Saturday, February 20, 2010

General Petraeus on Strategic Leadership

I had the privilege of hearing General Petraeus speak today at Princeton University (and also was very fortunate to have met him in 2009). This is not this week's official "post", but I did want to at least jot down a few of the notes I took from his speech.

For those of you who don't know who General Petraeus is, he is the four-star general who leads the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and was the force behind the Iraq "surge" that has proven so successful in stabilizing the country following years of misguided US efforts.

He spoke briefly on strategic leadership, and gave these three guidelines:

1) Come up with the "right" big ideas.... as a leader of an organization you are expected to come up with the ideas that shape and determine the future of that organization. If the ideas are built on shaky or even faulty grounds, the organization becomes susceptible to failure. In Petraeus' opinion, the success of the surge in Iraq was more about a surge of ideas than a surge in troops. Specifically, it was about improving local sentiment, it was about living in the field and not in the barracks, it was about not just leaving after a location was cleared, and it was about partnering with insurgent groups that could be turned.

2) Communicate these ideas... he mentioned that the most important communication is communication DOWN the chain of command. In any type of organization those who are executing a strategy will be the ones who are further down the chain of command. Without a proper understanding of the strategy, tactics at the lower level can interfere with strategy at a higher level.

3) Direct and oversee the proper implementation of these ideas... what stuck out to me here was that General Petraeus, a career military man, said that this requires empowerment and not micromanagement. To me this is extremely interesting - I would have guessed that of all bureaucracies, the military would rank near the top in terms of micromanagement. However he said (correctly) that this stifles the ability to implement ideas and adapt ideas to ever-changing conditions on the ground. I couldn't agree more.

Also interesting was his statement that in planning for the Afghanistan troop increase, Petraeus met with President Obama "9 or 10" times, sometimes for more than three hours at a time! To me, this shows that Obama has taken this situation seriously and instead of simply hearing a briefing and making a decision (like so many decision makers have done and do), he decided to spend meaningful chunks of time to discuss and debate strategy. Political affiliation aside, this is encouraging to me. No matter what the ultimate decisions are, I hope we have more politicians and leaders who are willing to use this kind of process to come to decisions on the many major problems we are facing.

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