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Leadership Resource Group

Colin Powell and Situational Leadership

About Us
Emotional Intelligence
Leadership Qualities
Managing Change
Situational Leadership Theory
Servant Leadership Theory


Colin Powell is one of the most admired Americans, a leader whose prestige transcends party and ideology (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). He is one of the greatest military leaders the United States has ever had and has influenced the lives of many Americans.


Colin Powell History


Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem in 1937. After moving to New York to study, he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and ended up graduating with the highest rank, a cadet colonel, and the top of the class (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). Even in his early years of life, Powell was showing the qualities that would one day make him a great leader.


Powell was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army, and in 1963, Lieutenant Powell was wounded by a punji-stick booby trap (a number of spikes in the ground covered for camouflage) while patrolling the Vietnamese border (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Powell served a second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968-69. During this second tour he was injured in a helicopter crash and despite his own injuries, he managed to rescue his comrades from the burning helicopter and was awarded the Soldier's Medal (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). Over the course of his duty, he earned 11 decorations. Powell led by example when in the field to gain the trust and confidence of his troops.


Powell was assigned to the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of President Nixon. Powell also served the same role under President Reagan (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). In the administration of President Carter, Powell was an assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). He was promoted to Major General. Powell then served as assistant commander and deputy commander of infantry divisions in Colorado and Kansas before returning to Washington to become senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006).


In 1991, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bush, Powell became a national figure during the successful Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations which expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). He became a celebrated leader for the achievements of these two operations. General Powell continued as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the first months of the Clinton administration (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). Powell retired from the military shortly after and returned to private life and concentrated for the next few years on his work with young people (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006).


In 2001, newly elected President George W. Bush appointed Powell to be Secretary of State but shortly after President Bush's re-election in 2004, Powell announced his intention to step down as Secretary of State (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). Powell’s main weakness, the fact that he is a reluctant diplomat, forced him to step down from this job.


Colin Powell has chosen to present and develop his leadership skills in the military arena. From an early age in the training camp, he showed he is able to lead and has endeavored to ever since. His drive to become a leader came from his parents. He was the son of Jamaican immigrants who stressed the importance of education and personal achievement (America’s Premier Soldier-Statesman, 2006). He wanted to ‘make his parents proud’ of him so he worked hard to achieve the best.




Traits are defined as a trait or characteristic that is observable both within and outside work (Durbin, et. al. 2006). There have been studies carried out to find exactly what characteristics make a good or great leader. Figure 1 illustrates the traits of a good leader. Although it does not take all of these traits to be an effective leader, most of the leaders studied had a number of these traits. The success of the leadership also depends on the situation and style of leadership.


Colin Powell possesses a number of these traits or characteristics. Being a military leader, some of these traits are a must have characteristic. He needs to be trustworthy with the men and women he is leading so they are able to follow his orders with the knowledge he is looking out for them. He also needs to be trustworthy with the American public so they can trust the decisions he makes to protect the United States citizens.


He also needs to be, and is, assertive and confident. As a leader of many people in life threatening situations, Powell needs to be confident that the decisions he is making are in the best interest of his troops. He also needs to have confidence in himself to make the right decisions and stand by these decisions. Assertiveness is another trait that Powell possesses. Powell needs to be assertive when expressing his opinion on behalf of his troops and also when he is giving orders.


Powell has shown he possesses warmth in his leadership lessons. He has said “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems are the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care” (Colin Powell, 1996).


Powell also possesses enthusiasm. This is an aspect which can have a large effect on the troops following Powell. Group members respond positively to enthusiasm (Durbin, et. al. 2006). If Powell was not enthusiastic about what he is doing then the troops will notice this and trust levels may fall. This can also put the troops lives at risk as if they are not enthusiastic about going into battle then they can not only risk their own life but also the lives of the soldiers around them.


Another trait Powell possesses is a high tolerance for frustration. High tolerance for frustration is the ability to cope with the blocking of goal attainment (Durbin, et. al. 2006). It is often the way in warfare that things don’t always go according to plan or plans go wrong. It is important for Powell to ‘keep his cool’ in these times of high frustration to find solutions to problems or provide the right orders. He must not let his emotions dictate his next decision. This leads to Powell also being emotional stable. If he let his emotions get the best of him, he may make decisions that are not in the best interests of his troops and the American people.


Leadership style


These traits that Powell has displayed have contributed to leadership style. Powell was once quoted saying “Fit no stereotypes. Don't chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team's mission” (Colin Powell, 1996). This shows that Powell believes there is no one best way to lead a team, but that you must be able to change your style to suit the situation. This, straight away, points in the direction of the situational leadership® style.


The Hersey – Blanchard Situational Leadership® model explains how to match the leadership style to the readiness of the group members (Durbin, et. al. 2006). It explains that the best style to use depends on the situation and the skills and capabilities of the team members. Figure 1 (bottom of page) in 'illustrates models' shows the four quadrants.


The directing quadrant is the high task – low relationship quadrant (Durbin, et. al. 2006). Communication in this quadrant is largely one-way as the leader defines that task for the followers and then supervise them closely (What is Situational Leadership? Description, 2007). Powell used this quadrant often as he gave orders for his troops to follow.


The coaching quadrant is the high task – high relationship quadrant (Durbin, et. al. 2006). Leaders still define the roles and tasks but communication is much more two way (What is Situational Leadership? Description, 2007). This shows that the leader in this quadrant is interested in feedback and ideas from the team. Powell would have used this style mostly when he was in the war zone with his troops. He would have given orders but would have also looked for information from his troops on various occasions. They may see or know something he does not and sometimes it could mean the difference between life and death.


The Supporting quadrant is the low task – high relationship quadrant (Durbin, et. al. 2006). This is when the leader facilitates and makes the decisions, but control is with the follower (What is Situational Leadership? Description, 2007). This is exactly as it is described; the leader is largely there for support and motivation. This is another style Powell would have regularly used. This style would have mostly been used on the training field to see if the soldiers were able to take control if needed. Powell would have provided motivation most of the time, no matter what setting.


Last but not least, the delegating quadrant is the low task – low relationship quadrant (Durbin, et. al. 2006). The leader in this quadrant is still involved with decision making and problem solving, but control is with the follower and the follower decides how and when the leader should be involved (What is Situational Leadership? Description, 2007). This is one leadership style that Powell would not have used much, if at all. It is important for a military leader to be in control and included on all aspects of what the plan is.




Colin Powell is today one of the most admired and popular American leaders. His service for his country is second to none and also for African Americans. He has developed his leadership skills in the military arena and has used many different styles over his career. These skills and characteristics have contributed to the leader he has become. 


Illustrated Model

Figure 1: Situational Leadership Model