Wednesday, April 22, 2009

General Petraeus Helps Harvard to Honor Its Vets

I was privileged to be among the lucky few who gathered yesterday at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to pay tribute to the men and women who have served in our military and are pursuing graduate degrees at the Law School, Kennedy School and Business School. It was a moving and fitting tribute to the scores of current Harvard students who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Gen. David Petraeus, Commanding General of the U.S. Central Command made the trip to add his own gravitas to this special tribute to Harvard soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

After a warm welcome by the Dean of the Kennedy School, Maura Sullivan addressed the gathering. Maura, a former Captain in the US Marines Corps, is a dual degree candidate at the Business School and Kennedy School, and has served as Co-President of the Armed Forces Alumni Association at HBS. Maura, whom I am pleased to call a friend, gave an impassioned plea and well-conceived rationale for reinstating ROTC training to the Harvard campus.

General Petraeus was introduced to us by Seth Moulton. A 2001 graduate of Harvard College, Seth joined the Marines Corps, and served two tours in Iraq as Special Assistant to General Petraeus. So, Seth’s introduction was personal, heart-felt and incisive.

David Gergen, Director of the Center for Public Leadership at KSG, moderated the session that featured General Petraeus responding to Gergen’s questions about the theme of the gathering: “21st Century Leadership – Lessons from the U.S. Military.”

Early in his remarks, Petraeus laid his cards on the table and revealed that he was in enemy territory in two regards; he is a Yankees fan and his Ph.D. is from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, and not from Harvard! It became clear how deeply Petraeus appreciates the lessons that can be learned from history. He talked about going to sleep in Iraq reading from Bruce Catton’s classic study of Gen. Grant’s leadership in the midst of gloomy times in the Civil War, “Grant Takes Command.” He also alluded on several occasions to the writings of Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was in the audience.

The General outlined four over-arching tasks that are essential for a strategic leader to master:

1) Get the big ideas right

2) Communicate those ideas effectively down the organizational chain of command

3) Oversee the execution of those ideas.

4) Capture lessons learned and best practices.

As he fleshed out how each of those four major points had developed during his time of leadership in Iraq, I was struck by his emphasis on getting as close to the Iraqi people as possible. One of the “big ideas,” is to “secure and to serve the people.” The 21st century warrior needs to be able to figure out when it is appropriate to serve the people by removing intractable enemy elements using “kinetic force,” and when it appropriate to serve them by providing clean water, sewage, electricity and schools.

He emphasized how important it is for the leader to find a way for his people to embrace the big ideas – even if they are reluctant to do so. His phrase was: “Even if at first you have to hold their arms around the idea.” He told a marvelous story of how he helped a recalcitrant senior officer to embrace the concept of Nation Building. This soldier held a more traditional and monolithic view of the proper role for the military, and that world view did not include Nation Building. Petraeus addressed the problem by announcing that in 48 hours he would be visiting the leader to view the results of the great Nation Building activities that he and his troops were overseeing. When the General arrived for his inspection, he found lots of effective National Building activity under way! Brilliant!

He pointed out how crucial it was in Iraq in the execution of the big ideas that he and Ambassador Crocker presented a united front, whether it be in briefing Members of Congress or in interacting with Iraqi sheikhs. One of the complex challenges that he and his team faced in Iraq was separating the “irreconcilables from the reconcilables.” It takes a nuanced understanding of the culture and history to discern which enemies can be converted to allies and which need to be removed by force.

He spoke candidly about the need to tell the truth:“Be first with the truth.” He was told in the early days of the surge, “You have a messaging problem!” His retort was to say, “No, we have a success problem. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

He consistently reinforced seminal principles to his troops: Live your values. Exercise initiative. Learn and adapt. He showed a slide of what he calls “The Engine of Change” – a complex knowledge management system of systems that creates effective and immediate feedback mechanisms so that the lessons and best practices learned on the battlefield can be translated into policy and doctrine in a timely fashion.

A phrase that he repeated during the course of his remarks served for me as the capstone of his insights into military leadership in the 21st century: “You cannot kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency.”

We are fortunate to have a statesman, scholar, soldier calling the shots and leading the way at the helm of CENTCOM. He led the way yesterday in honoring Harvard’s men and women who have helped turn his big ideas into executable action on the ground.

Maura Sullivan just posted the video of yesterday’s event to Facebook:

Facebook – Petraeus at Harvard

An Op-Ed piece by Paula Broadwell in yesterday’s Boston Globe shares a personal perspective on General Petraeus’ leadership:

Broadwell Op-Ed Piece in Boston Globe

Pray for the men and women who continue to serve in implementing Petraeus’ “Big Ideas.”


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