Gen. David Petraeus: Leadership Advice From The Battlefield

This Question & Answer was contributed by, and is published with permission from Gen. David Petraeus.  It was originally published by Forbes, and was conducted by acclaimed Forbes contributor Zack Friedman.

Including you, there were four cadets who graduated from West Point in the Class of 1974 who later became four-star generals. What do you think was in the drinking water at West Point that year?

David Petraeus: Clearly there was something special in what the members of our West Point class drank (which may have included more than water).

Beyond the four four-star generals, our classmates also included numerous two- and three-star generals, as well as several CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and many successful lawyers, doctors, and academics, among other pursuits.

In fact, if we could have figured out what was in the water, one of our entrepreneurial classmates undoubtedly would have bottled and marketed it!

More seriously, some observers might say that our class was lucky with our timing, as we were one and two-star generals just as the United States embarked on the long wars of the post-9/11 period. In response to that, however, several of my comrades undoubtedly would quote the Roman philosopher Seneca who noted that: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

And my classmates and I worked hard over many years to learn our profession and to be prepared in case of war.

Beyond that, we were very fortunate to have a large number of exceptional officers as role models during our time at West Point, several Medal of Honor recipients among them.

We also had the same inspirational soldier-scholar-statesman, General Bill Knowlton, as the Academy Superintendent for all four of our years at West Point. I married the Knowltons’ daughter  a month after graduation (after meeting on a blind date), and General Knowlton was a wonderful mentor and father-in-law for the subsequent 33 years until he passed away the second summer of the Surge in Iraq, the same summer during which my father passed away.

What’s the number one international threat facing America today?

David Petraeus: The United States and our allies and partners face the most complex array of challenges we have seen in the post-Cold War era.  And the number one threat varies from day-to-day.

Clearly, North Korea poses a particularly significant threat at present and an even greater potential threat if its missile and nuclear testing activities are not halted.

However, we should also be concerned with the other so-called “Revisionist Powers,” nation states dissatisfied with the status quo, such as Russia and Iran – and even, in various respects, China, which is both our number one trading partner and our most significant strategic competitor (and with whom we have the most important relationship in the world).

Beyond those, there are also Islamist extremist groups that pose a generational challenge; increasingly diabolical cyber threats; the emergence of populist forces at home and abroad; and even  concerns about whether the U.S. will continue to lead the rules-based international order – the multilateral organizations, financial institutions, international agreements, and principles that, for all of their shortcomings, have served the world well since their establishment in the wake of two World Wars and the Great Depression.

What proactive steps should we take to protect America?

David Petraeus: Protecting America depends, in many respects, of course, on the U.S. economic and political foundations on which all else is built, as well as on the strength of our military forces and those of our allies and partners.

It also rests, needless to say,  on viable, prudent strategies and policies.

Our security requires firm, steady, steadfast, and principled leadership, embracing the ideals, freedoms, and beliefs we have always held so dear and tempered by realistic assessments of our capabilities and what is possible.

In my view, the U.S. should also continue to lead the rules-based international order that, as I explained earlier, has stood the U.S. and the world in good stead since the end of World War II.

What are the four tasks of a strategic leader?

David Petraeus: A strategic leader – someone who determines the strategy for an entire organization – has to get four critical tasks right (and then do so again and again).

First, and foremost, a strategic leader has to get the big ideas (the strategy) right. This is best done, in my experience, inclusively, transparently, and iteratively.  Without success in this first task, all subsequent actions will be based on a shaky foundation.

Second, the leader has to communicate the big ideas throughout the breadth and depth of the organization and to other important audiences, ensuring that all understand the overarching intent and concepts.

Third, the leader has to oversee the implementation of the big ideas; this involves the leader’s “battle rhythm” (how the leader uses his or her time; what meetings and activities each day, each week, each month, etc.), the determination of metrics to see whether the organization is winning or losing, and providing energy, example, encouragement, and so on.

And, fourth, the leader has to determine (with a formal process, not just in an ad hoc manner) how the big ideas need to be modified – so that the process can be repeated over and over again.

As a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, I worked with a team of graduate students to build a website that captures my thoughts on strategic leadership and explains the tasks of a strategic leader using the Surge in Iraq (in which the surge of ideas was much more important than the surge of forces) as an example.

How does David Petraeus start his day? Do you have a daily morning routine or ritual?

David Petraeus: I do have a daily morning routine, and I have had it for decades.

I get up fairly early (5:15 a.m. or so, depending on the previous evening’s activities), have two cups of coffee and cereal with a banana while reviewing overnight news “feeds” and email.

I hit the gym or head outside by 6:15 a.m. for an hour or so of aerobic exercise (running or cycling if outdoors; stationary bike or treadmill if in the gym) followed by 45-60 minutes of strength, mobility, and flexibility exercises before I clean up and head to work.

Any day I can follow that routine has at least started well!

Generals lead. How have you learned from those that you have led?

David Petraeus: I have learned a great deal from those I have been privileged to lead, as well as from those under whom I have been privileged to serve.

Those in units that I led taught me a tremendous amount over the years.

From leadership experiences at West Point and in Ranger School, throughout my assignments with paratroopers in Italy, in command of a company and battalion, and so on at every level to command of combat theaters and leadership of the CIA, I learned from those I was striving to lead about how to provide energy when the going is toughest, about how to treat people with respect even when taking difficult actions, about how to develop and refine big ideas in an inclusive, transparent manner, and about how to perform innumerable tactical and operational tasks as effectively and efficiently as was possible, and so on.

I used to work particularly hard while in combat to ensure that I had meetings alone with our company commanders, the captains leading our soldiers multiple levels below me, who were translating big ideas at my level into tactical actions at their levels.

And I always challenged them to share their good ideas and also their biggest challenges and frustrations with me in those sessions.

I also gave them my email in case a significant issue arose later that was not being resolved to their satisfaction by their chain of command.

They took their responsibilities to their soldiers very seriously, as we all did to be sure, and they were very forthright with me during our meetings and subsequently. I learned a lot from them, in particular.

General (Ret.) David Petraeus
About the author: 

General (Ret) David H. Petraeus is Chairman of the KKR Global Institute. Gen. Petraeus is involved in the KKR investment process and oversees the Institute’s thought leadership platform focused on geopolitical and macro-economic trends, as well as environmental, social, and governance issues. Prior to joining KKR, Gen. Petraeus served over 37 years in the U.S. military, including command of coalition forces in Iraq, command of U.S. Central Command, and command of coalition forces in Afghanistan. Following his service in the military, Gen. Petraeus served as the Director of the CIA. Gen. Petraeus graduated with distinction from the U.S. Military Academy and subsequently earned M.P.A. and Ph.D. degrees in international relations from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Gen. Petraeus has received numerous U.S. military, State Department, NATO and United Nations medals and awards, and he has been decorated by 13 foreign countries. He is also a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California, a non-resident Senior Fellow at Harvard University, and Senior Vice-President of the Royal United Services Institute, as well as a member of the advisory boards of the Institute for the Study of War and a number of veterans organizations.