Rules for Living

Published: November 9, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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The fall of a leader is always tragic, and in David Petraeus’ case, much unexpected. In the immediacy of the moment, there is an understandable shock, and, within the ranks, it is not uncommon for those closest to him to feel a sense of betrayal.

I was in the process of writing-up General Petraeus’ 12 Rules of Leadership when it was announced that he had abruptly resigned his post as Director of the CIA after admitting to an extramarital affair. A former four-star general, Petraeus served more than 37 years in the Army. His many assignments include commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.

In a letter to the CIA, Petraeus wrote, “Yesterday afternoon, I went to the White House and asked the President to be allowed, for personal reasons, to resign from my position as D/CIA. After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the President graciously accepted my resignation.”

“Integrity,” ethicist Michael Josephson says, “requires us to do what is right even when it is likely to cost us more than we want to pay. Because social, economic and political pressures often make it difficult for us to do the right thing, it embodies the idea of moral courage and is considered a fundamental measure of character.”

Certainly, General Petraeus’ actions meet that description in dealing with his own faults.

An obvious question by some readers might be, “So, why offer his insights on leadership if he, himself, has fallen short of his own standards?”

Two reasons: first, Petraeus addresses the issue of mistakes in his rules; second, falling short of one’s standards does not negate the validity of those standards; standards, that I believe are important to strive for not just in a military context, but in the ethical context of life.

I’ve included my own ethics-related footnotes after some of the general’s 12 Rules.

1. Lead by example from the front of the formation. Take your performance personally—if you are proud to be average, so too will be your troops.

The ethical value of responsibility embodies the notion of accountability. Among the principles of accountability is that of leadership by example. In both word and deed, leaders teach and inspire others through conduct and role-modeling.

2. A leader must provide a vision—clear and achievable “big ideas” combined in a strategic concept—and communicate those ideas throughout the entire organization and to all other stakeholders.

Another aspect of accountability is the pursuit of excellence. Ethical individuals strive to demonstrate a high level of competence and diligence in the performance of their jobs and other tasks, especially where the quality of performance affects others. Through open and honest communication they do not mislead or create false impressions or beliefs.

3. A leader needs to give energy; don’t be an oxygen thief.

4. There is an exception to every rule, standard operating procedure, and policy; it is up to leaders to determine when exceptions should be made and to explain why they made them.

Ethical decision-makers are always prepared and willing to revise a plan or take a different course of action, based on new information.

5. We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognize them and admit them, to learn from them, and to take off the rear­view mirrors—drive on and avoid making them again.

In making mistakes, acknowledging responsibility is first and foremost. While it is not unethical to make mistakes, there is a moral obligation to strive to correct misjudgments to all who may be affected. And ethical individual strives to make all reasonable efforts to keep promises and other commitments, and to avoid bad faith excuses and unwise commitments.

6. Be humble. The people you’ll be leading already have on-the-ground conflict experience. “Listen and learn.”

An ethical leader has a duty to consider and seek to advance the well-being of others. As such, he or she should listen and learn from the observations, experience and lessons of others.

7. Be a team player. “Your team’s triumphs and failures will, obviously, be yours.” Take ownership of both.

An ethical decision-maker has a moral obligation to consider the ethical implications of all decisions by considering their possible affect on all stakeholders. Under the principle of accountability, he or she should not unfairly shift blame or claim credit for the work of others. They should, as well, treat all people with respect by recognizing and honoring each individual’s right to autonomy, self-determination, privacy and dignity.

8. Don’t rely on rank. If you rely on rank, rather than on the persuasiveness of your logic, the problem could be you and either your thinking or your communication skills. Likewise, sometimes the best ideas come from bottom-up information sharing (i.e., “Need to share” not “Need to know”). Use “directed telescopes” to improve situational awareness.

Honesty in communications requires a good faith intent to be truthful, accurate, straightforward and fair in all communications so that people are not misled or deceived.

9. Leaders should be thoughtful but decisive. Listen to subordinates’ input, evaluate courses of action and second- and third-order effects, but be OK with an “80 percent solution.” “There will be many moments when all eyes turn to you for a decision. Be prepared for them. Don’t shrink from them. Embrace them.” Sometimes the best move is the bold move.

In making decisions, the ethical person strives to –

1. Clarify – determine precisely what must be decided. Eliminate patently impractical, illegal and improper alternatives.

2. Evaluate – If any option requires the sacrifice of any ethical principle, evaluate the facts and assumptions carefully. Distinguish sold facts from beliefs, desires, theories, suppositions, unsupported conclusions and opinions which might generate rationalizations. Carefully consider the benefits, burdens and risks to each stakeholder.

3. Decide – after evaluating the information available, make a judgment about what is or is not true, and about what consequences are most likely to occur. Think of the Golden Rule – are you treating others as you would like to be treated?

4. Implement – Once a decision has been made on what to do, develop a plan on how to implement the decision that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the risks or costs.

5. Monitor and Modify – After making a decision, if new information provides a better course of action, don’t be afraid to modify your original plan.

10. Stay fit to fight. Your body is your ultimate weapons system. Physical fitness for your body is essential for mental fitness.

11. The only thing better than a little competition is a lot of competition. Set challenges for your subordinates to encourage them to excel.

Pursuit of excellence includes a good faith effort to do your best, diligence, perseverance, reliable work habits and continuous improvement. However, while it is important to encourage excellence, uncontrolled competitiveness is an enemy of ethics. Ethical individuals do not adopt a win-at-any-cost attitude.

12. Everyone on the team is mission critical. Instill in your team members a sense of great self-worth—that each, at any given time, can be the most important on the battlefield.

Instill in your team a sense of integrity that each member may make decisions based on ethical principles even when expediency or self-interest would dictate other choices.

While General Petraeus was an uncommon leader, he was still a man who, like all of us, remains vulnerable and imperfect at times. However, when it came time to be both accountable and responsible, Petraeus demonstrated the necessary moral courage to do the right thing and remains a positive example for all of us in how to handle the mistakes in our own lives.


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