Jeff Matthews’ interest in business and political leadership spans his teaching, research, board service, and writing.
His new book, Imperfect Patriot, explores the decisions, philosophy, and legacy of former Secretary of State and retired four-star Gen. Colin Powell. For Jeff, the George F. Jewett Distinguished Professor in Puget Sound’s School of Business and Leadership, the biography represents the culmination of 14 years of research.
Using a leadership/followership framework, Imperfect Patriot is a nuanced and principled deep dive into Powell’s renowned career in military leadership.
Q: What originally sparked your interest in Colin Powell as a public figure?
A: I started thinking about General Powell while I was writing a previous book about leadership in the military. Part of it was because Powell is such a popular person and, I would argue, probably the most influential military-political figure in the United States since the end of the Cold War. I knew there would be an audience for a book about him and that people would be interested in learning more. I also had the idea of using Powell as a case study to teach about leadership and followership concepts at the same time.
Q: What do you mean by leadership and followership concepts?
A: Throughout his service in the Army, Powell proved himself to be an impressive leader. Yet it was his effective followership that was even more essential to his rise to national and international prominence. Throughout his career, Powell was always somebody’s subordinate or advisor. Even while serving as national security advisor, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as secretary of state, Powell’s duties were to provide expert counsel to his superiors and execute their decisions. As a result, his career presents a revealing case study of followership and its central role in the leadership process.
Q: What was the research process like for this book?
A: I worked on it off and on for about 14 years. The research was a combination of going to places like presidential libraries and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and then reading primary and secondary sources, like biographies and autobiographies, about Powell and his contemporaries. I received Powell’s permission to use his private papers, which are in the National Defense University libraries. It was also interesting that, as I was writing the book, Powell's emails got hacked by the Russians, so I had access to a couple of years of his private emails, which was really unique. And I was able to interview Powell at his house for about four hours, so that certainly was a career highlight.
Q: What was it like interviewing Powell in his home?
A: It was a great experience. I could tell we hit it off early on. He had known about some of my previous work, which was very positive about him. He actually had one of my books next to his table when I came in, so I think he understood that I wasn't out to get him, so to speak, and that this could be largely favorable. His personality was exactly how we've seen him on television: extremely charming, extremely kind, extremely smart, very coherent, articulate, and funny. I think the more we talked about things and the more he could see how detailed my level of knowledge of the topics we were discussing was, the more respect he had for me, and that just kept us going and going.
Q: Have you heard from Powell since the book was published?
A: I haven't, and I'm a little bit surprised because I've written some other op-eds recently (in The Hill and The Seattle Times) that have criticisms of him. The book was only published two months ago, and hasn’t had a major review yet. If that were to happen, it might spark a reaction of self-defense, and that might be when I hear from him.
Q: How do you balance teaching, writing, traveling, your board service with an alumni-founded gaming software firm, etc.?
A: As I tell my students, it's about time management, discipline, and work ethic. I really manage my calendar in terms of allotting certain days or certain weeks to these various subsets of my life. When we're in the semester at the university, teaching is certainly the priority, and that's always got to be predominant over everything else. In the summer, it switches. When I'm not teaching, then the research becomes predominant. It's about finding that balance and also creating time for relaxation. That’s key, too, but even that's planned.
Q: What's your next big project?
A: The working title of the next book is Bad Generals. In the last five years, there's been over a hundred American generals or admirals who have been disciplined, demoted, or even jailed after being fired. There seems to be a crisis of leadership at that level, so I'm writing this book to show there is a contemporary problem in the military, but it's not new; there's also a historical backdrop to these kinds of problems. It's looking at people at the general officer rank and examining the different ways they've gone awry and the different kinds of misconduct.
By Zach Powers
Photos by Sy Bean
Published June 18, 2019