Contrary to what many expect, part of leadership is recognizing that it is not all about you. Instead, you have to think of the team. Merging those will then get you the winning team culture you need. In this episode, host Bill Higgs sits down with General David Petraeus, a former CIA Director and Commander of United States Central Command. With his background and experience, General Petraeus takes us deeper into leadership and creating a winning team culture that organizations need in order to excel. He also talks about the understanding change in large organizations and highlights a few of those that he took from the events that happened in his career. Discover lessons from the military you can apply in your organization with the insights shared here.
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David Petraeus Former CIA Director & Commander Of United States Central Command on Leadership & Winning Team Culture
On this episode, we are with General David Petraeus. He’s an unbelievable guest. I’m happy to be here. We are a guest of his at KKR here in New York City. He’s a Partner and Chairman of the Global Institute. I cannot imagine a better person to help understand investment on a global level than General Petraeus. He was on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World and runner up for Man of the Year. David and I are classmates from West Point, where we had similar paths. We were both what’s called a Star Man at West Point, being in the top 5% of our class academically. We played on the Division I soccer team. David was a halfback and I was a sweeper fullback. I outscored him in the Army-Navy game, but my goal was for the Army instead of the Navy. A little ignominious there, but I ended up being seventh high score on the Navy team that year, which was pretty cool.
After graduation, we both got together again in Ranger School, where David was number one in the class graduation. It was a winter ranger, which we think is the tougher ranger class to go through. After that, we visited reunions and key changes of command as David rose through the ranks, commanding at every level in the Army while also getting a doctorate from Princeton in International Relations and Economics, two courses that he went back and taught at West Point. I think that’s a bone he has in his body. He is always trying to teach and help younger people as they grow.
When General Petraeus became director of the CIA, our classmates were pumped up. We said, “We’re finally going to learn what’s in Area 51.” He understands leadership to an unbelievable level. This is going to be some great golden nuggets in what we talk about. He also understands the change in large organizations and has been very successful in doing it. Hopefully, he’ll highlight a few of those things that he did when we were talking about the surge and some other events that happen in his career. David is a generational level leader and we are certainly honored to have him with us. Dave, give us a little bit on where you grew up and how you go into West Point?
Bill, first of all, it’s great to be reunited with you. It’s over 45 years ago that we were running up and down the soccer fields of West Point and jousting with the academic department and all the rest of that. Thanks for reminding me of the tremendous distinction you earned scoring a goal for the Navy on the soccer field. There is no question that there are winter rangers and then all the others. I grew up seven miles north of West Point on the Hudson River. A community that was filled with individuals who were faculty and staff at West Point and a number of others who were retired officers. The coach of our soccer team, which in the senior year won the championship in his glory days was someone who had coached at West Point years and years earlier and had played.
The math teacher I had was well in many respects. As I was going through high school, I realized that I had developed quite a bit of admiration for those who were at West Point and had gone to West Point. I even had some contact with the cadets because we did a fair amount of athletic activities over there. Their ski slope, in a sense, our home ski slope. I wanted to be like Mike at the end of the day. I think a lot of what we do in life is because we see someone like Mike and we want to be like Mike. In this case, Mike was individuals that were graduates of or connected to West Point in some way. That’s how I ended up there in the class of 1974 taking the oath on the plane with you in early July of 1970.
How was your first day? Any crazy memories from that first day?
It was jarring as any first day for any West Point cadet. I perhaps had the disadvantage. We would sit at the chapel at Trophy Point there is look out over the Hudson River. Believe it or not, one of the times I saw my father sailing by in the family’s sailboat. I wanted to say, “Dad, come back.” It was only seven miles around Storm King Mountain to Cornwall and Hudson but it seemed as if it was a million miles. As you recall it, it’s an experience that has some wonderful moments, but there’s an awful lot of moments that frankly, while you’re there as a cadet make you eager to see the place in your rearview mirror. The farther you are from the experience itself, the fonder you become of it. When you appreciate even some of the more difficult challenges that are thrown your way, you start to understand perhaps why they were doing it.
Did you know Colonel Nye in the Social Department? He did a study and Rick Morales, who is on the team with us, showed me this study. He was evaluating how much power a Department of Physical Education had versus the dean for academics versus the commandant for the military. He tracked it from 1938 until 1988 and from 1970 to 1977, all three of them peaked. When Colonel Nye showed me this thing I said, “No wonder this place was so crazy.” We were getting hit by all three because the core had doubled in size and he didn’t want to lose the quality of the product coming out.
It’s an interesting experience as you well know that it’s not just academic. It is very much physical particularly if you’re playing intercollegiate athletics as we did. In fact, I played three seasons a year because they had soccer in the fall and the spring and then skiing in the winter. Of course, you have the leadership component of it, that aspect. In senior year and all the way through, you are in various other responsibilities. You put all those together. I remember you’d arrive at dinner and we would always be late because we’d been beating our brains out on a soccer field or on the ski slopes. You’re just perpetually tired. Among the many challenges that were certainly pretty high on the list is that you’re about at the edge of what you can physically handle.
We went to school six days a week and did 160 credit hours in four years.
Six days of math. In all different respects, it was a challenging endeavor. You appreciate that a lot more when there’s a little bit of distance from it and when you’ve caught up in your sleep a bit. To be candid, many years later in a number of different assignments, particularly in combat and especially during the surge in Iraq or the surge in Afghanistan, you’re at your physical existence as well. You’re at the edge of how much you can handle. You’re working seven days a week and the pressure is reasonably intense.The farther you are from the experience itself, the fonder you become of it. Click To Tweet
They were trying to do that to us in those four years and prepare us for what was potentially going to happen in that future.
That’s repeated in ranger school. It was among if not the best leadership courses in the entire military. The stress is by making you do an enormous amount of physical activity on a patrol or physical training or all these different activities to see how you respond when you are seriously fatigued, worn out, cold and hungry.
The food is one C-Ration a day.
A lot of what was done overtime was revised because it was not healthy and there were some disasters that took place as a result of very serious cold injuries. In fact, hypothermia because of a flash flood that costs a number of West Point graduates lives in a single class, including as I recall, a Rhodes Scholar.
You’d lose some top talent. The revisions that they’ve done were good to make it a little bit safer.
It’s not easy by any means. It’s very absolute standards, but in the same way that West Point has also gone through some rationalization. One of the aspects of West Point that was troubling to me over the years was the actions of the leaders would not have worked in the real Army. Instead of the leaders eating last, the leaders ate first. If there was extra food, the leader got it not in hazing and all of this. It was the Mickey Mouse hazing that was most troubling on reflection and happily, the academy took a hard look at itself and has instituted a number of changes over the last couple of decades in particular that were very wise. It’s still a very challenging place but a more sensible approach to leadership in particular.
When I was going through that beast barracks in the first summer, my first beast squad leader was more of just haze it and Mickey Mouse stuff. My second squad leader was a leader that set the bar high and wanted you to exceed that bar. That guy saved me because that’s the kind of leader I want to be. I didn’t like this other leader. I remember when we talked at the 10th reunion. A whole bunch of our classmates was back teaching at the 10th reunion. When I talked to you about the jobs that you had had in those first ten years, it was like you did 30% more than I thought was even possible. It seems like you’ve always been in a motive overachieving as you’re working through your career and trying to do it as much as you can and learn as much as you could.
Life is a competitive endeavor and the sooner you acknowledge that, the better. The key is you’re certainly trying to be all that you can be. You’re trying to be the best if you can, but you also realize that sometimes you are competing to be the best team player, not just the best player, period. I think that’s an equally important recognition that it’s not always about you. It’s much more often about the team that you’re a part of and how you can help the team be as good as it can possibly be. Years later, indeed in the fight to Baghdad, I was a two-star General, a division commander of about 20,000 troops or so, 254 helicopters, 101st Airborne Division. Each of the three army division commanders wanted to be the one who liberated Baghdad or took Baghdad international airfield.
At a certain point, I realized that the Third Infantry Division Mechanized was the one that was best configured, had a huge number of M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles. All the heavy stuff that probably was best suited for accomplishing that mission. We certainly had an extraordinary armada of 72 heavy attack helicopters, Apaches alone. We decided that they should be the main effort clearly, and they were within the core, but we need to focus on facilitating their movement forward. We can do that by using our Apaches in front of them. We can do it by clearing the cities that are in the rear of them that they have bypassed and that we’re right on our lines of communications and otherwise would have prevented the logistics that were all important for the mechanized unit. They suck it.
They hate to outrun their logistics.
They went black on certain types of ammunition. That means they went down below a certain level. I got a call from the other division commander, Major General Buff Blount who earned a Silver Star during that fight and deserved it. He said, “Do you got any 155-millimeter howitzer ammunition?” I said, “I do, but why don’t I give you the entire unit? Because there’s no sense downloading it, putting it on trucks. It’s already uploaded on the guns and on everything. You can have the unit.” That’s the quickest way that we could help him. There were a number of other cases like this. Frankly, the 82nd Airborne Division, which was to our south fighting to the north to Baghdad recognized as well, “We’re not going to jump on Baghdad airport just as the 101st is not going to air assault on it. Let’s put our parachutes away and let’s help secure lines of communication.”
Let’s be the infantry people.
I think that recognition is an example of what it is that you’ve got to keep in perspective as you are competing to be the best, as you are trying to help your unit, your organization be the absolute best that it can be. It’s generally within a greater team and at the end of the day, as Stan McChrystal often used to say, “A team of teams.” That’s what you’ve got to get right.
One of the things that I push a lot is making heroes of others. What you were doing was breaking down the silos between the units and then you are trying to set third up to be a hero and get in there and get the job done.
They were the best equipped, the best trained, the readiest for that particular mission and we need to acknowledge that. We had some extraordinary capabilities as well. Indeed, those included very large numbers of light infantry went off the helicopters and that’s effective in clearing cities, which is what needed to happen to get the enemy off the lines of communication, which extended hundreds of miles back to Kuwait. Always trying to make heroes of people and help to coach them, encouraging them, incentivizing them to be all that they can be, referring back to that good old recruiting slogan that we used to have.
To help each other. One of the things you’d like to talk about is big ideas and you went through a couple of them right there. One of your philosophies is to get the big ideas right and then everybody would be able to align up under those. Could you expand on that a little bit?
This is important for any leader to get the big ideas right for the situation which he or she finds themselves, but if you are the strategic leader of the organization or the co-leader, say a co-CEO as we have here at KKR, your job is to get the big ideas right for the entire organization. You are the ones who are determining, “Are we going straight, left, right, backwards? What are we going to do?” For example, I would submit certainly as the commander of the surge in Iraq, very significant strategic leadership position. It’s the same in Afghanistan and in CIA. Even as a three-star in the Army when we overhauled all aspects or preparing our leaders, units, organizations, equipment for deployment and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the surge.
I’ve often noted that the surge of ideas was more important than the surge of forces. It was a very dramatic shift. It was 180 degrees in most of the major elements. We were at a point where we thought what we needed to be doing was handing off to the Iraqis the security responsibilities and consolidating on big bases and getting out of the neighborhoods. Clearly, that had been invalidated and we needed to go back downtown. The biggest of the big ideas was that we must secure and serve the people and we can only do that by living with them given the enemy’s situation and the situation of our friendly forces counterparts. Iraqis had been beaten up and they needed in many cases to be pulled offline, reconstituted and then brought back in the fight and not given the responsibility again until we’d driven the violence way down and driven their capability way up and they could handle that situation. That was huge.
There was another big idea that we can’t kill or capture our way out of an industrial-strength insurgency. We’re going to have to reconcile with as many of the rank and file, not the senior leaders of Al-Qaeda or Sunni insurgents or the Shia militia supported by Iran. Often through their Sheiks of the tribes because these are very important elements, especially in the rural areas. We set about doing that and stripping them away while we even intensified, made much greater effort to go after the senior leaders who we assessed to be irreconcilable with our special mission units and with those that against Stan McChrystal and Bill McRaven who took over from him as the JSOC commander, Joint Special Operations Command.
This is a handful of big ideas. There were a number of others that we pursued and most of these were 180 degrees different from what we’d been doing before. My point is that we could have had 25,000 or 30,000 extra troops if we just kept doing what we were doing previously. Probably it would have improved the situation, but it wouldn’t have moved the needle. It wouldn’t have driven violence down by 85% which is what we accomplished when our troops brought about together with our Iraqi coalition counterparts over the course of the eighteen months of the surge of forces.
As part of implementing that big idea, you needed to get the lieutenants, the captains and the first sergeants because they’re on the ground meeting face to face with the families and the people. They had to understand the big idea to implement for you.
There are four tasks of a strategic leader. The first and most important is getting the big ideas right. Even if you get that right, there are still three other crucial tasks. You have to communicate the big ideas effectively throughout the rank and file, the breadth and depth of the organization so that the strategic lieutenants or strategic sergeant as we used to call them. They are carrying out tactical actions that can have strategic consequences usually if they go wrong. They have to understand the intent at my level and be able to translate that into action at their level, underbody armor, Kevlar with a weapon outside the wire and never knowing if they will be greeted with a hand grenade or a handshake and responding appropriately to either one. You’ve got to communicate that.When trying to be the best you can, also realize that you are competing to be the best team player, not just the best player. Click To Tweet
This was the very first-day speech, you take command. You remember the change of command, you take the colors, you give them back to the sergeant major. You go to the podium after the central command commander in that case that very first day and you’re brief at that one. I say, “If we must secure the people, we can only do it by living with them” and gather all the commanders. They’re present for the ceremony. We had a quick huddle for 30 minutes or more and said, “We’re going back downtown.” They don’t need much more than that. They got it, “We got it.” We’re no longer consolidating on a big basis. We’re going to go back.
This is 77 additional locations just in the Baghdad division area alone and dozens more in other areas of Iraq as well. I put out a letter to the troops on the very first day. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and civilians. It was well-over 200,000 in uniform alone or close to that. Ultimately, it was once we had the additional 25,000 or 30,000 Americans on the ground and then the like number of civilians believe it or not. Contractors who we depended on so that we could use our men and women in uniform for what only they could do, which is to go outside the wire and engage the enemy or the population.
You needed more manpower helping behind.
We wanted to maximize the effect of those who were in uniform. We did that by handing off a lot of tasks. That was another big idea. Although, that was something we’ve been doing all along. We just did it even more aggressively. You communicate this. I’ve put out counter-insurgency guidance. We redid the whole campaign plan. You’re constantly communicating. That would be three to four months, I’ve put another letter out to the troops and say, “Here’s where I think we are. Here’s how I see what’s going on. Here’s what we need to focus on.” Every time I went back to testify before the Congress in Washington, I would put a letter out before I headed back. They had a sense of where I was headed in terms of ideas, not just in terms of geography. That’s the second task, communicate in the big ideas. You have to do it up and out to the press, the coalition, country leaders.
It’s a never-ending task and you never stop. You always re-emphasize the big ideas perhaps refined a bit as you go along. The third task is that you have to oversee the implementation of the big ideas. This is how do you spend your time. We had a huge matrix that showed what I did every single day of the week, a few days of the week, once a week, every other week, every month. For example, we gathered all the division commanders together every month. Once a quarter, the ambassador and I would sit down for six hours and painstakingly review the status of our achievement.
You’re trying to win each day, each week, each month and each quarter.
It’s all there. That includes getting out and seeing it for yourself twice a week. We would right after the morning update, which started promptly at 7:30. I have gotten up at 5:15 or 5:30, a cup of coffee, read the overnight intel book quickly and then go through another book while pedaling a stationary bike or you’re working out as well. A quick breakfast and you’re in your seat at 7:30 in the headquarters for the hour-long battle update and analysis. After that, there were a couple of small meetings that we’d have with the country that we had special intelligence with. Sometimes just with the three-star Corps Commander, then we would get right away into an armored vehicle to go downtown Baghdad or a helicopter to go a little farther or a plane to go even farther.
You’re touching it and feeling it.
You have to do that. You get out and we would go on patrol. We didn’t go to a headquarters and sit and get PowerPointed to death. In fact, I didn’t allow them to do that. We would go to the hood of a Humvee and showed me a couple of slides and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s how we assess the situation.”
I want grease pencils and a map.
You’ve got to see it for yourself. You’re giving energy, you’re providing an example, you are looking at metrics and you’ve got to determine what are the metrics that matter and how are they developed? What are the sources of information? How are they deconflicted? You’ve got to know whether you’re winning or losing. Some metrics you riveted on. For example, for us, a huge one was what we call sensational attacks. These are the big car bombs, the big suicide explosion.
They’re trying to get the news media around it.
You’re getting some terrible days over 100 Iraqis killed in market bombings. You got to drive those down. There’s a whole variety of ways that you focused on that particular problem. There are others, civilian loss of life due to violence. It was huge. There were 53 dead civilians due to violence every 24 hours in Baghdad the month that the President announced the surge. That is a capital city that’s out of control and we had to drive that down. Of course, it’s your own casualties, number of attacks per day, number of weapons caches found, number of high-value targets. It’s all of this. Over time it became megawatts of electricity produced each day. It became barrels of oil produced. The bridges because they were all blown up by the insurgents, on and on.
You try to rebuild the infrastructure.
These are the metrics and you have to focus on this. The organization tends to do what the boss focuses on, as you well know, having been a strategic leader. That’s the third task. That’s the one that you normally associate with leadership. It’s energy, encouragement, the culture, the context, measuring, hiring great people and inspiring them. It’s allowing those that aren’t measuring up to move on to something else. It’s your presence, what do you do and so forth. There’s a fourth task though and that’s often overlooked. That is you have to go through formal processes. We had a couple of these that force you to revisit the big ideas and lots of the other ideas as well. Obviously, there are subordinate ideas. It forces you to review whether or not they’re right still and whether or not they need to be revised. We used to say shot by the side of the road and left behind or new ones picked up. As an example, on the battle rhythm, once a month, one hour a month, all of the chiefs have the lessons learned teams would come in. As you’ll recall, we had army lessons learned, Marine Corps lessons learned, joint force lessons learned and special operations lessons learned, asymmetric warfare group, we had counter-insurgency center.
They could push back on you on the big idea.
One of the aspects of culture that you want to create is that people will tell the boss if they respectfully disagree or if he’s not fully clothed that day. You do need to know. You have to create a culture in which people will do that. We went to great lengths to do that, including every time I would go out there twice-a-week patrols. At the end of it, I’d gathered the company commanders from that particular battalion or brigade, the captains who had been there long enough. Most of them are on their second tour and they know the casualties. They know those who are killed or seriously wounded by not just number or name. They know it by face. These are individuals. They feel the responsibility perhaps more intensely than anybody else and their experience. I wanted their views and I would go around the room, everybody had to give me, “What do you want us to sustain?” In other words, “What do you want us to keep doing no matter what happens and what do you want us to improve or stop doing?” They couldn’t say, “Me too,” to what somebody else said.
There was only a relatively small number, a handful or two hands full. At the end of that, I would give them my email address and I would say, “I know that you feel the responsibility perhaps more than anyone else. You should not shrink from shooting me an email if your chain of command is not responding in the way that you feel is appropriate to something that is very serious to you.” I would get two or three of those a week. I would try to conceal how I got that and ask the three-star to look into this or that. They had a sense. They knew that there were people coming directly, but that’s one of the techniques among many that you use. In any event, re-looking at the big ideas. We did it as well. I had a weekly session with the planners and they would force me because as you know when you are at the edge of what you can physically handle and keep in mind, the environment, especially in the summer, was pretty harsh. It’s over 100 degrees. The sun is hammering you, you got body armor, Kevlar and you’re getting just enough sleep.
You push off some of this stuff, “Let’s do that some other time.” You can’t force yourself in your battle rhythm that they’re going to come to you and they say, “Boss, we’ve got to get a decision. The forces are coming in. To whom are they going to be allocated? Where are they going?” It’s the same with the subordinate commanders need you to make decisions. You have to create that requirement. You have to force yourself with what we termed action-forcing mechanisms on the calendar to make sure that you are making the decisions that you need to make to refine the big ideas or other ideas so that the organization is moving in the direction that it needs to go.
The captains, when you’re visiting with them, one of the prompts that happens, it’s a very fluid environment. Did they have the freedom? They know your intent. They know what the orders are, but if the situations change because they say, “If General Petraeus was here, I think this is what he would want me to do here” and then make the decision to change that.
The best example of this was a sign on a company commanders plywood door of his command post and it said on it, “In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what they should have been and execute aggressively.”
Put yourself in the general’s shoes.The surge of ideas is more important than the surge of forces. Click To Tweet
In my counter-insurgency guidance, which was a whole series of admonitions, secure and serve the people. One of them was walk, promote reconciliation, pursue the irreconcilables even more intensely than we already are. There was one that said, “Promotes initiative.” These were constantly being updated. That’s part of the culture. You want to promote initiative. You’re privileged to lead or to command in the case of the military. You have to understand that you’re going to back them if they do something that’s reasonable that doesn’t go well. In some cases, there are things that don’t go well because they made a bad decision, that’s a tougher case. Generally, you’ve got to stand behind those that you have empowered and that’s part of empowerment.
I went over in June to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. I was on the steak team mission. We fed steaks to the paratroopers. You got the 101st Airborne, which just a gung-ho unit with a great culture. When we’re feeding the paratroopers, twelve guys came through first with red caps on and then other guys are coming through. I said, “What was with the guys with the red caps?” They said, “Those are the guys that pack the parachutes. We always feed those guys first.”
That’s the rigger. Nobody ever mistreats a rigger.
I’m like, “That’s good culture right there.” They all know those riggers by name and they make sure the rigger knows who they are. I was pretty impressed with that.
That’s a very important task to put up mildly. Each time you step out of the door at 800 to 1,000 feet, there’s a tremendous amount of trust. I jumped at the 50th Anniversary of D-Day as a member of the 101st at that time and then also served as a brigade commander in the 82nd Airborne and then assistant division commander there.
I liked that because of this 93-year-old paratrooper, Norwood who had jumped into Sainte-Mere-Eglise at 1:22 in the morning on D-Day. I go down to breakfast and he didn’t want to go to Omaha Beach for the ceremony. He’s sitting there by himself at breakfast and I got to hear his whole story. You’d be impressed. You had visited with him at some ceremony three years before and he says, “You’re in class of ‘74. Do you know General Petraeus?” I said, “Yes, I’m going to see him in another month.” He said, “Tell him I was impressed that he talked to me.”
It’s maybe in Holland when I was a four-star, when I was a US Central Command commander, after Iraq and before Afghanistan. I went to the 65th Anniversary and because I’d been in both the 82nd and the 101st, we had nonstop opportunities to see the old paratroopers. That was among the last of the years. As you recognize, there’s a very small number of those who are still alive, much less mobile. They were truly extraordinary Americans jumping out into the night with tracer ripping in the air and the planes are flying all over. They’re off their drop zones.
In Sainte-Mere-Eglise is where that guy was hanging from the steeple.
The mannequin is still there. The whole culture though of those organizations, was built around the idea of what’s called little groups of paratroopers. They’re dropped into the dark.
Wake up with whoever you can.
You got your clicker and you click it. You find a friend and there are two of you, you find a few more and then you figure out what mission can we accomplish based on where we are.
Because the wind was blowing and people got scattered everywhere.
The planes were flying all over the sky because of the enemy fire. If you looked at how many were dropped at other than the assigned drop zones, it’s quite substantial. It’s a miracle that the Air Force could get them all in there given how many planes were shut down.
I experienced that in ranger school. There were six of us that went marked for night drop zones for you airborne guys. We were cutting guys out of trees. Why do we even mark this a drop zone? Why isn’t anybody dropping in? Just the way that the winds go, it’s tough to do it. I’d read the book, The Nightingale, before I went there and it was about the occupation in Loire Valley. I was so amazed at the French people. When you say you’re American, they’re shaking your hand and they’re saying, “You guys rescued us.” If we didn’t come, they know what the result would have been. How do you leave your country to come to free us?
They’re truly appreciative. The same is true in Holland, seven-plus decades later. It’s extraordinary. I lived with a French family for a couple of nights until I realized that they were so hospitable, they were literally going to wear us out. We’re having to get up at 5:30 every morning. We went and found other accommodations where we’d be able to get to bed before 3:00 in the morning.
Because they just want to talk and thank you and tell stories.
It’s very kind of them but it was about to kill us.
They did the re-enactment the next day after we fed them. We’re in the fields and the fifteen planes are coming over dropping people and then fifteen more planes come. You talk to the French people and they said, “The sound of those planes at night, we knew liberty was coming back to us.” I want to hit another subject. Not too long ago, some West Point women made it through the ranger school, which was huge. These are some tough girls. My last CEO is Michele McNichol and everybody said that she was great at connecting, good at vision casting and a great leader. Now that you’re in the corporate world on a large scale, are you seeing things change to where there’s not so much of a glass ceiling for women to move up in these organizations?
Yes, very much so.
It’s changing the Army.
Most businesses and keep in mind, we own about 100 companies around the world. We have a pretty good vantage point. It’s not quite a million people anymore that are employed by all of these, but it’s a very substantial workforce and certainly at the headquarters of KKR. There’s a huge effort to have your workforce as much as you can represent the customer base and the population. The same way that the Army and all the military have focused on having a population that is roughly that of the citizens that we represent and serve. You certainly want to have something like that in the business world. I think there’s a big commitment to that. It has to do with diversity as well.
It’s getting away from a white male leadership to be very inclusive. The key with the Army, with ranger school and it just so happened that the commander of the Range Training Brigade at the time the first woman earned the ranger tab was my former aid from the invasion of Iraq and also served with me in Bosnia even before that. He’s a paratrooper in the 82nd at my brigade and then came to the 101st. I was talking to him and he said, “Sir, the key is having clear, established, sensible standards. They aren’t changing. They’re the same for male or female. There are no age points. You either meet the standard or you don’t.” We’re very clear about that.
Indeed, it took a while before there was a woman who was able to make it through and now they’ve cracked the code. They know how to train up for it. They’re mentoring each other. You’ve got to have somebody who breaks through. If there’s no one who looks like you do in a headquarters, there’s certainly no one to put an arm around you and say, “Here’s how you can succeed in this organization.” You’ve got to find individuals. They have to walk point as they say for their gender, their ethnicity and their orientation. You name it, whatever it may be. We’re very committed to that here at KKR and throughout the organizations that make up the greater KKR family. The 100-plus companies or so around the world.
I like you using the term crack the code because what I did, I tried to bring military stuff. I got out after five years and I wanted to try and bring that into the civilian world and create a culture that was as tight as some of the ones you did in the military. I was amazed at how people responded to it once we finally got it going. It was a blast. What I’m trying to do is crack the code for people on how to create that culture. Some of the things that you’ve talked about are right in line with the leadership and the culture. It’s two sides of the same coin. One of the things that we’re going to do, Dave, is we’re going to start a Culture Code Champions Hall of Fame. I want to put you in it because I think you’re a world-class leader and the things you’ve done for America are unbelievable. I want to put you in there for contribution. When you think about that, what would you want to be known and remembered for being in that Hall of Fame?
I think if you come back to what we’ve talked about, in each organization, whether it’s at the very top of “Strategic leader” in Iraq or Afghanistan, or in one of the organizations that are part of that overarching entity, you’re always trying to get the big ideas right. What matters in this organization? That ultimately becomes a big part of your culture because that’s what matters. That’s what you’re focused on. That’s where you put the effort and put the resources and all the rest of that. I’d like to think that if you went to any of the great air assault troopers that were part of the Third Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment when I was privileged to command it and you asked them what was Petraeus a nut about that get it right.
They would say he was a nut about discipline and the standards and everything else who were all there and it’s all written down and it’s all codified and he inspected it very clearly. There was physical and mental toughness. He was a nut about physical training. We locked the doors of the barracks for 90 minutes and did physical training. There were standards for this. We never went into the gym as units because you can’t get an effective workout with 50 or 100 troopers in there. In fact, most of the time the gym when you’d like to go to it is when it’s cold and wet. It’s crowded. We used to call it weight watching, not weight lifting. We’re also infantrymen and we believe that rain is infantry and sunshine. You’re all weather soldiers. Small unit drills were conducted and there are live-fire exercises. We had such a rigorous program that you may recall I got shot during one of these. It was a freak accident right through the chest. I survived to tell about it. I got to meet Dr. Bill Frist, the future majority leader of the Senate as the result of that because he conducted the thoracic surgery.
It was a few inches from being mortal.
Thank God, it went over the A in Petraeus instead of the A in Army, which would have been right over my heart. It was about ranger qualification and we had three times the number of enlisted ranger graduates during the two years. I was privileged to get in on any other battalion in the Army, outside the ranger regiment. Since we were an air assault unit, 101st Airborne Division Air Assault, we focused a great deal on air assault tactics, techniques, and procedures. Lots of helicopters at night with heavy loads slung underneath them, seek out air assaults, all the rest of this stuff. This is all within this overarching culture that embraces the reality that life is a competitive endeavor. Everything we did was we had competitions endlessly. We had the best rifle squad, the best mortar squad and the best sniper.
You name any aspect that we had and there was a competition in an inevitably ended with a ruck run with all their gear and it would finish right in front of the headquarters, whoever was determined to be the winner, because we totaled up right away. There was no waiting. All the leaders are all there cheering on their teams or their individuals. I’d pin a medal on the individual’s chest. There’s an incentive here. It wasn’t just you’ve got to do this minimum number of push-ups, sit-ups or two-mile run. It’s, “Here’s what excellence is.” I was competing and I used to grade. We had the Iron Rakkasans, it was called because we’re in the Rakkasans Regiment and there were eight of us. That’s all out of a battalion of some 700 soldiers. I not only graded every single one of those competitions because these were individual soldiers that usually in small groups, but I had to compete every time as well.
What mattered in that unit, those five things and an overarching recognition that life is a competitive endeavor. There’s nothing more competitive than small-unit infantry combat. That’s the brotherhood of the close fight as they say. The enemy is not looking over his sight asking, “Is Petraeus 40 years old or 35? Do I give him an extra step now?” It doesn’t matter. You’re competing against the standard. That’s how we approached life. The challenge for other organizations, this is pretty straight forward for an infantry unit. What should the winning culture be in a digital organization? If you look at some of the great technology companies, they have gone through enormous internal debates and discussions, which have often spilled out into the public view over how should they approach big issues?
How much dissent is tolerated outside? Are they allowed to pursue this or that in their public life? Do they help the Pentagon or not? Do they operate in China or not? These affect the culture because the big ideas that guide decisions on those kinds of issues are part and parcel of that culture. They’ve got to determine what it is that they are and get that reasonably right. First of all, you make this an inclusive effort. You want everybody involved. You want everyone inside the tent rather than going what they do outside the tent. It has to be generally iterative. You don’t get hit in the head by Newton’s apple fully formed if you find the right tree. You get hit on the head by the kernel or a seed of a big idea and you have to shape it like a pottery object. If your big idea, which you think is brilliant, is not regarded as such by those in the organization, perhaps it isn’t as brilliant. This is one of those where we would say this is time to sit under a tree until that thought passes. I was told various times by presidents of the United States that perhaps you should sit under a tree until that thought passes. You can’t let that ruin your day.
I’d like people to know that General Petraeus and his wife, Holly, they give back in many ways. A lot of people want to get them involved in their foundations. You have to limit to what you give back. One of the ones that they’ve picked is the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation. I went to a gala where you and Holly both spoke. It was fantastic here in New York City. What happens with that foundation is they provide college to these children, which for the spouse who’s remaining takes a lot of pressure off that family. Did you want to talk about that?
This is the brainchild of an individual named David Kim, who’s a partner in a quite substantial investment firm here. He was a West Point graduate, very high in his class, in combat in Panama. Lost one of his soldiers and it was eating at him. What’s this soldier’s family going to do without him? How are they going to send the kids to college once they hit that age? How nice it would be to take that worry off their shoulders.
That child might only be ten years old.
It has blossomed and it’s tens of millions of dollars that have been provided to Children of Fallen Patriots. It’s those who have been killed in combat or frankly killed in training or other lines of duty activities. It’s well-known, for example, more soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines were killed in actual accidents than were killed on the battlefield. They had the same worries, the same challenges and the same obstacles. It’s a truly wonderful organization. My wife is on the board of that one rather than me, which is one that we have both supported quite actively over the years. There are a handful of others as well.
Wasn’t she on the founding board when they started it?
I think she was one of the founding members. It was when I was in my early years in Iraq. I spent nearly over six and a half, maybe closer to seven in my last ten years in uniform deployed or certainly gone. Four years in Iraq alone, a year in Bosnia, a year in Afghanistan and many months from Central Command.
Didn’t you have six commands as a general and five of them were in combat?
I was very fortunate and very privileged to conclude my career with six consecutive commands, five of which were in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Command.
It’s been fantastic visiting with you. You’re definitely an action leader. We’ve got unbelievable golden nuggets. I get some point by point how to implement your culture and how to implement big ideas. I think the vision that you have has got to help KKR with their global investments. Until the next episode, I want you to get out there and make heroes like General Petraeus was doing with his people of everybody that you come in contact with and make your culture count. If you want to support The Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, go to FallenPatriots.org and make your contribution. David and Holly will appreciate it. It’s a fantastic organization. Thank you.
About Gen. David H. Petraeus
General (Ret) David H. Petraeus joined KKR in June 2013 as Chairman of the KKR Global Institute. He was made a Partner in December 2014. The Institute supports the KKR investment process and KKR’s portfolio companies with analysis of geopolitical, macro-economic, governance trends, and other issues that shape the investment climate. He is also a member of the boards of directors of Optiv and OneStream, a personal venture capitalist, and an Honorary Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham (England).
Prior to joining KKR, Gen. Petraeus served over 37 years in the U.S. military, including tours in Cold War Europe, the United States, Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the greater Middle East. He culminated his military service with six consecutive commands as a general officer, five of which were in combat, including command of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during the fight to Baghdad and the first year in Iraq; Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq over 15 subsequent months; Multi-National Force-Iraq during the Surge from February 2007 to September 2008; U.S. Central Command from 2008 to 2010; and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2010-2011.