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Colin Powell (1937–2021), four-star general and former Secretary of State

by Linnea Crowther

Colin Powell was a four-star general in the U.S. Army who went on to become National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first Black U.S. Secretary of State.

Career in Army and government

An ROTC graduate, Powell served in the Vietnam War. He was named President Ronald Reagan’s (1911–2004) National Security Advisor in 1987, serving until 1989. He then briefly served as Commander in Chief, Forces Command before being selected by President George H.W. Bush (1924–2018) as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At 52, he became the youngest JCS Chair ever appointed. Though his name came up as a possible 1992 presidential candidate, Powell declined to run, and he remained JCS Chair as President Bill Clinton’s presidency began.

Secretary of State and beyond

In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Powell as Secretary of State, and he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. As Secretary of State, Powell supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Though Powell remained out of political life after his 2004 resignation as Secretary of State, he received three electoral college votes in the 2016 presidential election from faithless electors who had pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton. Powell’s autobiography, “My American Journey,” was a best-seller.


Awards and honors

Powell was widely honored, both by the military and as a civilian. His military honors include a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Defense Distinguished Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton, the latter with distinction. He was awarded the second Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, and the Liberty Medal. The Boy Scouts of America honored him with their highest adult honor, the Silver Buffalo Award.

13 Rules of Leadership

One of Powell’s best-known legacies is the “13 Rules of Leadership” he developed. His folksy list of tips for leaders was first published in Parade magazine in 1989, then later reprinted and repurposed across all walks of life. Powell’s first rule was “It ain’t as bad as you think,” followed by wisdom including “You can’t make someone else’s choices,” “Have a vision,” and “Be careful what you choose. You may get it.”

Notable quote

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

Tributes to Colin Powell

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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