Powell balances loyalty, integrity

April 02, 2003|By Ira Chaleff

MANY PEOPLE I have spoken with feel they have taken a roller coaster ride with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

First he was their shining hope for steering the Bush administration away from its ideological, go-it-alone foreign policy. Then he was a turncoat carrying the administration's impure water. They are confused by this seemingly 180-degree turn and feel immensely disappointed, if not betrayed.

But is it fair to think that a mature individual such as Mr. Powell, whose thoughtfulness engenders hope and confidence in both us and world leaders, would behave as wildly inconsistently as the surface picture suggests? Is there another, deeper organizing principle to his thoughts and actions that can help us make sense of his behavior?

I think so. It's a concept I call courageous followership.

The term "follower" has derogatory connotations in our culture. But the one thing leaders require are followers. You can't laud leadership and disparage the act of following. What distinguishes courageous followers is that they energetically support their leaders but also constructively engage them about their policies or style when these appear counterproductive.

Mr. Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has built his career on understanding leadership and followership. He has earned trust and promotions from the highest-ranked military officers. In turn, he has earned the loyalty of the officers and troops below him and broad admiration from civilians. What is it that he knows about the leader-follower relationship that makes him so successful at both ends of these relationships?

Fundamentally, he knows two things: integrity and loyalty. While each characteristic is critical, paradoxically, at times they conflict. So Mr. Powell must have learned something about managing the tension between them.

First, integrity.

Several months ago, Mr. Powell found himself nearly isolated from the Bush team's inner circle, a lone voice maneuvering for a multilateral approach to Iraq. The wags were predicting his resignation or demise. He knew that despite the drawn knives around him, he had to speak the truth he saw. He found a rare window of time with President Bush and passionately made his case. His leader listened to him, altered course and approved seeking a Security Council vote on enforcing U.N. resolutions on Iraq.

Now the ball was in Mr. Powell's court to make work the tactics he had pushed. He successfully managed the unanimous Security Council vote for Resolution 1441. Beyond that, however, he was not able to wrest a productive outcome from his strategy. I will not analyze how much of this is attributable to Mr. Bush's swaggering style and fixed ideas, how much responsibility lies at the doorstep of the French or others and how much is attributable to Mr. Powell for not engaging in more energetic shuttle diplomacy. The bottom line is that he could not deliver what his leader wanted with the course he had sold him.

Enter loyalty.

Mr. Powell's leader had been loyal to him, giving him a chance to make his multilateral approach work. Now Mr. Powell had to decide whether to be loyal in turn to his leader, who insisted on moving forward without wide multilateral support.

From the paradigm of integrity and loyalty, Mr. Powell had little choice. There is a point at which if you insist that your leader not only hear but also conform to your perspective, you are no longer following. You are challenging him for the leadership, and this will not do in most organizational forms, especially not in elected government.

Of course, Mr. Powell had the option of resigning, thus formally withdrawing his willingness to follow. But you only get to play that card once, and when you do, you abandon the field to the voices with whom you most strongly disagree. In Mr. Powell's estimation, the data, the process, the hierarchy of operating values did not produce a critical mass of disagreement at which integrity would trump loyalty and make resigning the preferred choice.

The play is not finished. There are more acts to come. We will have further opportunity to witness how Mr. Powell balances the imperatives of integrity and loyalty.

While his failures may disappoint us, his managing these juxtaposed characteristics need not confuse us. Mr. Powell is an accomplished leader. But, at least as important, he is a courageous follower. He will support his leader and, at the right moment, speak truth to power. Mr. Bush needs as many of this kind of follower around him as possible.

Ira Chaleff, a management consultant, is the author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders (Barrett-Koehler, 2003). He lives in Kensington.

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