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The contradiction of Richard Holbrooke

Of all Richard Holbrooke's qualities that have been mentioned in the flurry of coverage remembering his life--his supreme intelligence, his larger-than-life personality, his consummate negotiating and networking skills--there are two that interest me most. Seemingly all of the obituaries, remembrances and elegies following his death, on Dec. 13, highlight his extraordinary ego (here was a man who coveted the position of Secretary of State from the time he was a young foreign service member in Vietnam) while simultaneously recognizing him for his willingness to advise his young proteges.

Those two attributes would seem to be contradictory. A man who has been described as having a "colossal ego," intent on clawing his way up to the government's top diplomatic post and guilty (to some, at least) of arrogance and know-it-all-ism, would not seem to be a man who had time for those beneath him. Those known to have large egos tend to be self-centered and narcissistic, not accessible and generous.

And yet by all accounts he was both accessible, despite his position, and generous with his time, if also tenacious and adherent to unyielding expectations. Holbrooke has inspired generations of proteges who are intensely loyal and has been called a "legendary mentor." He cheered on new State Department underlings and gave them access to and time with arguably the busiest, most experienced and most powerful diplomat in the country.

Perhaps the best description of Holbrooke's inclusive, if also extremely tough, leadership style was laid out not in today's commemorations, but in George Packer's extensive 2009 New Yorker profile of the career diplomat. In it, Packer encapsulates Holbrooke's approach through several telling anecdotes of how he built his most recent and final team at the State Department. One young staffer wrote a memo on Pakistan that President Obama agreed with, and Holbrooke texted him at midnight to congratulate him. Another staff member was recruited by being told how much latitude he would give her. Holbrooke's door is described as always open to those who work for him; Packer quotes General David Petraeus as calling Holbrooke's team "the flattest organization I've ever seen."

In reality, brash ambition and a generosity of time and of advice to inferiors aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Leaders with extraordinary intelligence and impassioned enthusiasm for their jobs see it in others and want to help foster it, no matter how much they may be driven by their own goals. The best leaders are contradictory--audacious and self-centered enough to believe they can achieve great things, while selfless enough to help others, whether they be their underlings or their superiors.

By Jena McGregor

 |  December 14, 2010; 1:11 PM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership , Foreign Affairs , Government leadership , Leadership development , Personal Leadership Journey , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What disturbed some of Holbrooke's colleagues, at least in years past, was not so much his ego as his ambition. Ambition, in general, can be a good quality--it may lead a person to achieve more--but when it becomes excessive it may turn off one's peers even as the ambitious one impresses his or her superiors. But much may forgiven those who accomplish much, and, speaking again in general, I think Dick Holbrooke accomplished much for our country.

Posted by: peterbridges | December 15, 2010 7:31 PM

Holbrooke was a glorified Bimbo. For all the talk - what did he actually do?

Posted by: KrautKiller | December 15, 2010 5:29 PM

Ms. McGregor -- Today's column about the late Richard Holbrooke reflects a characteristic of you that I find somewhat disconcerting -- that is, the immaturity that characterizes much of your writing and your propensity for judgment.

You opine that Mr. Holbrooke had a giant ego because he had a goal toward which he worked. Rather than characterizing this in pejorative terms, you might want to think of Mr. Holbrooke as a human being who was goal-directed (a positive characteristic in most people's books) and as one who exhibited a healthy degree of self-assurance or self-confidence. You have already noted that he was extremely intelligent and a person who was willing to help others. I think that most mental health professionals would think that those are very desirable characteristics in the human adult.

Perhaps you have just stretched a bit too far to write a column, and perhaps the latest in newspaper writing is to focus on the negative aspects of any story. But you do both yourself and the subject of your story a great disservice by doing so.

Posted by: marmac5 | December 15, 2010 1:35 PM


IRAQ: In January 2001, Holbrooke said that "Iraq will be one of the major issues facing the incoming Bush administration at the United Nations." Further, "Saddam Hussein's activities continue to be unacceptable and, in my view, dangerous to the region and, indeed, to the world, not only because he possesses the potential for weapons of mass destruction but because of the very nature of his regime. His willingness to be cruel internally is not unique in the world, but the combination of that and his willingness to export his problems makes him a clear and present danger at all times."

On February 24, 2007, Holbrooke delivered the Democratic Party's weekly radio address and called for "a new strategy in Iraq", involving "a careful, phased redeployment of U.S. troops" and a "new diplomatic offensive in the Gulf region to help stabilize Iraq."

AFGHANISTAN - Holbrooke claimed the US and coalition presence in Afghanistan is not an occupation, but that they are there at the request of the Afghan people.

EAST TIMOR CONTROVERSY - In August 1977, then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke traveled to Indonesia to meet with Suharto in the midst of one of the Indonesian military’s brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in East Timor in which tens of thousands of East Timorese were being killed. According to Brad Simpson, Holbrooke visited officially to press for human rights reform. Once Suharto was met by Holbrooke, Suharto was praised for Indonesia’s human rights improvements and was told that Holbrooke in fact welcomed the steps that Indonesia had taken to open East Timor to the West, allowing a delegation of congressmen to enter the territory under strict military guard, where they were greeted by staged celebrations, welcoming the Indonesian armed forces. Simpson alleges that "Behind the scenes, Holbrooke and Zbigniew Brzezinski played point in trying to frustrate the efforts of congressional human rights activists to condition or stop US military assistance to Indonesia and in fact accelerated the flow of weapons to Indonesia."

KARADZIC CONTROVERSY - According to Radovan Karadžić and Muhamed Sacirbey, ex-Bosnian Foreign Minister, Holbrooke signed an agreement with Karadžić that if the latter withdrew from politics he would not be sent to the Hague tribunal. Holbrooke denied these terms, saying Karadžić's statement was "a flat-out lie."

COUNTRYWIDE FINANCIAL LOAN SCANDAL - In June 2008, Conde Nast Portfolio reported that Holbrooke and his son allegedly got multiple below-rate loans at Countrywide Financial because the corporation considered them "FOA's"—"Friends of Angelo" (Countrywide Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo).

CONCLUSION: With all respects to Holbrokke's family over their loss -- but to say that Holbrooke was a MAN OF PEACE is a contradiction to the reality of the facts.

Posted by: djoh1226 | December 15, 2010 9:52 AM

“Colossal ego and considerations for those below are two attributes would seem to be contradictory. Richard Holbrooke is man who has been described as having a "colossal ego," intent on clawing his way up to the government's top post and guilty of arrogance and know-it-all-ism, would not seem to be a man who had time for those beneath him. Those known to have large egos tend to be self-centered and narcissistic, not accessible and generous.” This is the considered judgment of Staff writer Jena McGregor. This smart psychological assessment do not always hold true. An head of state in a non-English speaking country have for years been abused for his self centered aggrandize and know it all attitude but the his close staff still holds him in high regards for his considerations and concern for their wellbeing. There is a riddle well known among Internet enthusiasts’ and worth repeating;

It is time to elect a new world leader, and only your vote counts. Here are the facts
about the three leading candidates.

Candidate A - Associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologists. He's
had two Mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 Martinis a day.

Candidate B – Poor result in school. He was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college, smokes cigars and drinks a quart of whiskey every evening. Very rude to his staff. Dislikes coloured people.

Candidate C - He is a decorated war hero. He's a vegetarian, doesn't smoke, drinks an occasional beer and never cheated on his wife. Very considerate to his staff.

Which of these candidates would be your choice? Decide first, no peeking, and then scroll down for the answer.
Candidate A is Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Candidate B is Winston Churchill.
Candidate C is Adolf Hitler.

Posted by: jibsail | December 15, 2010 9:30 AM

Holbroke deserved the Nobel Peace Prize because he achieved the end of the Balkans War. Where was Obama then?

Posted by: karrasvan | December 14, 2010 9:14 PM

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