ALL IN: The Education of General David Petraeus, was just published last week. Written by Paula Broadwell, a West Point graduate and recent alum of both Harvard Kennedy School and CPL, along with veteran Washington Post editor Vernon Loeb, the book is being hailed as the best informed biography to date of America’s most prominent post–World War II general.
In addition to recent appearances on Fox and Friends, Don Imus’s radio show, Morning Joe, and The Daily Show with John Stewart, Broadwell will visit CPL later this semester for a conversation on the book—stay tuned for details. In the meantime, here is an excerpt of an interview CPL conducted with Broadwell.
After getting to know General Petraeus, what surprised you the most about his leadership style?
I've been inspired by his energy, his initiative, and his ability to multitask across the strategic, operational, and tactical levels simultaneously. A testament to his initiative can be found in the way he frequently moved his "team" forward by acting without a mandate—for example, the nation-building initiatives, such as setting up elections in Mosul, that he undertook during his time in Iraq as commander of the 101st Airborne. As for multitasking, the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald sum up General Petraeus's skills in this area very nicely: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
Another impressive quality is his ability to keep cool and deliver under enormous pressure. He did this as a young aide to four star generals who would ask him to craft speeches the night before delivery, and later in life on the battlefield, for example, during the time period in 2007 when coalition force and local Iraqi casualties in Iraq were averaging over 100 per month and dozens or more per day, respectively, and there was huge U.S. domestic pressure to pull out of the county. Another example comes from his command in Afghanistan, when he knew he only had a year was racing to meet the President's objectives with the surge forces against an incredibly tight deadline and, again, waning domestic support for the war. Somehow, General Petraeus often managed to keep these immense demands and concomitant stress from his family, which leaves one in awe. For many years, he has carried a tremendous weight of expectations and has done his best to deliver. His coolness under pressure has everything to do with this.
Most impressive, though not surprising, however, are three characteristics: his adaptability, his open-minded attitude toward crowdsourcing, and his ability to solve complex problems to the extent that he's able to forecast second- and third-order effects.
Okay, let’s take each of those in turn.
As briefly illustrated in our biographical digression that covers his command of Combined Arms College at Fort Leavenworth, he considered himself and the institutions he oversaw as "engines of change." Drawing upon his experience as a Division Commander in northern Iraq, where he was widely acclaimed for quickly adapting from combat operations to stabilization efforts using a comprehensive COIN approach, he took those lessons to the U.S. Army's schoolhouse and helped to oversee changes in the "Roadmap to War" including changes to the guiding military doctrine for how to fight COIN, and oversaw other institutional adaptations in organization, training, leadership, and other institutional shifts in order to help the Army succeed in the particular on-the-ground situations in which it found itself. He's now doing the same thing with the intelligence community—encouraging introspection on the organization's strategic outlook, training and professional development of Agency employees and galvanizing greater systemwide cooperation in the process.
As regards open-mindedness, I am referencing the way he looks at his networks—and he has many—as flat organizations. He will take inputs from literally anyone with a big idea—a battlefield commander or young sergeant, a representative on Capitol Hill, or an academic. I think this gives him a much deeper awareness of the battlefield situation.
And his complex problem solving ability?
There are two important points I'd like to raise here about his approach to complex problem solving.
First, he likes to talk about a strategic leader's four tasks: getting the "big ideas" right, communicating them, overseeing their implementation, and creating a lessons learned feedback loop so the organization can adapt. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the big idea was a surge of concepts (e.g., protect the population) and a surge of inputs (troopers, intelligence assets, key leaders, etc.); he obviously had to communicate that to everyone from field commanders executing the campaign to decision makers in Washington who oversaw the resourcing of the war. His invitation to Congressional delegations and think tankers was a venue to communicate as well. He and his team made constant battlefield circulations to oversee the implementation of the new COIN approach, and he and his team strived to send best practices back to the Army's training centers in order to help troopers better prepare. The lessons he learned while standing up the Iraqi Army as Multi-National Strategic Training Command-Iraq Commanding General were brought to Fort Leavenworth when he oversaw the stand up of the Joint Interagency Security Force Assistance Center. These types of lessons learned brain trusts are a signature of his commands and help to encourage troopers and the institution to adapt faster than then enemy.
Second, General Petraeus seems to view the world as a system of systems. His organization—be it a 49-member coalition or a 16-member intelligence community, are systems of systems, and he strives to be able to envision how they all work together, like an engine. He understands how one part influences another.
Finally, and perhaps most important, I was struck by what I'll call his "extreme mentoring." He answers every email personally, and he is always writing long letters of recommendation for those who has proven themselves to him. I think he gets energy from doing this, but it's still amazing to see the amount of time he invests in this activity.
For the complete interview with Paula Broadwell, sign-up to receive the inaugural CPL Newsletter. Coming soon!