Leadership as Theatre: General Petraeus

    If you don’t define yourself, others will.

This often-quoted concept is not one I thought particularly applicable to military officers until I read the May 2010 Vanity Fair article on General David Petraeus, a man I’d never thought too much about.

Sitting on an airplane headed to a conference to Ft. Lauderdale, I  learned a great deal about a legend in the making. The Petraeus article was embedded between more gossipy stories about Tiger Woods’s sexual addictions and Princess Grace’s agonies and ecstasies,  a clever strategy on the part of Vanity Fair; since the Petraeus article was, in my opinion one of the more important and finest that the magazine has ever printed.

Besides his military victories, extraordinary examples of heroism, I learned

1. Gen. Petraeus doesn’t discuss his family, yet his wife’s opinion is one he values highly. (A plus)

2. The damage at Abu Ghraib prison, he tells his command, is permanent and is why he espouses a philosophy of gaining the trust and respect of the indigenous population. Petraeus says, “The human terrain is the decisive terrain.” (Praise the heavens above – wisdom!)

3. After graduating West Point and becoming a Ranger, completing graduate work at Princeton, he did his doctoral thesis on the military taking responsibility for Viet Nam versus blaming politics. (Who is this man? Brains and brawn?)

4. He stood up to Congress and others, believing the approach he advocated in taking command of Iraq was worth it. (His doctrine to his troops: Live your values.)

5.  He wears “a complete history” of achievement on his uniform, meaning a chest full of medals, noting, “Folks expect us to.”

This last point is also where I began. Apparently Petraeus understands that leadership requires some degree of theatre – in addition to grit, courage, and determination. Because leading people is also about leading minds. And as I always tell my troops, I mean audiences, “the signals we send either support or diminish the objectives we have.”

Read the rest of the article, since my comments don’t begin to tell his story. It is so rare to read about integrity in this crazy world, I thought, maybe we should put Petraeus in charge of the Mexican border?