General (Ret.) David Petraeus: When Your Boss Is The President

Interviewing General (Ret.) David Petraeus at KKR headquarters (overlooking New York’s Central Park)

In our interview, General (Ret.) David Petraeus, America’s most decorated war hero, now chairman of KKR Global Institute, discussed the unfathomable pressures he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan — and those occasions in the Oval Office when his opinion differed from the President Obama.

How Petraeus handled the tightrope of the battlefield and the rough and tumble of politics is a manifesto for those aspiring to great (and occasionally, stressful) careers.

1. There is never a good time to regain your integrity

In the Oval Office with President Obama, General Petraeus discussed his assignment in Afghanistan and wanted the President to be certain about the kind of leader he was appointing. The first meeting went fine, as they usually do, but the second meeting wasn’t as well received. Petraeus stood his ground and was grateful he set his integrity boundary well in advance.

In our first meeting in the Oval Office, I told President Obama: “Mr. President, you should understand that I will provide my best professional military advice, informed by the issues with which you have to deal uniquely, but always based on my fullest understanding of the facts on the ground.”

After the counterinsurgency was in full bloom, I was asked about the pace of the drawdown, which I believed was being rushed (editor’s note: for political purposes), “I’ll always strive to be aware of the issues and political realities, but my advice is determined by facts on the ground, as I noted in our first meeting. As those facts are unchanged, my advice, too, is unchanged.” That was an interesting, tense moment.

If carefully thought-out principles guide your thinking at all times and you make that clear up front, your ideas will get serious consideration even when they are contra to colleagues or a boss. Leadership, to paraphrase the cliche, means “never having to say you’re sorry” for silence about an action you believe may fail.

2. Making great decisions is a matter of finding the right strategy followed by deliberation, teamwork, and discipline

To be truly effective under challenging circumstances everyone should take the time to develop a philosophy of strategic leadership. In particular, how to get the big ideas, how you plan to communicate them effectively to the breadth and depth of the organization, and then how to stay close to the rank and file as you oversee implementation.

“The first thing I would say about the success in the face of volatility, I’d like to think that I had devoted a great deal of study to understanding the human terrain in Iraq.

Then, I spent a great deal of time getting the big ideas right. So be aware your first thoughts may need to be refined, revised, shot and left by the side of the road, and you may have to do it all over again and again and again.

It also takes a great, great team, and everybody embracing the idea to make something work of this magnitude.

Finally, resolve is a key factor at all times. There’s a little bit of the stubborn Dutchman in me, taking after my old Dutch sea captain father, who cautioned me, “results boy, that’s what matters.” It takes a high degree of determination.

3. Know your tolerance for stress and how to reduce tension that leads to burnout

Part of the problem for Petraeus in Iraq, but also for leaders in the C-suite, you deal with intractable problems day in, day out and have few equals that really understand your pressures. Mounting stress can have a devastating effect if allowed to fester.

I can recall, after a tough, tough stretch things were finally starting to turn, but there were political battles, the prime minister had issues, the members of the Parliament were causing all sorts of distractions. There was a moment when I had to call the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and say: “Hey, Admiral. I just want you to know this is not the easiest thing in the world. I feel somebody needs to know.” That’s the final challenge we face as leaders, as they say, the loneliness of command.

You must learn to reach out across, up and down the organization, develop peer networks from other leaders that understand the challenges, and by doing so, find a sense of purpose, balance, renewal and a way forward.

About:

Jeff Cunningham is an ASU/Thunderbird professor of global leadership, host of Iconic Voices YouTube channel with 400,000 views, Gannett and Forbes contributor, and writes about how we can lead more resilient lives and careers. He and his wife, Kristin, are co-producers of Iconic Studios, which creates video and digital content on outstanding business and global leaders. For inquiries, or to request a profile or interview for your company, organization or leader, please email: jeffreymcunningham@gmail.com.