senior advisor to the US department of defense, and in 1989, George W. Bush appointed him to be a Joint Chief of Staff (Waxman, 2005, p. 11).

During Powell’s service as the Joint Chief of Staff, he was involved in the decision-making process that saw the US take part in the invasion of Panama, and the Persian Gulf War. Considering Powell’s stand in these wars, he was branded the infamous name, “the reluctant warrior” (Waxman, 2005, p. 24).

Powell was branded “the reluctant warrior” because he never advocated for military intervention as the first remedy to solving international conflicts. Powell instead opted for diplomacy and containment as the primary modes of problem solving. For instance, Powell was on record to advise the US against supporting the Chilean coup d’état (in 1971) because he opted for a more inclusionary style of leadership (Waxman, 2005, p. 89).

Generally, Powell perceived his military strategy to be guided by the principles of minimizing tragedies and maximizing successes (as was seen from the Gulf war, where the war was generally perceived to be guided by the “Powell doctrine”) (Finlayson, 2003). Powell’s somewhat lukewarm approach to aggressive force forms the framework for subsequent sections of this paper because we observe that, Powell’s doctrines were largely participative and democratic.

Political Acumen

Powell’s political acumen was strongly evident in his advice to the US government about invading Iraq. At first, Powel was hesitant in supporting US’s recourse to invade Iraq because he was wary of the repercussion of invading an American country.

In an interview cited in ABC (2005), Powell is quoted to have advised the former US president, George Bush, about the consequences of invading Iraq and being the “occupiers”. In the same interview, Powell is said to have advised the US government to follow the diplomatic channel (first) before they resorted to military actions against Iraq.

Powell also admitted that, he was ready to support the war on Iraq if the president saw that the diplomatic channel of dispute resolution would not solve the Iraqi problem. It is from this argument that Powell exudes political acumen because he is conscious of the repercussion of invading Iraq by advised the US government against doing so.

Resolving disputes through diplomacy is a better way of solving international conflicts. Powell clearly understood so. Though wars may be waged on countries, it was Powell’s philosophy that this channel be the last recourse because it is very costly to wage war on another nation.

Powell’s political acumen was also seen in the hurricane Katrina disaster where he offered a voice of reason to all the accusations surrounding the federal government’s response to the disaster.

Generally, there was a strong perception among Americans (and more so, the African-American population) that the federal government’s slow response to facilitating evacuation efforts was racially motivated (ABC, 2005, p. 3). Powell however said that, the slow response of the federal government was occasioned by the economic struggles plaguing the people of New Orleans.

He further said that, the victims of New Orleans failed to act decisively (to warnings about hurricane Katrina) because they were not economically empowered to do so. He even stated that, for certain regions in New Orleans, one in ten families owned a car (ABC, 2005, p. 3). It was therefore impossible for such families to vacate their homes because they either lacked the means to do so, or had nowhere else to go.

Comprehensively, Powell rubbished accusations that the severity of Hurricane Katrina was caused by slow government response. Indeed, Powell’s analogy shows how he soberly assessed the Katrina disaster by laying blame where it did. Though he also hailed from the African-American descent, he never joined the call for government condemnation against the Bush administration. He assessed the disaster from a very rational point of view.

Emotional Intelligence

Powell’s emotional intelligence was seen in his admission that, he made a wrong judgment on Iraq by informing the US government and the United Nations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Since this information turned out to be false, Powell decided to take the blame for misguiding the UN and the US government that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

He did not blame his junior staff or the intelligence system for misleading him because he defended the CIA director, George Tenet, for giving him such information because he did not think it was Tenet’s intention to lie to him.

In an interview cited in ABC (2005) Powell said, he believes his wrong advise to the UN and the US tarnished his reputation because it went on record that, he made a wrong judgment of Iraq. He admitted that, “Of course it will. It’s a blot. I am the one who presented it for the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now” (ABC, 2005, p. 3). This admission exudes Powell’s emotional intelligence

Ethical Behavior

Powell’s ethical behavior was put to the test when there were accusations that he supported the Iraq war, based on his loyalty to the Bush administration (and not because of his personal ethics). During the time, there were calls for him to resign because the Iraq war turned out to be very messy and costly (ABC, 2005, p. 3). However, Powell did not heed to these calls because he did not want to be seen as a coward (ABC, 2005, p. 3).

He admitted to the ABC news network that he did not want to be thought as a coward for supporting a war; whereby, if things got messy, he backed out (ABC, 2005, p. 3). The moral dilemma here was his resignation, because of the extent of the damages that the Iraq war caused, but he decided to stay the course because he knew he the going would be rough.

Powell’s decision to retain his position was unethical because he decided to support the Iraq war, though the support for the war was increasingly unpopular among the American public. Moreover, the war caused a lot of damages, including the loss of lives and a deficit on the US federal budget.

It was unethical for Powell to retain his position as the secretary of state when the Iraq war had accrued a lot of damages since it was his responsibility as a leader to take political responsibility for the war (especially considering he had guided the government to take action against Iraq because it possessed weapons of mass destruction). As mentioned in earlier sections of this study, this turned out not to be true.

Nonetheless, Powell’s ethical stand regarding the Iraq war emphasizes the thesis of this paper because his decision shows that, though Powell was largely perceived to be reluctant and “passive”, he was also quite adamant and aggressive in wading off attempts to make him resign.

This level of persistence shows Powell’s ability to withstand negative pressures that often surround leaders. More importantly, it shows another side of Powell that negatively contrasted with his critics’ opinion that he was a passive leader (or one who could not rise up to the occasion when he was challenged to). However, his action (to stay in office) reinforces the view that, Powell was a reluctant warrior; only that, his reluctance was evident in his hesitation to step down.

Charismatic Leadership and Powell’s Effectiveness

Powell’s charisma in the US politics and in international diplomacy stretches across various domestic and international issues. However, in the US, Powell’s charisma was strongly evident in his ability to garner support from republicans and democrats (Finlayson, 2003).

The democrats liked him because they believed he had a moderate political view on various national issues, including military matters. The republicans liked him because he was one of their own and because he was an asset to the success of various republican administrations (Finlayson, 2003).

His ability to secure the support of both democrats and republicans emanated from his charisma in the political field. His charisma was greatly admired from both political factions, and as history would judge, it is not easy to secure the support of both democrats and republicans (at the same time).

However, Powell was successful in doing so. In fact, in 1992, Powell was voiced as a potential candidate for the democrat vice president nominee (Finlayson, 2003, p. 45). This support (from the democratic side) set him to replace Dan Quayle as the potential vice president nominee for the 1992 presidential election.

However, Powell declined to take up the challenge and instead declared his support for the republican wing of government, which saw him support John McCain as the republican nominee. The former president, George Bush, however won the republican nomination and Powell shifted his support to Bush. This drastic shift in allegiance shift shows Powell’s flexibility in politics because he was able to shift his allegiance in a moment’s notice.

Nonetheless, Powell’s aggressive participation in the republican elections (through his support for republican nominees) shows his participative leadership style. His allegiance to the Republican Party and his support for Bush resulted in his appointment as the secretary of state.

Through Powell’s declared support for the Republican Party; his charisma and moderate stance on political issues pleased many republicans, thereby prompting some legislators to suggest his election as the 1996 republican presidential candidate. His election would have seen former president Clinton lose his opportunity to be the US president.

The possibility of Powell defeating Bush was very real because hypothetical elections done in New Hampshire (and some states in the US) showed that, he beat Clinton 50-38 (Finlayson, 2003). This hypothetical election was a mirror to the New Hampshire vote which saw Powell win the vice-presidential primaries. However, Powell declined to take up the challenge and declared that, he lacked a passion for politics.

His reluctance to participate in the 1996 elections reinforces the assumption that, Powell was a very reluctant leader because his odds of winning the vice president’s ticket, or even standing up as a good opponent to former president, Bill Clinton, was high. With a strong political support from his republican nominees and the split conservative vote that prevailed in Iowa (then) would have seen Powell stand a good chance of winning the vice president’s nomination, if not the presidential elections of 1996.

As the secretary of state, Powell’s role in the US government was very important because of the war on terrorism and the importance of the US in forging international partnerships to fight the war against terrorism.

Though Powell’s term as the secretary of state saw him travel less frequently than other individuals who had been in the same position (for the last 30 years); Powell’s influence in the Bush administration was very effective. In fact, his influence in the Bush administration is attributed to be the main factor that saw America look for international partners to wage the war against terrorism (Finlayson, 2003, p. 23).

Powell is attributed to be the main force behind Bush’s attempt to push America’s agenda through the UN (to fight terrorism). Powell was opposed to the idea of America’s invasion of the Middle-east (from a unilateral approach). Considering America pursued a comprehensive approach to fight terrorism (that included the inclusion of NATO forces such as Britain), we can agree that, Powell’s leadership style was very effective.

Furthermore, Powell’s strong charisma in the United Nations (UN) saw him convince the UN that a military action was appropriate for the Iraq case. Powell’s ability to prevail on the UN (to grant military action against Iraq) was recorded in a plenary session of the UN (in 2003), where he successfully convinced the UN that Saddam was producing nuclear weapons which could destabilize global security (Finlayson, 2003).

UN’s acceptance of the military action was attributed to Powell’s oratory speech, though some sections of the UK press faulted his speech because some of its sections were based on unreliable sources. Nonetheless, the US government highly relied on Powell’s charisma to sell US’s agenda to the UN, which he successfully managed to do.

Powell’s charisma was his main tool for convincing the UN that the US needed to go to war. To further strengthen the argument that Powell was a “reluctant/moderate” leader; he was spared from all the condemnation that the Bush administration received for taking the decision to go to war with Iraq.

The American public (and critics) allocated more blame to other officials in the Bush administration (compared to Powell) because they believed Powell adopted a moderate stand on the war. Also, his commitment to pursue diplomatic partnership in the war painted Powell in a positive light because his ideology was less aggressive than many critics would believe.

Powell’s push to pursue an international approach to the Iraqi conflict also affirms the perception that Powell’s leadership style was participatory. Leaders who pursue the participatory style of leadership always observe respect and the engagement of all stakeholders involved in an issue.

In this regard, Powell was able to build more diversity in the Iraq war and equally, he was able to create a sense of shared responsibility among all members of the alliance forces who took part in the Iraq war. From this understanding, Powell’s leadership style seemed more advanced and sustainable because it was more democratic than other leadership styles (and it was also able to capitalize on human-to-human relationships).

Transformational Leadership

Despite the fact that, Powell served in a regime which was mainly perceived to be composed of members of the “old guard”; Powell was largely a transformational leader. Powell’s inclination to transformational leadership was evident on two fronts. The first front was his participation in the Iraq war.

Though he admitted that he made a wrong judgment of Saddam Hussein (and his weapons of mass destruction); Powell was never remorseful of the fact that, America was able to topple the Saddam regime (Finlayson, 2003). He identified that, the Saddam regime was repressive and authoritarian to the Iraqi people and Saddam needed to go. His support for a change of regime and ideology in Iraq is an indication of Powell’s support for transformational leadership.

Moreover, his support for the ousting of Saddam’s regime reinforces the notion that, he was a moderate leader because on one hand, he never advocated for the aggressive removal of Saddam (through military power), but on the other hand, he supported the removal of Saddam’s regime (all the same). Powell’s leadership style is very tactical in this context because he adopted a multi-faceted approach to the Iraqi war. This approach was similar to his ability to appeal to both democrats and republicans.

The second front where Powell’s element of transformational leadership shows was in his support for president Barrack Obama (though he was a strong republican follower). In fact, there were reports suggesting that, Powell was going to be to be McCain’s running mate (ABC, 2005).

In an interview cited in ABC (2005), Powell said that, he admired McCain but he thought Obama was more of a transformational leader than McCain. He agreed with many observers that Obama was very inspirational, and he represented a new spirit in America that McCain did not. Powell cited Obama’s inclusive campaigns which sought to appeal to all members of the economic divide and across all races in America.

This style of leadership was similar to Powell’s participatory leadership style. Powell also faulted Mc Cain’s choice for Sarah Palin as his running mate because he thought it was an error of judgment on the part of Mc Cain because people knew very little of Sarah. Comprehensively, he stated that, his support for Obama was largely because he believed America needed a transformational leader.


Weighing Powell’s ideologies on leadership, we can agree that, Powell’s infamous attribute as a “reluctant” leader was true. Powell’s leadership style was very dynamic and inclusionary because he was able to appeal to opposing parties (such as the appeal to democrats and republicans). Powell’s leadership style was dynamic because he supported the goals of the American government in realizing domestic and international peace but he often differed on the methodologies of doing so.

His advocacy for an inclusionary approach to the Iraq war is one such instance where he supported the ousting of Saddam but disagreed with Bush on pursuing a unilateral military approach. Powell should therefore be perceived to be a democratic leader who was reluctant in pursuing aggressive approaches to solving international and domestic conflicts.

He should also be perceived as a transformational leader who advocated for change, regardless of if it was in his favor (such as the support of Barrack Obama who was a democratic candidate). Powell also had a lot of respect for all stakeholders (involved in various political issues) and he always had the interests of everybody at heart. These qualities made him appeal to many people (enemies and foes alike). Comprehensively, we can see that Powell was a democratic and fair leader.


ABC. (2005). Colin Powell on Iraq, Race, and Hurricane Relief. Retrieved from:

BookRags Media Network. (2011). Colin Powell Quotes. Retrieved from:

Finlayson, R. (2003). Colin Powell. New York: Twenty-First Century Books.

Waxman, L. (2005). Colin Powell. Washington: Lerner Publications.

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