Book Review: How To Follow the Leaders

Book Cover How To Lead

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When the author talks with a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the founder of Amazon (initially named “Cadabra”) or the creator of “Saturday Night Live,” he establishes a respectable tone of conviviality, so friendly that the conversations seem to be between friends – or between acquaintances, at least.

And they are. 

David Rubenstein, the cofounder of The Carlyle Group and a director on at least a dozen nonprofit boards, knows everybody. You’ll feel like you know him and his high-powered interviewees when you read the pieces in this collection. They’re based on the Economic Club of Washington discussions presented on “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer to Peer Conversations” on Bloomberg and PBS. 

The “peer to peer” in the name of the TV show is not a stretch. For a sense of the camaraderie on the broadcasts and in the book, try these two-and-a-half minutes of “lighter moments” posted on YouTube:

How does Rubenstein define the qualities of leadership? He asks people for their definitions.

“I have always had a habit – maybe bad manners – of asking leader, whenever I first meet them, how they became leaders.”

How To Follow the Leaders

In “How to Lead” he makes his inquiries via a question-and-answer format that makes reading easy: You may read the book the traditional way – from start to finish – or read individual interviews selectively or at random.

And while not every interviewee comes right out and says how to lead, nearly each of the 30 people (including 10 women and at least six non-white people, by this reviewer’s tally) offers something worth pondering. 

For example, there’s General Colin Powell, U.S. Army (ret.), the former Joint Chiefs chairman, whose sense of humor is evident in this exchange:

A reporter from The Washington Post told the general he was writing a story about the Powell Doctrine. “Great,” Powell replied. “What is it?” 

But seriously, Powell says his manifest – beyond having clear political and military objectives – requires having a “decisive” force “so that people don’t think you have to have a gazillion troops, just have what you need to have a decisive outcome.”

Decisiveness is not always definitive. Rubenstein mentions Powell’s being the Bush Administration representative who presented the weapons-of-mass-destruction case to the United Nations. 

Powell admits that later he was “more than embarrassed. I was mortified, because even though the president had used the same information, Congress had used the same information, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, all of had used the same information. I’m the one who made the biggest presentation of it. It all sort of fell on me.” 

How has the war gone? “I’d say the execution of the invasion was not done properly.” Despite initial decisions made in Baghdad “without any discussion back in Washington,” Powell has hope that Iraq will endure.

How does the former Secretary of State describe a leader?

“A person who understands that they’re leading followers,” Powell says. “A person who understands that they are there to put a group of human beings into work that has value . . . and that the leader will give them the inspiration need to achieve that purpose . . . will make sure they have everything they need to get the job done.”

To General David Petraeus, U.S. Army (ret.), says that, “especially at strategic levels, the very top, {leadership} encompasses four critical tasks . . . 

“You have to get the big ideas right. You have to communicate those big ideas effectively through the breadth and depth of your organization. You have to oversee their implementation. 

“And you have to determine how to refine the big ideas – and then do it all over again.” 

Speaking of ideas, what about the surge in Iraq? 

“The surge that mattered most was not the surge of forces,” Petraeus tells Rubenstein. “It was the surge of ideas. It was the change in strategy. It was really a 180-degree shift from consolidating on big bases and getting ‘out of the faces of the Iraqi people’, to going back and living in the neighborhoods with them.”

Rubenstein notes that Petraeus’ government service “culminated in 14 months as CIA director” but neither gentleman mentions the reason for Petraeus’ leaving the agency.

Another view of how to go to war comes from former Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury and White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, who addresses the U.S. reaction to Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

“You tell the world what you’re going to do. You get the world together with you to do it. You go do exactly what you said and nothing more, nothing less. You bring the troops home. And then you get other people to pay for it.”

Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke University basketball coach, attended the U.S. Military Academy despite the fact he “didn’t want to carry a rifle.” Rubenstein sums up Coach K’s advice for success in three points:

 “Changing and updating what you are doing to reflect changes in whatever world you are operating in . . . Figuring out how to make the requisite change by talking to others and listening to them . . . Surrounding yourself with good people – those who can help you when you need advice and support.” 

Army veteran and Nike cofounder Phil Knight suggests that “Hollywood will portray a leader as tall and handsome and strong-jawed. A lot of times, the real good leaders are just the opposite. First of all, they’ve got to want it. But they come in all shapes and sizes.” 

Speaking of shapes: How much did the now-iconic symbol everyone calls the Nike swoosh cost? Knight gave a Portland State University student $35 and, later, 500 shares of stock – worth “over $1 million now.” 

In a conversation with two former commanders in chief, Rubenstein interviews former Texas Air National Guard member George W. Bush and non-veteran Bill Clinton, who together support the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program. Iraq and Afghanistan do not come up during the discussion.

Clinton on how to sustain responsibility: “I was taught to listen and look . . . . I always thought I’d have a better life if I could help somebody else have a better life, too.”’ 

Bush on what the principal attribute of a president: “Humility. It’s really important to know what you don’t know and listen to people who do know what you don’t know.”

Non-Veteran Wisdom

Plenty of non-veteran executives offer insights about living and leading, and here are some highlights of what people tell Rubenstein:

  • Warren Buffet, the Berkshire Hathaway founder who has agreed to give the bulk of his $75 billion fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “Look for the job that you would want to hold if you didn’t need a job . . . . Find a passion.
  • Melinda Gates, cochair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “When “you help people lift themselves up, you get peaceful and prosperous societies . . .”
  • Robert F. Smith, founder of Vista Equity, says his parents “emphasized the importance of being educated, working really hard, and trying to become the pinnacle of success in one’s community.”
  • Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon: “It’s a huge advantage to any company if you can stay focused on your customer instead of your competitor.”
  • Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft: “You always now you could be doing better, that you should learn more, be building the team and thinking about things in a better way.”
  • Tim Cook, CEO of Apple: “If you could wave a wand and everybody in the world would treat each other with dignity and respect, there are many problems that would go away.” 
  • Ginni Rometty, former head of IBM: Leading means “being a constant learner, of always being willing to say to yourself, ‘You don’t know everything, and you can learn something’ from whoever.” 
  • Indra Nooyi, former head of PepsiCo: “Keep both ears open, because you never know if a nugget of an idea can actually translate into a big success for the company.” 
  • Sir Richard Branson, founder, Virgin Group: “Being a really good listener is one of the most key things. Another key thing is loving people . . . and looking for the best in people. Even if they’re being a pain . . . .”
  • Oprah Winfrey, in her interviewer’s hat, says the people she interviews always want to know how they did. Afterward they ask her, “was that okay?”  “I started to listen with that in mind, with that intention of validating that your being here, your speaking to me, your taking the time to do this with me is important because you matter.”
  • Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institutes of Health: “You’ve got to articulate to the people you are leading exactly what your vision is and where you want the organization to go . . . . Hire the best people, and then don’t get in their way.”
  • Lorne Michaels, creator and producer, “Saturday Night Live”: “If you’re in power, everybody knows it, so you don’t have to explain you’re in power.”   

Patriotic Philanthropy

What does David Rubenstein, who has encouraged the idea of “patriotic philanthropy” with his helping fund repairs of monuments such as the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, believe are the traits that build a leader? 

  • Luck, he says. Plus, a desire to succeed. And the “pursuit of something new and unique.” 
  • Working hard, with a caveat that “workaholism is a plus . . . only if one has some outside unrelated interest.” 
  • Focus. Learning from failure and proving “the failure was an aberration.” Persistence. Persuasiveness. Having a “humble demeanor.” Sharing credit. Continuing to learn. Integrity. 
  • Crisis response. “Leaders are most needed when crises occur, as we have been reminded this year during the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.” 

Ever the philanthropist, Rubenstein quietly notes in the back of the book that “all of the proceeds that would normally accrue to the author from a book such as this one” will benefit the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.”

Huffman has reviewed 400+ books published during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, and he received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and the artist council of Armed Services Arts Partnership (he co-edited two ASAP anthologies). He co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (2012, Marine Corps University Press), and he has led discussions at Defense Information School and Marine Corps War College. As an editor of words and art he has advised newsrooms from Defense News to Dubai to Delhi and back.