Colin Powell and the Great Man Syndrome – Re-published 18 October 2021 on the occasion of Powell’s death.

The Angel of Death

My closest adviser (wife) coined the phrase, “The Great Man Syndrome.”  (GMS)  She has the habit of watching the great or semi-great for signs of the appearance of this often fatal malady.  The disease is characterized by imagined indispensability and an inclination toward a reappearance in the adult victim of the “Fallacy of Centrality.”

This fallacy is usually found in the emotionally immature and consists of a belief in one’s centrality in all situations, indeed, in the universe as perceived by the sufferer.

In the “Great Man Syndrome,” itself there is manifested a complete unwillingness to remove oneself from the central action (whatever it is), no matter how foolish this action may be as well as the expectation that one’s opinions will be accepted as infallibly correct simply because they are the “Great Man’s” thoughts.

This point of view is oddly reminiscent of Berkeley’s argument in philosophy that all that is seen is an illusion created by the imaginer with the implication that since the imaginer is the creator, then the imaginer can not remove himself from a central role. 

A vulnerability to GMS is one of the prices paid for power.  Many are afflicted and it does not require a lot of power to be vulnerable.  Just a tiny bit of power will do. 

This article about Colin Powell is a “puzzlement.”  Here is the case of a wise and great man (perhaps “dimly wise and rudely great” but, nevertheless..) who, I think, could have been president of the United States and who, with seemingly unwavering determination threw himself under the wheels of a bus. (rhetorical flourish) 

Powell knew that “W” was out if his depth as president.  He had to know that.  He must have known that the “Vulcans” were successfully tutoring his boss on the subject of “the world.”  Powell certainly knew that the imagined connections of AQ to the Iraqi government were false.  He clearly doubted the whole tissue of falsehood surrounding the WMD “pitch.”  (Wolfie’s description)

If I am correct about this, then why on earth did he go up to New York to the UN to smear shit all over the memory of his service?  Why?

The answer given to me by my bag of analytic tools is that he just could not remove himself from the action.  He was a victim of GMS.

I urge anyone who thinks that he/she may be afflicted by this deadly illness to stand before a mirror at least once a day and repeat several times –


Pat Lang

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37 Responses to Colin Powell and the Great Man Syndrome – Re-published 18 October 2021 on the occasion of Powell’s death.

  1. Babak Makkinejad says:

    In Archaic Greek religion, the worth of a man was measured by the extent by which he could participate in cosmic (in the sense of the Greeks) events. Thus the Greek heroes who strove with gods were “alive” only during those periods which percipitated great events and upheavals. The syndrome that you describe is a legacy of that type of thinking; be the King for one night that a shmuck all your life.

    • LeaNder says:

      If that’s you, the unlikely expert on ancient civilizations, glad you are still around. You may have left out whatever item here. Rather than a schmuck? Curious choice though.

  2. john siscoe says:

    I think you’ve touched a truth about Colin Powell. There is something especially poisonous about the air that lingers in the corridors of power; it simultaneously swells the head and shrinks the brain. Excellent site, by the way.

  3. J says:

    it had to be the bushie koolaide that made him doo doo it. the only other possible reason is he decided to dribble his brains instead of using them.
    beyond that, haven’t a clue as to what (if any) he was thinking.

  4. taters says:

    Well put and great advice. My “closest advisor” has the ability to take the wind out of my sails by simply repeating what I said while under the influence of GMS with a sweet smile. She knows I get that. It was a great relief to discover that I no longer had to run the universe…your wife sounds like an absolute gem. Thanks for sharing this with us, Col. – and it seems to me the most plausible explanation. I had gone with the “he was being a good soldier” or that Tenet “pulled a fast on him” explanation(s).
    GMS makes the most sense.

  5. jonst says:

    I don’t see anything in his career that makes him a “great man”. Or even remotely so. In fact just the opposite. His Vietnam history? Supported the “drain the swamp” theory. As well, ask him why he did not speak directly with Tom Glen. Iran Contra? Shaky and murky role there too. He got his ticket punched there for once and all. Plame affair? Who knows what Armitage was up to. But I figure he didn’t stray too far from his boss. His chief of staff Wilkerson either has more guts, or more integrity than Powell. Take your pick. No, wait a minute that is not fair. I think Powell has guts. But is Wilkerson speaking for Powell because he can’t speak out? I doubt it. Then he has, I would argue, more integrity. Powell’s letter to Bush on the torture issue? He earned my begrudging respect there. Nah….I don’t see him as great man at all. I see him as a cautious, cautious, ‘team player’. One who was brillant at knowing which way the wind was blowing. Oh, last thing, I did respect his position at the GOP convention where he stood up and told them he supported positions most delegates did not support. He wants to be a great man? Let him take down Bush for once and for all and in doing so rescue the military and perhaps, the nation. It is within his power. One 60 minutes interview could do the trick if Powell told the truth of who this ‘cabal’ is. Like Wilkerson did. I’m betting he would smile at me naively if he heard this suggestion. I would smile back at him….sadly, and ask him “exactly who is naive here?”.

  6. FB says:

    In your Fools or Liars string I had nominated Powell as the biggest fool of them all. I beg to differ about his being “wise”; I think he is a dimwit. A prime example of the turbocharged manner in which the Peter Principle works in the military: people don’t just stop at their level of imcompetence, they get propelled several rungs higher.
    He joined the administration quite convinced he was going to run things. When he began to get trumped by Cheney-Rumsfeld, he probably thought this was just temporary, any day now the President would recognize his sterling qualities and turn to him. It was this hope that tempted him to make that Security Council presentation; he was imagining his return in triumph to the Oval Office to sit at Bush’s right hand.
    He doesn’t need to look in the mirror; all he has to do is run the video of his UN speech. Unfortunately, he is dim enough that he still doesn’t get it!

  7. clio says:

    Col. Lang,
    From reading your blog I already know that you are well-informed and analytical. Now it it clear that you are wise also, for it a wise man who listens well to his wife!
    My grandfather had his own version of GMS, applicable to us ordinary folk. Whenever anyone in the family was getting a bit too full of themselves he would mutter, “I’ll just get a bucket…”
    If you aren’t familiar with the folk saying to which it refers this poem states it nicely. [money excerpt]
    Take a bucket and fill it with water,
    Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
    Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
    Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

    Even so Powell’s self-immolation still seems almost inexplicable, especially since he had to have seen that with Bush loyalty and obligation flow only one way.
    Do you think he truly realized the terrible disservice he was doing to this country, its armed forces, and its future? Or was he blinded to even that?

  8. Matthew says:

    Didn’t De Gaulle say that the cemetaries were full of indispensible men?

  9. Tuli says:

    Dear Colonel:
    As regards the GMS, I understand it well. I cried when I saw Powell stand in front of the U.N. and blatantly lie to the World about “evidence” that had already been widely discredited. I also remember the scene in Crawford when Bush announced Powell as his choice for Secretary of State. As the assembled turned and left the presser Powell extended his hand to Alma, his prescient wife, and she pulled her hand away. This was for me a very telling moment which I recalled on that fateful day at the U.N.
    If only he had listened to her as you listen to your “closest advisory.”
    As someone who, back in the day, was often called upon to be the “expert” for the MSM I know how random and often this designation is just like the GMS. God bless those who are able to look in that “Mirror” and see the truth and fallacy of the GMS and “expert pundits.”
    We were all in the right place at the right time.
    So, when the General was in the right place at the right time and could have done the right thing for this Nation he let the World down.
    How sad a legacy!
    Thank you for all of your contributions. You are invaluable.

  10. Chris Bray says:

    Ahh, and then we get to this question: Who else has GMS, right now, in the highest ranks of government? Who else could resign, speak out of school, raise a stink, expose some reality to the light, if they could just imagine themselves without stars on their shirt or some civilian equivalent?
    Which I guess leads to the second question, which has to do with GMS and the principled resignation. David Hackworth was a distinguished warrior who resigned in disgust, raged against the “perfumed princes,” fought against the corrosive effects of GMS and its related diseases — and kind of seemed to think of himself as a great central player in the drama, too. GMS against GMS? (Beats me, and if anyone posting here actually knew the man…)
    But it does seem that it takes a certain amount of GMS to, say, go before Congress as a retired general officer and say that the secretary of defense isn’t as smart as you are. Never mind that it’s probably true — the point is that it takes some healthy self-regard to think that, hey, I’m the one who has to step in front of this train.

  11. pbrownlee says:

    Perhaps the most indispensable public official in history (and now conspicuously absent for the Great and the Good) was the slave who reminded triumphant Roman generals of their own mortality (and maybe helped avert the Evil Eye — Mala Fortuna — who seems to be in overdrive lately):
    “He was attired in a gold embroidered robe (toga picta) and flowered tunic (tunica palmata), he bore in his right hand a laurel bough (Plut. Paull. 34),º and in his left a sceptre (Dionys. v.47; Val. Max. iv.4 §5), his brows were encircled with a wreath of Delphic laurel (Plin. H.N. xv.38, 39), in addition to which, in ancient times, his body was painted bright red (Plin. H.N. xxiii.36). He was accompanied in his chariot by his children of tender years (Liv. xlv.40; Tac. Ann. ii.41), and sometimes by very dear or highly honoured friends (Dion Cass. li.16, lxiii.20), while behind him stood a public slave holding over his head a golden Etruscan crown ornamented with jewels (Plin. H.N. xxxiii.4, Plin. H.N. xxviii.7; Zonar. vii.21). The presence of a slave in such a place at such a time seems to have been intended to avert “invidia” and the influence of the evil eye, and for the same purpose a fascinum, a little bell, and a scourge were attached to the vehicle (Plin. H.N. xxviii.7; Zonar. vii.21). Tertullian (Apol. 33) tells us, that the slave ever and anon whispered in the ear of the Imperator the warning words “Respice post te, hominem memento te,” and this statement is copied by Zonaras (l.c.), but is not confirmed by any earlier writer. Isidorus (xviii.2), misunderstanding Pliny (Plin. H.N. xxviii.7), imagines that the slave in question was a common executioner.”*/Triumphus.html
    Painting the body bright red seems a tradition worth restoring…

  12. zanzibar says:

    I was quite excited when Colin Powell spoke at the Republican convention and expected him to run for President and would very likely have voted for him. I completely lost respect for the man after his UN presentation and for not standing up to the neo-con falsehoods.
    I have come to the conclusion that Powell was a just a classic “political” bureaucrat that played ball and moved with the prevailing winds to get where he got. He had an opportunity to be his own man and stand for what he believed but he could not unshackle the means by which he got his position. As a result he got swept by the tide of the more potent Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal.

  13. ali says:

    Wilkerson describes a fevered 72 hours before the speech spent at Langley trying to find less laughable evidence than the OSP had manufactured. It was only as Powell spoke in front of the UN that Wilkerson found some perspective and realized how achingly thin it still was.
    I suspect there is some truth in this tale. However while there was reason to doubt Saddam was sincerely obeying UN sanctions there was never a good case that he had a nuclear program or the ability or intent to use the tactical battlefield WMD he was assumed to have retained beyond Iraq’s borders.
    The impact of this leaden, assertion filled and fact light speech was interesting. At the UN it embarrassingly failed to convince and the global media rapidly poked holes in it. What I find baffling is so many in the supposedly GOP hostile US press eagerly swallowed it whole and a large part. Were WaPo, NYT et al suckered by Powell’s statesmanly gravitas, or as they say in Whitehall “Bottom”? Perhaps GMS is a brain rotting STD caused by over eager sucking on the hind tit of power?
    And what of Tony Blair? If Powell has primary GMS Blair has the gibbering tertiary version. There is no better explanation for his need to snuffle at the tradesman entrance of the President.

  14. Will says:

    PBROWNLEE left me hanging but then there’s google and wikipedia
    “Respice post te, hominem memento te”
    “In ancient Rome, the phrase is said to have been used on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets of Rome. Standing behind the victorious general was a servant, and he had the task of reminding the general that, though he was up on the peak today, tomorrow was another day. The servant did this by telling the general that he should remember that he was mortal, i.e. “Memento mori”, although it is more likely that the servant said “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!” (Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!) as Tertullian has written in chapter 33 of his work Apologeticus. ”
    With respect to Powell with whom I had lost all respect, he misplaced the loyalty owed No. 41 who had promoted him to his worthless scion, the black sheep of the Bush family who became to our misfortune No. 43.
    Staying w/ the Roman theme, such was the misplaced loyalty of the Roman generals who transferred their allegiance from Marcus Aurellius
    to his worthless son the Gladiator (Russel Crowe Movie)
    Bush’s memory will be damned in the future
    Best Wishes

  15. The Heretik says:

    Soldier On

    Soldier off in retirement comes back to detail how he was chained by command. When the story of the debacle in Iraq gets told many years hence, a special place will be reserved for Colin Powell who knew better on everything, but did nothing on anythi…

  16. John in LA says:

    Brilliant – as usual.
    We should remember that this doesn’t always apply solely to high office holders. We’re all susceptible in one way or another.
    In my 10 years at the United Nations I saw this over and over again – and it repeatedly led to stupid, useless human slaughter (think the Balkans, Rwanda, Palestine etc.)
    A corollary to GMS are two of my favorite notions:
    –To a hammer, everything looks like a nail
    –“The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time” F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Who among us can transcend the limits of our position and posture – the details of our own circumstance that define how we see the world…and thus our actions?
    A very rare talent…and it comes along, in Big Politicos…perhaps once in a lucky generation…

  17. Duncan Kinder says:

    This point of view is oddly reminiscent of Berkeley’s argument in philosophy that all that is seen is an illusion created by the imaginer with the implication that since the imaginer is the creator, then the imaginer can not remove himself from a central role.
    According to the latest edition of the New Yorker, string theory seems to posit something like that.

  18. Grimgrin says:

    As a major with the Americal division in Vietnam Colin Powell was charged with investigating allegations that abuses were being comitted against Vietnamese civilians. He returned a report that described good conditions existing between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, and he did it six months after the Mail Lai massacare. I should stress here that the complaint he was investigating did not mention Mai Lai, and that I haven’t found any evidance that he actively participated in a coverup as many people allege.
    I’m just reminded of this whenever people talk about his speech to the UN. I think that whatever tragic flaw Powell does have, wether it be GMS, an excess of loyalty or a willingness to go along to get along, it was with him from the first to the last of his career.

  19. Arun says:

    Would a loyal-to-principles-rather-than-to-people Colin Powell have risen all the way to Secretary of State?

  20. tony s says:

    Col. Lang,
    Ms. Lang qualifies as FL (First Lady) –

  21. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Berkeley and “string theory,” What a great thought. A physicist friend had pointed out the same thing to me. pl

  22. pbrownlee says:

    I wearied people in 2000 by “cynically” observing that the only people who should decently welcome a “W” presidency were descendants of Warren Gamaliel Harding who might now see the “worst ever” mantle shift. I now think I gravely underestimated the gravity of the situation but it is by no means confined to the United States (where it makes most noise and has rather more damaging knock-on effects).
    There is a slew of governments (and hack politicians, “think” tanks, “journalists” and other pundits — especially on “security” issues) throughout the world whose awesome hypocrisy and dedication to the crudest, most naked self-interest is only exceeded by their bumbling incompetence, inconsistency and incoherence. Let’s hear it for the Hungarians (to take just one example) where the Prime Minister is caught gloating in a closed party meeting (but clearly not closed enough) about lying to the electorate for years and this is now being spun as a refreshingly honest lesson to the Hungarian political elite on the evils of mendacity.
    Democracy staggers when citizens have become mere passive consumers, zealots can achieve wildly disproportionate results and mainstream media elect to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.
    Who’s mixing the Koolaid now?

  23. pbrownlee says:

    Not questioning self-interest — but I think there are degrees of dedication to getting elected/winning at all costs that have more to do with a kind of rancid Great Man Syndrome narcissism and revenge/settling of scores than any real policy.
    General Marshall was/is not the same sort of man as General Myers or General Pace or, sadly, General Powell. In fact, wasn’t Marshall supposed to have said that he wanted candid opinions at all times and to “remember I have no feelings, except one or two I reserve for Mrs Marshall”?
    If the Kissinger stuff in Woodward’s S.o.Denial is even half true, much of what has happened in Iraq and elsewhere in the world starts to make sense. Such truly monstrous egos are never wrong but they do seem to have problems in processing factual reality and cannot be trusted to play well with others.

  24. steve mccabe says:

    Just a slightly tangential comment on this thread on Powell, if I may. I first heard the phrase “great man syndrome” in 1985. It was used by a woman decribing the president of her college. I don’t think that she coined it either.
    Steve McCabe

  25. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Ah! Hah! She cribbed it. Shameful. pl

  26. RHT447 says:

    Ken Hamblin was of the opinion that Powell’s promotion to (IIRC, BG) was mostly due to affirmative action.

    • Pat Lang says:


      IMO that is correct. After that the SECDEF of the day picked him to be his military assistant and he was off to the races.

  27. LG says:

    sir, completely off topic. but you might be interested in this

    The Syrian Joy Choir sings “Talaa ElBadr Alayna” at Saint Julian’s Church in Paris, France for Eid Al-Nabi (prophet’s birthday)

    not as well sung as oum kalthoum in the film message though…

  28. Pat Lang says:

    “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
    The proper study of mankind is man.
    Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
    A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
    With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
    With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
    He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
    In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
    In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
    Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
    Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
    Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
    Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
    Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;
    Created half to rise, and half to fall;
    Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
    Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:
    The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!”

    “Essay on man.” Alexander Pope

  29. different clue says:

    Perhaps something else for those at risk of GMS to say to themselves in the mirror could be . . . Dare to be Ordinary. Dare to be nobody special.

  30. sbin says:

    Rest in peace
    Another failed human.
    Hope the geriatric members of American government joins hin soon.

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