Art: Charter

How do you most effectively lead an organization through change?

An intriguing place to look for answers is the US military, one of the most enduring and seemingly change-resistant institutions. In that context, retired US general David Petraeus stands out as someone whose views have broad relevance. He reworked US military strategy and used it to bring violence in Iraq under control, later overseeing the US forces in Afghanistan and heading up the CIA. “Historians will likely judge David Petraeus to be the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower,” wrote CNN’s Peter Bergen when Petraeus stepped down from his CIA role in 2012.

Petraeus recently shared the leadership framework he used in Iraq and Afghanistan and still employs today as chairman of the KKR Global Institute, during a talk organized by Ethena. This is a four-point framework that CEOs and CHROs can use to lead their organizations through transformative change.

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1. Get the big ideas right.

It may seem obvious, but the most important task of a leader, according to Petraeus, is crafting the right strategy, rooted in a deep understanding of the context. In the military, this context often involves understanding the political landscape, the enemy forces, the physical terrain, and the human terrain. In business, it includes market forces, organizational strengths, and the competitive landscape. This is perhaps the most incontrovertible step, and is essential as the resulting strategy provides a foundation for all decisions and actions within the enterprise. (This emphasis on taking enough time to diagnose the situation echoes the advice of other leadership thinkers, including Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz.)

Relatedly, Petraeus recommends that leaders narrow down their big ideas to a relatively small number, to be able to consistently and clearly communicate about them. “We had five big ideas we were always focused on and repeated every time I had the unit together,” he says. In the military context, those ideas were discipline, physical fitness, small-unit drills, air assault tactics, and Ranger training.

2. Communicate the big ideas.

As a commander used to giving people orders, Petraeus recognizes that “you really want to have them follow the orders reasonably enthusiastically, you want them to embrace the big ideas that you have developed…and that requires a considerable degree of engagement, transparency, inclusivity, and iteration.” For leaders, it’s crucial to communicate the big ideas to everyone who has a stake in the outcome. (That’s usually everyone in the organization and stakeholders outside of it). Petraeus noted that, as the commander in Iraq, he drafted his own counterinsurgency guidance that he shared throughout the multinational force and updated every six weeks so that the big ideas could be understood as they cascaded down the organization. The benefit of a document like this is that it’s clear and consistent across a large organization.

Petraeus recommends using “preemptive praise,” which fosters commitment by acknowledging efforts even before they are fully realized, ensuring someone both understands and buys into the strategy. “I want to confirm your excellence,” Petraeus once wrote in an email to battalion commanders about a visit he was planning to check on their progress. It’s also a tactic he employed with Iraq’s prime minister. In private meetings with the prime minister, US ambassador, and a translator, Petraeus would regularly express his enthusiasm for initiatives before the prime minister could share hesitation or reject the initiative altogether. He would add preemptive praise of other key stakeholders, too, effectively compelling them to follow through.

3. Oversee the implementation of big ideas.

Effective leadership also involves overseeing the implementation of big ideas. This includes rigorous performance management, setting and tracking the right metrics, and developing an organizational architecture that enables the implementation of the big ideas. Petraeus’ concept of a “battle rhythm”—the detailed schedule of recurring meetings and activities, essentially how he spent his time—can be a useful tool for leaders to ensure their time aligns with their priorities and strategic goals.

Encouraging innovation and tolerating risk are also critical to the successful implementation of big ideas. Leaders must discern which risks are acceptable and which decisions could have lasting negative impacts. Petraeus refers to decisions where there are other permanent repercussions as “non-biodegradable” decisions. (It’s similar to the idea of “one-way-door” decisions that Jeff Bezos uses.)

“Nobody out there wants to be led by somebody who is proud to be average,” Petraeus says. “They want to be led by somebody who is fiercely trying to be as absolutely professionally expert, competent, capable, and ‘game-on’ kind of leader possible.” A classic military platitude that can be applied to organizations is this: executives must strive to lead from the front. This principle fosters trust and commitment, and is particularly poignant in high-stakes environments, where leaders are responsible for the lives and well-being of their people.

4. Refine the big ideas so you can do them again and again and again.

Petraeus underscores the importance of learning from mistakes and being “politely ruthless” in recognizing and addressing what isn’t working. After every operation and training exercise, he would hold a retrospective with his entire unit, a practice that involved reviewing objectives, actions, outcomes, and lessons learned. The goal was to acknowledge mistakes, understand their causes, and develop strategies to prevent them in the future.

The four parts of Petraeus’ framework may seem simple—and perhaps obvious—but change management is sometimes made to be more complicated than it actually is. His approaches to “preemptive praise,” “battle rhythms,” and having five big ideas to focus on are particularly useful for leading any organization through change with clarity and purpose.

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