On Afghanistan, Benghazi and Critics: Donald Rumsfeld’s leadership ABCs

Donald Rumsfeld with President Gerald Ford. (David Hume Kennerly)

Donald Rumsfeld with President Gerald Ford. (David Hume Kennerly)

 

Donald Rumsfeld is a collector. His new book, “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” is a compendium of the leadership mantras he began stockpiling in a shoebox when growing up in Chicago, added to his files when serving in the Nixon administration, then printed out for Gerald Ford when acting as the president's chief of staff. They include quotes from Carl von Clausewitz on war, from Rep. Mo Udall on meetings and from Rumsfeld himself on lessons from his own career.

He continued to add to these rules throughout his tenure, perhaps most notably and controversially as secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration, before compiling them at age 80 into the book released Tuesday. In this interview, edited for length and clarity, Rumsfeld spoke with On Leadership editor Lillian Cunningham about managing budget cuts and bureaucracy at the Defense Department, offering lessons on Benghazi, and facing his critics.

Q. What do you see as the unique leadership challenge to working in government?

A. The bureaucracy in the executive branch of the federal government is certainly something that is a challenge. I think it was Admiral Hyman Rickover who said, “If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

There is the challenge, for example, in the Department of Defense of dealing with what’s called the Iron Triangle: the permanent employees, the defense contract community and the members of the United States Congress. Every four years a president is elected and comes in with a handful of senior people, political appointees [who might hope to shake things up, but] those individuals are there for a period only and they can be outlasted. The permanent bureaucracy can outlast them. It is a challenge.

In your book, you borrow Rahm Emanuel’s line “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” as one of your rules. Given your thoughts about crisis and about bureaucracy, what do you think of the budget cuts at the Defense Department?

Rahm Emanuel got criticized for that comment, as I recall. I put it in because it seems to me that if a corporation has a bad quarter or if the federal government’s budget gets cut, it causes you to look fresh at what you’ve been doing. The population—your employees or the bureaucracy—understands that something has to be done. It gives you the ability to make changes that in a perfectly normal environment you would have a great deal more difficulty achieving.

So you think that, in the case of the Defense Department, if used well this moment could lead to management improvements?

Exactly.

Many of your rules seem to be rooted in a chain-of-command philosophy. Does this come from your military training?

People think of the military and the Department of Defense as a place where there’s a chain of command—which there is—but also where things are accomplished through orders and commands. When in fact, as with most things in life, you have to persuade. You can’t have orders from the top go down seventeen layers of the Department of Defense, and you can’t expect that anyone at the top is going to be able to give the kind of guidance and direction that can be followed all the way down. What you need to do is to set a strategic direction and then you need multiple leadership centers, where individuals at various levels will take leadership.

In the simplest form, think of Ronald Reagan when asked about the Cold War and his policy with respect to the Soviet Union. He said simply, “We win, they lose.” Now that isn’t the kind of direction that tells each person all the way down the line what they should do when they get up in the morning, but it does plant a flag way down the road that says, “Folks, that’s where we’re going.” Then you can tap people on the shoulders and recalibrate them if necessary.

You also write about handling criticism.

That’s one of my favorite rules: Dogs don’t bark at parked cars.

Let’s talk about that. Tell me more about your philosophy on leading when you’re not a popular figure or when your actions are unpopular.

I served in the Congress and, if there’s a vote to be taken, you can vote “yes” or “no.” If you vote “yes,” the people who like that vote will be happy. And if you vote “yes,” the people who wanted you to vote “no” won’t be happy. What does that mean? It means that if you’re going to be in a leadership position or in public life, and if you’re going to do something, somebody’s going to like it and somebody isn’t going to like it. There’s rarely unanimity. The easy decisions get taken care of down below. It’s only the tough ones, all of which have disadvantages, that end up moving up the chain of command.

If you decide you don’t want somebody not to like something you’ve done, then you have to do nothing. And I can’t imagine living a life that way.

Once you accept that reality—that if you do something, somebody may not like it—learn to live with it. Keep trying to make the best possible decisions, and to weigh the pros and cons carefully, and to give credence and respect to other people’s views. You can’t know always if you’ve selected the course of action that over time will prove to have been the wisest one.

Do you think strong leaders need to have a thick skin and be unapologetic?

You can’t please everybody. Once you decide that and are willing to invest the amount of time it takes to try to do the right thing, then you know when you make a decision that some people are going to agree with you and some aren’t. What is it that Mother Theresa said? The Lord doesn’t require us to succeed, He just expects us to try.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned from Iraq and Afghanistan?

When you mention Afghanistan, the thing that comes to my mind immediately is the challenge posed if someone decides they want to engage in nation building. I personally am skeptical of our ability to do that.

When I was in the Pentagon, we had something like 30,000 or 35,000 troops in Afghanistan. In the Obama administration, they’ve taken that up to 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. My view is that what we, as a country, can do is we can try to help a country have an opportunity to move forward, but we can’t do it for them. We can’t nation build. We can create an environment maybe where they can build their nation in a way that fits their history, their culture, their circumstance.

We tend to look at other countries and if they’re not like us, our country, we sometimes feel that we are in the good and they would be better off if they were more like us. It’s not clear to me that’s the case, because I think countries evolve and times change.

You share lessons in the book from your time in the White House as chief of staff. What rules would you point the current administration toward as it deals with the continued fallout from Benghazi?

It is a pressure cooker in the White House. Those are tough jobs. I guess one rule that pops into my head is that there are two rules in Washington: The first is that the cover-up is worse than the event, and the second is that no one ever remembers the first rule.

Arguments of convenience are risky. Arguments have to be substantive. To the extent people seize on an argument that’s convenient for them or supports a narrative, it can come back and haunt you. And I’m afraid that’s what’s happening.

Over the years is there one rule you’ve returned to more than others?

Yes—that what you measure improves, in business and in life. In the military they say it differently. They say you get what you inspect, not what you expect.

Once you say you’re going to measure something, you’ve set a priority. You’ve said that the thing you’re going to measure is more important than these other 20 things you’re not going to measure. That commits you. The second thing that happens once you say you’re going to measure something: One expects that it would improve. If it turns out that it doesn’t, you’re vulnerable—so people sometimes are reluctant to establish priorities. That’s why it is, I think, a very useful rule in life.

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership for The Washington Post.

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