No, Sir, I Have a Results Problem

April 22, 2009

I had the privilege of hearing Gen. David Patraeus interviewed about leadership yesterday at Harvard Kennedy’s School’s Institute of Politics Forum. I expected a politicized discussion about the torture memo, but the crowd was there to find out who this man is and what leadership means in the context of a modern battlefield.

We learned the most from the opening remarks and examples of Maura Sullivan and Seth Moulton, both veterans of the Iraq War now getting joint degrees in business and government. Moulton pushed off his degree for an extra year to serve a fourth tour in Iraq as a Special Assistant to Patraeus. His words were heavy with respect and affection, and they had nothing on the weight of his choices. The crowd got it immediately.

My overwhelming response was that we’re lucky to have the general at the front of the line. He was visibly uncomfortable taking credit for anything, and the leadership themes he stressed were the importance of teams, service and staying connected to reality.

He told the Harvard crowd that they may walk into rooms where they think can do anyone’s job better, but they certainly can’t do everyone’s job better, and so this leadership thing matters. He identified a shift in mental models towards the Iraqi people – a shift towards service and living and working together – as a key reason for the current progress. He talked about how much he learns from direct communications with all levels of his team, and how he made one of the war’s most critical strategic pivots while on a casual run with lower-ranking soldiers.

His most memorable story was about receiving congressional delegations in Iraq that would inevitably pull him aside and tell him that he had a “messaging problem.” “No, sir,” he would say, “I have a results problem. When I get the results, the messaging will take care of itself.”