Petraeus was a guest of the McConnell Center and spoke to an invited audience, including 40 current McConnell Scholars, ROTC cadets and high school students.

“In my career in public service, I’ve met senators, diplomats and presidents. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who has impressed me more by his integrity, his lifelong dedication to service and his true understanding of leadership,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell in his introduction.

Petraeus based his remarks on his own study of and experience in leadership, starting with his entry into West Point in 1970, and including command of a 101st Airborne Division, of all coalition forces in Iraq and oversight of an international security force in Afghanistan. In his career, he also, among other things, supervised stabilization forces in Bosnia and headed operations of a United Nations force in Haiti.

“My style (of leadership) depends on the context – in particular on the styles of the individuals and the organizations I’m trying to lead,” he said, noting, for instance, that his approach to leading air assault infantry in the early 1990s required a different approach than leading CIA employees, even if the process is similar.

Petraeus tailored his talk to students in attendance and used his experience with the 2007 surge in Iraq to give them a basic recipe for the cycle of strategic leadership – leadership at the helm of large organizations. Among his points, he said:

  • Determine the big idea – and get it right.
  • Communicate the big idea every way possible throughout the organization.
  • Oversee the implementation of the big ideas, but don’t micromanage people. Empower them instead.
  • Capture lessons from implementation of the big ideas with team members, revise and refine the big idea and start again.

He also advised the “future leaders” in the audience to

  • Have their pulse on the organization to know what leadership style it needs
  • Lead by example – the people they lead will adopt their attitudes and approaches
  • Listen and learn from those they lead
  • Make decisions when it’s time – you must make the call
  • Build a team – it’s all about the team
  • Get their hands dirty – leaders are occasionally born, but usually they develop through education and practice.

The leadership process may sound simple, Petraeus said, but it can be “very difficult.”

Thanks to Gary Gregg, McConnell Center director, McConnell, and the McConnell Center staff, “We can be confident that leaders with the right skills and the right attitudes are being developed right here to lead us in the future – leaders who are comfortable in multiple arenas, and more importantly, willing to embrace the unfamiliar and willing to confront dynamic situations,” Petraeus said.