How To Disagree With The Boss by General David Petraeus

In my interview with America’s most decorated war hero, General David Petraeus, now a partner of private equity firm KKR, we discussed his time in the Oval Office and the importance of sticking with principles, even when the recipient doesn’t want to hear it.

Interviewing General David Petraeus at KKR headquarters (author’s photo)

The first lesson a senior executive learns is there aren’t many good ways to disagree with the CEO.

For General Petraeus, his entire career prepared him for the moment President Obama asked him to take command of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus accepted the Commander in Chief’s assignment, but not without a warning. He needed to be sure Obama understood what kind of battlefield commander he was getting, and he wanted to spell this out even if it made things awkward. It was the only way Petraeus felt he would always be able to give the President unvarnished advice about a future he knew would be uncertain.

Following a script only Hollywood could write, the Obama Administration believed the right General could manage an orderly drawdown of troops and leave behind a stable and functioning government in a land run by warlords and militias. It would require Spartan determination and the humanitarian instincts of a Peace Corps volunteer.

For any business executive involved in a crisis, the impact of shading the facts or understating challenges always ends badly. That was the circumstance Petraeus wanted to avoid.

Here are General Petraeus’ comments from our interview on how he went about delivering a dissenting point of view to the Commander in Chief:

“When President Obama first asked me to take on the assignment in Afghanistan, we sat together in the Oval Office to discuss the challenges. I felt very strongly it was important — if he was choosing me to do the job — to know who he was getting.”

So I said in the clearest terms, “Mr. President, you should understand that I will provide my best professional military advice based first on the facts on the ground — and then by the mission you’ve given us, informed by the issues with which you have to deal uniquely.”

To someone with no military background like Obama, it may have sounded like the kind of thing a General says to a President. But to Petraeus, it was a marker he would call on to defend his position when the President became engaged in the politics of war, as the election of 2012 drew near.

One of the safest bets a President can make is war eventually becomes unpopular. As the death toll grew and the battle raged on, an election mentality took hold, putting pressure on the President by party stalwarts to switch things up. He resorted to an old fashioned remedy, do what you said only faster. So he pushed the timetable and level of troop withdrawals and invited Petraeus back to the Oval Office to get him to agree.

What does an executive do when facing a determined boss or a board that has already made up its mind on a key decision? Do you stand your ground even if you know they are wrong or do you capitulate to the powerful, as have legions of executives from Enron to Lehman Brothers?

General Petraeus studied the facts as only a Princeton Ph.D. can, and concluded the timetable was too aggressive. It could lead to chaos and even more tragedy.

During the course of our interview, I asked him, how do you challenge the Commander in Chief when his position is final?

Carefully, as the expression goes.

In their subsequent Oval Office meeting, Obama expressed his position and waited to hear the General’s agreement.

Petraeus responded by acknowledging the President’s points, including the politics. Then, he staked out the ground where he would make his stand:

“Mr. President, I’ll be aware of those matters (the political realities), but my advice will always be determined first by facts on the ground, as I said at our earlier meeting.

“And if those facts are unchanged, so my advice, too, is unchanged.

“That was an interesting, tense moment.”

Leadership, when viewed close up, is a series of bold decisions. In the face of dissenting views, regardless of how powerful the boss may be, you must let it be known your decision making is based on a careful study of the facts, not the temptation to give in to popular opinion.

Your ‘true north’ will help you through those times a chorus of voices is telling you look the other way. That is the epitaph of great failures like Enron and Lehman.

By following the example of General Petraeus, you are far more likely to bring back victories, on and off the battlefield.


For the complete interview, click on the image below:

Interview with General David Petraeus, by Jeff Cunningham
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