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Andrea Useem
On Leadership producer

Andrea Useem

Andrea Useem is the producer of On Leadership.

Transcript: Gen. Petraeus on staying strong through 'horrific news'

Gen. David Petraeus
General David Petraeus sat down with Washington Post reporter David Ignatius to talk about leadership on Tuesday, February 9, at the Washington Post video studio. The first video segment appeared last week. This is a lightly edited transcript of the second video segment:

David Ignatius: I remember you going out in public at some risk into the marketplace, into public spaces in Baghdad, in Iraq. What role did that play in trying to send the signal of what you wanted to do?

Gen. Petraeus: Going into the marketplace, I think sometimes you have to show that you are willing to share risk, that you are more than willing to go out and see it for yourself. You have to do that, I think you have an obligation to do that anyway. But to some degree it was important to be seen to do that as well.

There will be people who will say, "Oh, we had a squad of soldiers or a platoon of soldiers and Apache helicopters." Hey, we were in the market, there were tens of thousands of Iraqis around us, we dove down different alleys, we talked to them, we sat in the tea shops with them. I didn't have a phalanx of guys, 360 degrees around me, as we did these.

There was some risk, and I also typically wore a soft cap as opposed to a Kevlar, indicating a degree of confidence in the situation. And this was to convey the importance of, again, certain big ideas in particular: securing the population and living with it to secure it. And then that theme that this is hard but not hopeless.

David Ignatius: There must have been days for you in Baghdad when you thought this isn't going to work, this is hard, and that it may be impossible. What did you say to yourself on those days when you really had a spike in casualties, in incidences of violence; how did you keep your own morale up?

Gen. Petraeus: Well, I think it's essential that you do that actually, and, again, that you be seen to do that.

There's a famous vignette about Robert E. Lee when he's racing away from Appomattox, he's just eluding Grant, he's trying to get to a set of trains that supposedly has food for his starving army. He arrives, he races forward himself on Traveller, throws the door back, and it's full of ammunition. There's this very evocative description of how he struggles to keep from allowing his shoulders to slump.

I was very conscious that there are lot of eyes on you in these moments of sometimes really terrible news, horrific news, of the tough casualties, the memorial services for multiple soldiers killed in one particular incident or another, and we try to go to a lot of these. And it was very important not to let your shoulders slump, but also, I think, to be seen as human.

Ignatius: General Petraeus, let me ask you about one of the key tests for any leader, which is really empowering your subordinates, giving the people who work for you a sense that they have the freedom to fail, if you will; the freedom to experiment and try things.

Gen. Petraeus: Well, I think it's hugely important. You very much want them to feel they are empowered to get on with it. You've given them the direction to travel, you've put the right-and-left limits on the road, and you want them to get down the road. In fact, I used to say specifically that -- I'd say, "Let me know how you're doing if you have a chance. And if you don't have time to do it, don't worry about it. I'll come out and see you and figure out how you're doing. And don't worry, if you get out from between right-and-left limits, if it's not too bad a deviation, we'll talk about it, and you'll get back in it and drive on."

I realized we were making some progress in this regard when I saw a sign on a company commander's command-post door out in West Baghdad one time. It said on it, "In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what they should have been and execute aggressively." Needless to say, I took that sign with me. We added that to our counter insurgency guide, which indeed had -- one of the admonitions, this is a series of admonitions within explanations of what each admonition meant, one of those was to encourage initiative.

David Ignatius: Part of management for everybody is communicating to different audiences, tp different stakeholders if you will. What you found in your time as commander of our forces in Baghdad was that you needed to communicate with the American public and Congress as the representative, to an unusual extent, for a military leader. Just say a word about that, not so much in the sense of what you did in 2007, 2008, but what every manager has to do in speaking out to these constituencies; how did you try to do that?

Gen. Petraeus: First of all you have to make yourself available. You have to be willing to do it. What I tried to do was to be first with the truth and not to spin, not to put lipstick on pigs, as the phrase goes. Not to try and evade, or what have you. This was about going out and saying if we had a problem, if we made a mistake, acknowledging it, describing it, saying what we're going to learn from it, what we've done as a result, the lessons we took from it, and how we would move on in the future and try to mitigate the chances of such mistakes or such problems in the future. So this is very important.

There was a point in time when somebody came to me and said -- at the real height of the violence, the most difficult period, it was probably late spring, maybe as late as late June, and candidly there was not much support in certain quarters at that point in time. And somebody came to me and said, "Sir, the only thing we have left is your credibility." I took that pretty seriously.

When I testified before Congress, when I spoke to the press, I tried to be brutally honest, to be absolutely forthright and to make sure that were talking about facts, about real results or lack of results. And if you go back and look at some of this stuff and occasionally folks like you take me back through this; I think that those statements actually do stand up to scrutiny, to the scrutiny of history.

Transcribed and edited by Fahima Haque.

By Andrea Useem

 |  February 23, 2010; 3:44 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Gen. Petraeus: No sugar-coated optimism | Next: Ready for a walk-out


Please report offensive comments below.

Dave stars by licking the genral's boots:
"I remember you going out in public at somerisk in the market place, into public places in Baghdad..etc..."

A soldier, and for tens of centuries tens are supposed never to leave safe garrisons, nowadays "Green Zones"

What a creep!

Posted by: bekabo | February 25, 2010 8:08 AM
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