Petraeus Outlines Basic Leadership Tenets
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 22, 2009 When it comes to strategic leadership, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan boils his philosophy down to four basic tenets: Get the big ideas right. Educate – and if necessary, sell -- your subordinates on those ideas. Execute them together. Then identify lessons learned and best practices to improve the whole process.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, described his leadership philosophy yesterday at the John F. Kennedy School of Government on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
During the forum, “21st Century Leadership: Lessons from the U.S. Military,” Petraeus shared the process of strategizing, communicating and refining that he said guided his watch as commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and more recently, at Centcom.
The first responsibility, he told the group, is “to get the really big ideas right.”
Petraeus pointed as an example to his experience in Iraq, where violence was soaring before the United States implemented a new strategy in early 2007 that deployed more troops into the communities they were protecting.
“We realized that we had to change some of the big ideas,” he told the Harvard audience. “We had to focus on securing and serving the people -- that was No. 1. And you could only do that by living with them. … You cannot commute to the fight.”
After the “big ideas” are established, Petraeus emphasized the importance of educating subordinate leaders about them to ensure so everyone shares a common command vision.
“Ideally, they are so compelling, so convincing, so powerful that the leaders embrace them,” he said. But if they don’t, “sometimes there has to be a little help,” he said. “You might have to hold their arms around them … so they then can take these on as their own.”
Once everyone is on the same sheet of music, the next step is to work together as a team to put those big ideas into action, Petraeus said, but the process can’t stop there.
“There’s a very important final element,” he told the group. “You have to identify lessons learned. You have to feed them back in to refine the big ideas -- which then have to be transmitted to the subordinate leaders to change the way you are executing.”
Petraeus said it’s also critical to capture and share best practices. That “has to be an enormous part of this,” he said.
Serving as the point man in Iraq, Petraeus also cited the importance of holding true to the principles of honesty and other closely held American ideals. He called the information operations campaign – the public affairs effort – “of enormous importance” to the operations in Iraq.
“We explicitly said, ‘We are going to be first with the truth,” he said. “We want to beat the bad guys to the headlines, but it has got to be the truth. If you have a bad day, we are going to step up to the mike and say we had a bad day. If you make a mistake, you are going to acknowledge it and say what we learned from it and how we are going to try to minimize the chance of such mistakes happening in the future.
“We are not going to put lipstick on pigs,” he said. “If it was bad, we are going to say it was bad.”
Not everyone agreed with this approach, Petraeus conceded. Some “very senior people” who visited him in Iraq told him, “Dave, you have a messaging problem over here,” he said.
In the early days of the surge, Petraeus said, he “would look them in the eye and say, ‘Sir, we don’t have a messaging problem. We have a results problem. And we have to let the results speak for themselves.’”
People will recognize when the results start turning around, Petraeus said he told the naysayers. “The idea should be to under-promise and over-deliver.”
As they conducted their operations, Petraeus said, he insisted that U.S. forces stay true to basic American principles. When they have strayed from these principles – as at the Abu Ghraib detainment facility in Iraq – “we have paid for it enormously,” he said.
“We have fought for centuries for certain values we hold very dear,” Petraeus told the Harvard audience. “We must continue to live those values.”