Gen. David Petraeus: How The Best Leaders Inspire and Confront Failure

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

You oversaw theater operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What it was like being asked by President Obama to assume command in Afghanistan? Take us through that moment.

David Petraeus: When the President begins a hastily called one-on-one meeting with you in the Oval Office by saying, “I am asking you as your President and Commander in Chief to take command of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan,” the only reply can be “yes.”

But I did have a number of emotions at the time.

I was certainly not happy that this would mean leaving my family on short notice for a sixth year of deployment in a ten-year period; it was a lot to ask of them.

I was also very disappointed that a great soldier, inspirational leader and longtime friend, General Stan McChrystal, was going to leave Afghanistan prematurely over an issue that the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs Chairman and I saw as regrettable but which we hoped would not result in Stan’s departure.

However, I also was animated by the prospect of a new challenge, even though I was already very occupied with the challenges associated with my position as Commander of U.S. Central Command (which included 21 countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, among them Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and the pirate-infested waters off Somalia).

Having said “yes,” the moment the car left the White House, I was on the phone to individuals I was hoping would join the team for the new endeavor, on which I deployed in less than a week after an exceedingly swift Senate confirmation hearing and vote.

Whether in a military, business or government context, how do the best leaders inspire?

David Petraeus: Leaders provide inspiration in a variety of ways – giving energy, particularly at the toughest of times – as that can truly be a force multiplier.

They share risk and hardship with their elements.

They provide steadfast leadership in the face of adversity.

They convey the importance of the tasks in which the organization’s members are engaged.  They are present at the “point of decision” during critical moments.

They provide an example of fortitude, forthrightness and determination.

They set a tone that will enable the organization to be a learning organization and inspire a culture of constant learning.

They practice “affirmative leadership” (which conveys the conviction that each of us seeks to do the best that we can).

They promote excellence and publicly recognize it.

They treat people with respect and, even if they recognize the need to allow a member of the organization to seek other opportunities, they strive to allow such individuals to depart with their dignity intact (as opposed to reveling in “public executions”).

Perhaps most important of all, they provide each of their direct reports and the organization collectively the leadership style that will help bring out the best in each of those who report directly to them and to the organization overall.

That latter observation is a particularly important one.

As a student of history, who are the great leaders whose advice you have conjured for inspiration during your military career, and why?

David Petraeus: I was very fortunate to serve under – and with – many exceptional leaders while in government (and since then, as well) and to have studied others in history who provided leadership examples from which I sought to draw when I was privileged to be a leader.

President Bush and Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen during the Surge, for example; Generals Galvin, Keane, Vuono, and Shelton during my formative years (under each of whom I served directly); exceptional noncommissioned officers like Command Sergeant Major Hill (my senior enlisted advisor for four combat commands), and many other inspirational leaders under my command, such as Colonel Bill Hickman, Captain Fred Johnson, Platoon Sergeant Pugalee, among many, many others.

I also studied quite intently the leaders throughout history whose example seemed particularly instructive, especially the “great battle captains” like Alexander the Great, Belisarius, Napoleon, Wellington, Grant, Sherman, Patton, Ridgway and Gavin, among others.

So much of leadership is focused on success. How should leaders deal with failure?

David Petraeus: Leaders obviously have to be able to deal with and learn from failure – the results of bad fortune, missteps, mistakes and so on by those in the organization and, needless to say, by leaders themselves.

In the wake of a setback, leaders and those around them need to analyze and reflect on what happened, accept responsibility, determine the lessons that should be learned, incorporate those lessons in the organization’s strategy, plans and policies, take action to mitigate the risks of further such setbacks, and then “ruck up” again and drive on, striving to focus forward while being informed by the lessons learned.

You’ve been so successful in your career. Is there a time that you failed, and what did you learn from it?

David Petraeus: I was very fortunate during my time in government – and I have been very fortunate in my post-government endeavors, as well.

Having said that, my life certainly has not been filled with nothing but “high-five moments.”

Along with the successes, there were plenty of tough days (especially in combat, where I could count the number of truly “good days” on one hand); and there were significant setbacks and mistakes – some of which validated the old adage that “stuff happens” and others of which clearly were the result of my actions.

And leaders have to be sufficiently determined, resilient, reflective and forthright with themselves to acknowledge and take ownership of mistakes, ensure that they learn from such experiences and then get on with life.

You’re the chairman of the KKR Global Institute. Please tell us about how you are helping to enable smarter investing through a deeper understanding of global affairs.

David Petraeus: The aim of the KKR Global Institute is, as you noted, to help KKR to invest as wisely as is possible – and to help the companies in which we invest to do as well as is possible, in addition to helping our investors understand the world in which we and they are investing.

Think of three pillars: the KKR Global Macro Team, led by Henry McVey; the Environmental, Social, and Governance Issues Analysis Team, led by Ken Mehlman; and the Geopolitical Risk Analysis Team, which I lead in addition to working with the others to integrate our analyses.

And then think of three groups of “customers:” first, our regional private equity, real asset, and credit investment committees during the diligence process; second, our portfolio companies that are seeking to go global, grappling with issues we might help them resolve, or striving to understand the major trends and issues that will influence their success; and third, our limited partners, the investors who provide the assets that we manage.

We also strive to integrate our work with the 60-plus executives of KKR Capstone, who have expertise in virtually every area of business and operations, and with our Global Head of Innovation and Technology and his team members as they seek to identify the emerging technologies and firms in which we should invest and also alert our portfolio companies to developments in the tech world that might disrupt their businesses.

What are your best pieces of business advice?

David Petraeus: I think there are four (at least):

  1. Get the tasks of a strategic leader right, especially the big ideas –even if you are not in a truly strategic leadership position.
  2. Provide the style of leadership that will bring out the best in each of your direct reports and the organization overall.
  3. Control your own attitude, ensuring that it is appropriate for every situation.
  4. And strive for continued learning, regardless of age or longevity in position, individually and throughout the organization.

What is something that we don’t know about you, but should?

David Petraeus: In addition to my career in the military and my time at the CIA, I have also been a professor at several institutions.

When I was a captain, I completed a Ph.D. at Princeton University in an interdisciplinary program in international relations and economics, and I taught those subjects for two years at West Point when I was a young major.

After leaving government and after joining KKR, I was also a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College for 7 semesters.

And, since the spring of 2013, I have also been a Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.

My experiences in academia have provided wonderful opportunities to build “intellectual capital” and to interact with many wonderful students.

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.