Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Rumsfeld’s Rules

When President Gerald Ford learned that his Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld had compiled a file of instructive observations and quotations about effective leadership and management, he asked to read them. An impressed Ford promptly designated them “Rumsfeld’s Rules” and distributed them to the senior members of the White House staff. Since then they have been read by presidents, government officials, business leaders, diplomats, members of Congress, and others. Rumsfeld was finally asked to collect them between covers and elaborate on them, and the result is the just-published Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.

Donald Rumsfeld boasts a ridiculously distinguished résumé from the arenas of business, government, and the military: naval aviator, Congressman, top aide to four American presidents, ambassador, the CEO of both a worldwide pharmaceutical company and a leading company in broadcasting technologies, and of course, as he is most well-known, the 13th and 21st U.S. Secretary of Defense (the only man in American history to serve twice in that post). He is also the author of Known and Unknown: A Memoir, a weighty tome but one of the most important political memoirs since the 9/11 attacks forever altered our geopolitical landscape. He now chairs the Rumsfeld Foundation, which supports leadership and public service at home, and funds global finance projects, fellowships, and charitable causes that benefit our armed forces and their families (all proceeds of Known and Unknown, for example, go to the Foundation’s military charities).

In the course of that multifaceted career, Rumsfeld collected his “Rules,” advice and maxims based on his own experiences and the wisdom of others. While he cautions that “rules cannot be a substitute for judgment,” he emphasizes in his new book that these

are insights into human nature, timeless truths that have survived the changes in our culture… Most have broad applicability and can be useful whether you aspire to be a leader in government, church, business, sports, or the military. They convey distilled wisdom that can… serve as guideposts in decision-making.

As Rumsfeld himself notes, the Rules are not all his, nor are they all rules. Some are life lessons or pearls of wisdom from others, who are quoted in the book – everyone from Thomas Jefferson, Confucius, Frederick the Great, Gen. Curtis LeMay (“I am unable to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent, and I can’t afford either”), Margaret Thatcher, Von Clausewitz, Churchill, and the ubiquitous strategist of war, Sun Tzu (“He who defends everywhere, defends nowhere”), to Sammy Davis Jr. and Lewis Carroll (“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”). “Truth be told,” Rumsfeld admits, “I don’t know if I’ve had a truly original thought in my life. I enjoy being around people smarter than I am, who know more than I do, and who have done things I haven’t done.”

Grouped thematically in chapters, the Rules address managerial basics – or what should be basics, but are too often in frustratingly short supply in the real world: “Starting at the Bottom,” “Running a Meeting,” “Thinking Strategically,” “Battling Bureaucracy,” “Planning for Uncertainty,” and so forth. “Be willing to learn from those at the top,” goes one rule. “If you’re working from your inbox, you’re working on other people’s priorities,” goes another. “Don’t overcontrol like a novice pilot. Stay loose enough from the flow that you can observe and calibrate.” “When negotiating, never feel that you are the one that must fill every silence.” “If you don’t know what your top three priorities are, you don’t have priorities.”

In a plainspoken style that suits his direct, no-nonsense character, Rumsfeld fleshes out the Rules with personal anecdotes and examples drawn from his vast personal experience. While his leadership advice is undeniably useful, and in many instances particularly so for someone just starting out in a management position or still striving for one, these illustrations are very often the most compelling parts of the book. He tells why, for example, Dick Cheney considers his first interview with Rumsfeld – back in 1968 when Cheney was seeking an internship on Capitol Hill – “the worst interview” of his life. He discusses the differences in personalities and leadership styles of the presidents for whom he worked. He even draws upon his sports experience as a young wrestler for leadership lessons.

Along the way, Rumsfeld sprinkles in a surprising amount of welcome dry humor. “In politics,” he writes, for example, “every day is filled with numerous opportunities for serious error. Enjoy it.” At another point he asserts that “the act of calling a meeting about a problem can in some cases be confused with actually doing something.”

The last handful of chapters are perhaps the most interesting, dealing as they do with the vastness and extraordinary integrity of military culture (“Lessons from the World’s Most Successful Leadership Organization”), the unique difficulties of managing the people within the White House (“Inside the Oval Office”), a passionate defense of capitalism and of America as a force for good in the world (“The Case for Capitalism”), and perseverance through mistakes and criticism, on both the personal and national levels (“The Optimism of Will”).

In closing, Rumsfeld again stresses that “leadership is not about following ironclad rules; it’s about one’s instincts. Leadership is not composed of a collection of maxims; it comes from one’s own independent judgment.” It requires “the courage to venture out into the world and make mistakes and, yes, even fail.” Nonetheless, Rumsfeld’s Rules is a very readable, insightful guide with practical advice to becoming a wiser and more effective leader. It is also an insightful window onto the leader behind the book.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 5/19/13)