General David Petraeus's Leadership and Legacy

Paula Broadwell discusses the mark Petraeus left on the military.

Paula Broadwell
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As world leaders continue to debate a drawdown strategy for the war in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus's own exit from the country came last summer, after more than a year commanding U.S. and NATO forces there. In September, having retired from the Army after a 37-year career, Petraeus, 59, assumed his new position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Army veteran and scholar Paula Broadwell chronicles Petraeus's life and military service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fronts in her new book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, written with Washington Post metro editor Vernon Loeb. Broadwell, who has more than a decade of military and counterterrorism experience, is a research associate at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership and a Ph.D. candidate at King's College London. She recently spoke with U.S. News about Petraeus's personality and career, and how what he has learned will serve him at the CIA. Excerpts:

How would you describe Petraeus's leadership style?

Transformational. He helps a young leader; he doesn't expect them to help him back. It's sort of like, how can I pay it forward? And he's got that attitude because his mentors were like that to him. It's also sort of transformational in that he really has showed—and I try to show this in the book a little bit—but he always tried to take his organization to the next level. One of his signature leadership moves is to kind of think beyond the boundaries of what an organization is normally capable of doing and take it to the next level.

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What was his impact on the war in Afghanistan?

A lot of people ask, "Did he win? Would he be a game-changer?" What does winning mean in a counterinsurgency? Well, in his mind winning means making progress. And progress is like watching grass grow, but some grass did grow while he was there. The biggest thing he did was what the president asked him to do and it was basically to get us started on the road to leave.

Having embedded there, what is your assessment of the conflict?

The question on, I think, every American's mind is, is it worth the blood and treasure? I guess you have to step back and think about what was our key objective. It was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and others who might use the country to train and target us. I think we're doing that right now. I have hope that the Afghan national security forces are standing up and will be able to do that for themselves in the future.

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Some of Petraeus's critics have charged him with being self-promotional and perhaps overly ambitious. What is your take?

I think over the arc of his career, Petraeus has learned to masterfully promote good ideas or organizational success—not necessarily himself—and also to be forthright in so doing. He has, for example, acknowledged setbacks as well as success. He is, I found, quick to give praise and credit to his team members and partners, and acknowledges all the help he's had along the way. Petraeus continually recognized [his predecessor Gen. Stanley] McChrystal's efforts to get the right strategy in place in Afghanistan. In Petraeus's earlier years, in contrast, he was accused of being self-promotional and it was off-putting to many of his peers.

What makes him suited to lead the CIA?

He has long been known as a voracious consumer of intelligence and information. He has worked closely with members of the intelligence community for over a decade. He has worked closely with special mission units. Petraeus has a global network of contacts whom he can draw upon in the director position. He also has extensive combat zone command experience. Several sources and former colleagues who now work at the agency have confirmed appreciation for his situational awareness.

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What do you think his legacy will be?

Petraeus's legacy is still being established. I don't think he will leave the national security apparatus for decades if he has anything to do with it. But his mark on the military has had a large impact on the new greatest generation of military leaders. This may be the most influential factor of his military legacy; this generation of leaders, many of whom are his mentorees, will invariably help shape the Army—and national security policies—of the future. He is a relentless mentor; Petraeus takes time to clear out his inbox each night, responding personally to many requests.