Lessons for Rebels from David Petraeus

The Petraeus affair is a tragic story, of which all I know is what I read in the “papers”. It does, however, provide a “good” bad example of what I observe way too much of in organizations: the turning of a “leader” into a “hero”; the love of a strong hand at the controls; and the conflation of an idea with the person carrying it.

Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. Repeat after me. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. I remember once when I was attending a year-long leadership seminar about a decade ago–right after 911. We would occasionally take trips together and the instructors would show films about leadership during the bus rides. EVERY SINGLE MOVIE was about a leader in war. The favorite of course was the Henry V film by Kenneth Branagh. Honestly, I have nothing against Shakespeare; in fact most of his dramas actually speak to the foibles of the Leader as Hero myth. But the emphasis in this and other courses I took was always about the importance of YOU the LEADER as a visionary individual, as the person who could make everything happen, and as the essential individual in extraordinary situations. How about leadership in normal times, I asked? Could you show a movie about something a bit more relevant to our likely experiences?

Petraeus, it seems to me, fit the Leader as Hero paradigm. And if you read his biography, with his apparent emphasis on always being the best, you get the impression that the Hero mantle was one he himself took off the coat hanger. The problem with the Heroic Leader, of course, is that there ain’t no such thing. Not for long anyway. And the organization becomes overdependent on the individual as the wise decisionmaker, which as we all know carries considerable risks. The person anointed as the Hero is also at considerable risk of believing what people say about him. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said earlier this month: “There is something about having great power…that skews people’s judgment.” (Full quote appeared in this great piece in the Washington Post.)

The lessons for rebels here is that Heroism is not a Rebel Strategy either. There are perhaps some rebels that are still storming the ramparts in hopes of overwhelming those who don’t “get it!” How’s that working for you? In my experience most organizations become wiser slowly; people start having “aha” moments here and there; the rebel is often  just the person who gets to the “aha” moment more quickly. And if the organization wants to anoint you as a hero, RESIST!

Closely related to the Heroic Leadership model is the desire for a Strong Hand at the Controls. Clearly there is something deep in human evolution that leads us to want someone who will just tell us what to do. There is a reason why so many small children want to be Darth Vader on Halloween.

History (by which I mean many individuals doing difficult and time-consuming analysis and research) will eventually tell us how much the “surge success” in Iraq can be traced back to decisions made by General Petraeus and how much were the consequences of complex interactions and chaotic lucky bounces. But I am certain that two analytic lines will emerge: 1. the decisions of any one individual were always buffeted by the dynamics of the situation, and 2. the strong decisionmaker was unable to anticipate the many downstream and often adverse consequences of his decisions. Which is why that nice feeling we get knowing there is a strong hand at the controls inevitably becomes, at some point, an illusion.

This is not so much a lesson for rebels as for organizations who tend to breed them. Without Darth Vader (and the Emperor), there would have been no need for a Rebel Alliance. If you find yourself confronting mini rebellions all over the workplace, then you too are suffering from the Strong Hand at the Controls disease. Stop pulling so hard at the levers. Step away from the controls.

The final lesson illustrated by the Petraeus affair is the constant danger rebels run of conflating themselves with the ideas they are advancing. Petraeus became synonymous with the US military’s new insurgency doctrine. In this case, the concepts he advanced will likely survive his scandal. But I think we’re all familiar with ideas that become so identified with the individuals who espouse them that any doubts about the individual end up besmirching their ideas as well.

I think ideas have their own trajectory independent of the individuals who come to believe them. Rebels are the carriers of new ideas; rarely are they the owners. Just making the mental shift from being an idea owner to an idea carrier could be helpful to rebels in large organizations. If you are carrying an idea then your Number 1 goal should be to get someone else to share the burden with you. Infect others as soon as you can. Let your idea mutate as it makes contact with other ideas. Make the idea independent of you as soon as you can!

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