David Petraeus is a retired U.S. Army general who commanded coalition forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. He served as CIA director from 2011 to 2012. He is currently a partner at KKR Global Institute, a major global investment firm.
It was an honor to talk with Gen. Petraeus, a true warrior-scholar, about how his experiences as a general officer and soldier have made him better in business, what advice he would give to the next generation and what important lessons he learned as a young boy on a mission to deliver newspapers.
1) The form of leadership used in the Army is a combination of teamwork and the opportunity to lead at all levels within the hierarchical structure. How would you say that experience translates to an entrepreneurial endeavor?
I think that whether you are working in the military context or as a business entrepreneur, leaders have to perform certain key tasks. Those who are successful in performing those tasks will succeed overall.
You have to command effectively throughout an organization. If you oversee an organization, you have to determine how it needs to be refined and updated over time, so you can repeat the process.
Beyond that, leaders also need to provide the direction, energy, encouragement, inspiration and so forth for each of those reports directly to the leader, and also for the overall organization. And the leader has to get that right as well.
2) You have been called a warrior-scholar. How do those traits help you now in the world of business? How important is the link between physical and mental toughness?
I think whether you are in government or in the world of business, leaders have to be able to analyze thoughts and information from multiple sources and determine the key conclusions from all that information, and use all that to make decisions.
I found that the rigorous academic experience that I enjoyed at Princeton, including the process of researching and writing a dissertation, helped me develop these skills and helped me develop my ability to communicate.
3) What are some habits that you had as a soldier that you still hold on to today? How important is it to cultivate good habits in order to achieve success?
I have a pretty reasonable work ethic and a certain degree of stamina. I’ve been in been in 10 U.S. cities in the last 3 or 4 months.
I have an ability to synthesize and analyze lots of information, as well as interpersonal skills and an ability to communicate orally and in writing. I also have an ability to commit pretty relentlessly to a particular endeavor.
Life is a competitive endeavor, and that means that sometimes you are competing to be the best team player, not just best overall. Teamwork is critical. But the bottom line is, you really have to commit to something if you’re going to be successful in it.
4) During your 37 years as an officer in the U.S. Army, you oversaw a number of multinational combat operations, including large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking back, do you see anything you would have done differently? What has been your biggest take-away from your years of being a military leader?
Well, sure, there are always various actions I would have done differently. Without question there were missteps and mistakes along the way. Certainly some of those were in the policy realm, such as when writing the submission for the confirmation hearing for the surge in Iraq.
Again, we all have to strive to learn what motivates us, learn from our experiences, and what feels right and what feels wrong.
There’s a strong component over the years to having formal processes that help to identify lessons that need to be learned and actions that need to be taken; in other words, how do you find the big idea?
What needs to change; what do we sustain? I think that’s very true of life, and business as well.
Certainly there is a sense when you are in the military of being part of a mission larger than yourself: the purpose that imparts, and having a sense of community.
And the honor of performing these duties alongside others who have raised their right hands and volunteered to serve our nation. There is a sense of identity among those who serve in uniform.
These are burdens and privileges to serving, and it was an even greater privilege to lead in such endeavors. The fact is, even in civilian life, leaders of business experience many of these same realities.
In terms of biggest lessons, they are probably that leadership is an individual sport; one that has to be fine-tuned to each of the people that reports to you. And it has to be fine-tuned to each organization collectively that you have the privilege to lead.
5) What is the most important piece of advice you ever had someone tell you as a young cadet, or early on in your career? What advice would you give to today’s youth?
The answer to both of those questions goes back to guidance that Gen. Jack Dowman gave me when he was a two-star commander and I was his aide. He recommended that I seek experiences that would take me out of my intellectual comfort zone, such as going to graduate school.
I followed that advice, and he was right about the importance of such experiences to my individual development.
6) What specific advice would you provide to people going through tough times and obstacles? How did you manage to get through the most difficult times? Does discipline have to be combined with some other inner strength?
Obviously, there has to be some degree of inner strength. One has to recognize that all we can do is the best we can do; we need to learn from our experiences and take responsibility for our actions and drive on.
The same thing goes for those going through stock market declines, a tough job market or being turned down for a business loan. You have to soldier on. You have to put your head down and lean forward. Life has its tough moments. You have to recognize they’re out there. The measure of the person isn’t how he or she deals with success—that’s easy. It’s how you deal with setbacks. Life is full of them.
The surge in Iraq presented daily setbacks. Really tough moments. Hard casualties. It was disheartening, frustrating and full of maddening situations. And that could lead you to throw in the towel. But if you believe that you are pursuing the right course of action, then you need to have fortitude and have the strength to drive on.
You have to keep trying to learn, keep trying to improve, keep trying to do better and achieve your objective.