In my interview with General David Petraeus, America’s most decorated war hero, we discussed the unfathomable pressures he faced in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Oval Office, especially on those occasions his opinion differed from the Commander in Chief, President Obama. How he handled the tension serves as an excellent guide to those aspiring to great (and occasionally, stressful) careers. 

1. How do you disagree with your boss when he's the President? 

In the Oval Office with President Obama discussing my assignment in Afghanistan, I felt it was very important for him to know who he was getting:

“Mr. President, you should understand that I will provide my best professional military advice based on the facts on the ground and the mission you’ve given us and informed by the issues with which you have to deal uniquely. I’ll be aware of those, but my advice will be determined by facts on the ground. If those facts are unchanged, so my advice, too, will be unchanged. That was an interesting, tense moment.”

If carefully thought out principles guide your thinking at all times and you make that clear up front, your ideas will get serious consideration even when they differ from your colleagues or your boss.



2. How do you prepare for the future when you'll be surrounded by danger and training is done? 

To be truly effective under these circumstances, everyone should take the time to develop a philosophy of strategic leadership, in particular of how to get the big ideas, then how to communicate them effectively to the breadth and depth of the organization, and closely oversee their implementation.

“The first thing I would say about the success in a region, I’d like to think that I had devoted a great deal of study to understanding the human terrain in Iraq.

Then, spend a great deal of time getting the big ideas right. So be aware that your first thoughts may need to be refined, revised, shot and left by the side of the road, and you may have to do it all over again and again and again.

It also takes a great, great team, and everybody embracing the idea.

Finally, there’s a little bit of the stubborn Dutchman in me, taking after my old Dutch sea captain father. It takes a high degree of determination.”


3. Everyone has a limit

Part of the problem and this was true in Iraq but it’s also in the C suite— you deal with intractable problems day in, day out, and you have few peers that really understand your pressures.

“I can recall, after a tough, tough stretch things were finally starting to turn, but there were political battles, the prime minister had issues, the members of the Parliament were causing all sorts of distractions. There was a moment when I just called up the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and said: “Hey, Admiral. I just want you to know this is not the easiest thing in the world. I just felt that somebody needs to know.” That’s the final challenge, as they say, that’s the loneliness of command.”

You must learn to reach out across, up and down the organization, help colleagues to understand the challenges, and by doing so, find a sense of purpose, balance, and a way forward together.

For the complete interview, click on the image below

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IconicVoices.TV is a YouTube leadership interview series produced in association with Thunderbird School of Global Management, hosted and created by professor of global leadership, Jeff Cunningham.

Author bio

Jeff Cunningham is a global leadership advocate, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Previously, he was publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of (NACD) Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), CMGI’s, and Michael Milken’s CareerTrack; venture capital partner with Schroders, and advisor, Highland Capital.

He writes for Medium and interviews mega moguls for his YouTube series, IconicVoices.TV.

He has also served as a board director of 10 public companies and was chairman of Bankrate, EXLservice, Sapient, and Premiere Global.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.