Gen. David Petraeus on How to Disagree With the Boss

General Petraeus (on left) is interviewed by Jeff Cunningham.

In my interview with America’s most decorated war hero, General David Petraeus, now a partner of private equity firm KKR, we discussed his time in the Oval Office and the importance of sticking with principles, even when the recipient doesn’t want to hear it.

The first lesson a senior executive learns is there aren’t many good ways to disagree with the CEO.

For General Petraeus, his entire career prepared him for the moment President Obama asked him to take over the command of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. The mission was impossible, as a handful of failed predecessors could attest. The strategy was to manage an orderly drawdown of our troops, while leaving behind a stable country in a land run by warlords and militias. It would require the determination of a Spartan warrior with the humanitarian instincts of a Peace Corps volunteer.

“What does an executive do when facing a determined boss or a board that has already made up its mind on a key decision?”

Petraeus graciously accepted the Commander in Chief’s assignment, but not without a warning. He needed to be sure Obama understood what kind of battlefield commander he was getting, and he wanted to spell this out even it made things awkward. It was the only way Petraeus felt he would always be able to give the President unvarnished advice.

For any business executive involved in a crisis, you know the impact of shading the facts or understating challenges, it always ends badly. That was the circumstance Petraeus wanted to avoid.

Here are General Petraeus’ comments from our interview:

“When President Obama first asked me to take on the assignment in Afghanistan, we sat together in the Oval Office to discuss the challenges. I felt very strongly it was important — if he was choosing me to do the job — to know who he was getting.”

So I said in the clearest terms, “Mr. President, you should understand that I will provide my best professional military advice based first on the facts on the ground — and then by the mission you’ve given us, informed by the issues with which you have to deal uniquely.”

To the President, it may have sounded like the kind of thing a General says to a President. But to Petraeus, it was a marker that he would use later to defend his position at a time the President became engaged in the politics of war, as the election of 2012 drew near.

As the war’s unpopularity grew, the President was under pressure by party stalwarts to change things up. He pushed the timetable and level of troop withdrawals and then asked Petraeus if he agreed.

What does an executive do when facing a determined boss or a board that has already made up its mind on a key decision? Do you stand your ground when you know they are wrong or do you capitulate to the powerful, as have legions of executives from Enron to Lehman Brothers?

General Petraeus had carefully studied the facts, as only a Princeton Ph.D. can do, and came to his position without the undue influence of politics. I asked him, how then do you challenge the Commander in Chief?

You do it, as the expression goes, carefully.

In their subsequent Oval Office meeting, when Obama suggested the accelerated drawdown, he waited for the General’s agreement.

Petraeus responded by first listening to the points the President made, including the politics.

Then came the General’s turn to respond, and he said, “I’ll be aware of those matters, but my advice will always be determined by facts on the ground, as I said earlier. 

And If those facts are unchanged (as they are today), so my advice, too, is unchanged. That was an interesting, tense moment.”

Leadership when viewed from close up is a series of bold decisions, often in the face of diverse opinions. If your decision making is guided by a careful study of the facts and you make that clear up front, you are likely to achieve a fair number of victories, including on the battlefield.

For the complete interview, click on the image below:

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham is Chief Executive magazine's editor-at-large and a professor of leadership at Arizona State University/Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he has also endowed the Cunningham Global Fellowship for next-generation leaders. He also is the founder of Thunderbird Opinions poll of business trends. He was previously publisher of Forbes Magazine and CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk). Watch his YouTube interviews at Iconic Voices and connect on Twitter @CunninghamJeff and LinkedIn.

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