General Petraeus on leadership

Interview by Brian O'Keefe, senior editor


(Fortune Magazine) -- Long a star soldier, David Petraeus won wide acclaim for engineering the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq. Now, as head of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, the 57-year-old Army officer oversees all U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. We asked him what he's learned about leadership.

What was the key to leading a successful turnaround in Iraq?

In the position I occupied in Iraq as the commander of our forces there, what I could do and sought to do was establish the big ideas. An example is the counterinsurgency guide. Those were the big ideas that guided us in Iraq.

And you have to be able to communicate them effectively. I did it on day one -- sent a letter to the troops, to the commanders. And you just echo it and re-echo it in every forum, in every communications opportunity you have.

But at a certain point that can only be an azimuth to the lieutenant, to the captain, to the sergeant, to the battalion commander. It may have right and left lines, if you will, on the road, but at the end of the day, they're the ones who have to translate that into activity.

When you're evaluating yourself, what qualities do you try to focus on?

On every bit of guidance I give, the last instruction is: Learn and adapt. We also work very hard on [being] first with the truth. That's a powerful admonition: First of all, we're going to tell the truth. We're not going to put lipstick on pigs. We're going to be absolutely 100% forthright and brutally honest with -- not just with ourselves and with our subordinates and our superiors -- but with the press. The credibility of leaders is of enormous importance.

How do you identify which officers are going to make the best leaders?

There has to be a foundational level of just sheer physical fitness. As we say sometimes, soldiering is still an outdoor sport. There is a certain degree of mental toughness. There's obviously integrity. There is sheer professional expertise -- technical and tactical competence. But what then starts, I think, to separate the future stars from the rest of the pack are some other qualities. And now you're getting into judgment, just hugely important. Whether you think about it or not, subconsciously, who do you go to when you really want to bounce an idea off someone? That's the person who has judgment that you value.

Do you have a particular leadership hero or role model?

I do. I think Ulysses Grant was vastly underrated, and not only as a general. I think gradually people have grudgingly come to recognize extraordinary qualities that he had. There's a great book by Jean Edward Smith titled Grant, and Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton is another. I think those two together are truly both really great works. He just had this sheer determination: "I'll fight it out all summer on this line if I have to." Of course he ended up having to fight not just all summer, but all fall, all winter, and into the spring. To top of page