Knowledge in Action:
Petraeus gives USC Price students lesson in leadership
By Matthew Kredell
Retired Gen. David H. Petraeus toured through the USC Price School of Public Policy during the week of Oct. 7 to meet face-to-face with students and learn more about academic and research programs at his new home base.
A former four-star U.S. Army general who constructed the counterinsurgency doctrine that stabilized Iraq under U.S. and allied forces and later served as director of the CIA, Petraeus joined USC’s faculty this fall as Judge Widney Professor, which includes a joint appointment at the Price School.
Over three days, he discussed leadership with Executive Master of Leadership (EML) students, visited the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), met with ROTC cadets, lectured at courses on military defense and homeland security, and advised doctoral students.
“It has been extraordinarily stimulating,” Petraeus said of meeting with the Price groups. “The students are very impressive, the faculty and staff members are superb, and the programs are quite innovative and groundbreaking. The questions they asked me have been very thought-provoking and forthright, and I think they reflect the kind of spirit of inquiry that is fostered here at the school.”
As someone who reached the highest rank normally achievable in the U.S. Army and commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus knows a thing or two about leadership, providing a great resource for the working professionals in the EML program.
“It’s always impressive to have someone come in and, in such a small setting, talk leadership with you,” said Michael Teel, a U.S. Army Reserve Captain. “He used the concept of strategic leadership with us but brought it down to a level where it can be applicable to everyone in this room. He gave it to us in a way in which we can all apply it to our everyday lives, whether it be in the private or public sector.”
Petraeus described his four keys of leadership as getting the big ideas right, communicating effectively, overseeing implementation and refining the ideas through analysis and feedback. He urged an elastic approach to leadership depending on the situation.
“I think the real takeaway from this is you should not be locked into one leadership style that is always gruff or always cheery,” Petraeus said. “Rather, you need to have the flexibility of mind to be able to recognize the person who only needs a pat on the back once a year, from this guy Petraeus who may need a pat on the back – or a swift kick in the backside – every hour. Whatever it takes. I do believe that leadership style should generally be affirmative, generally positive rather than negative. It should build on the assumption that people generally want to achieve excellence.”
CREATE faculty provided Petraeus with an overview of the center, including presentations from students describing projects on which they are working.
“CREATE had an unprecedented opportunity to present its research to the man who wrote the book on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency,” said Erroll Southers, associate director of CREATE and USC Price adjunct professor. “Gen. Petraeus shared his analysis of our transitional research efforts, offering candid insight regarding the future of national security in this domain. He is the essence of an academic practitioner and we are privileged to have him as a member of our faculty.”
Shilpika Lahri, a CREATE research assistant and second-year MPP student, made a presentation on her exploration of the economic impacts of a bioterrorism attack. She later attended Petraeus’ guest lecture, attended by Southers’ homeland security and public policy class and Professor Martin Kreiger’s class on military and defense policy.
“It’s been an absolute honor to have him sit and talk with us in such intimate settings,” Lahri said. “It was refreshing to hear his real-world perspective applied to our research and to get to know what he hopes to see in the future coming from academic research.”
It was a special treat for the ROTC cadets to meet such an accomplished military veteran. Representatives of ROTC Army, Navy and Air Force made presentations on their groups at USC.
“It was great to see him show a general interest in our program, and an awesome opportunity for me to personally interact with and brief him,” said Matthew Zecchini, a senior who gave the Army presentation. “I really liked the note he closed with, how he said that in the midst of everything that’s going on, it’s good and healthy to take a step back, look at what you’ve done, what you’re able to do, and really be thankful for it.”
Petraeus also spoke to Price doctoral students of his academic experience, having earned an MPA and Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton University.
“What I really picked up of value was the academic training of how to think critically, how to analyze, how to express oneself in writing, speaking and so forth,” Petraeus said. “There was an awareness that not everybody thinks the same way we do, and a degree of intellectual humility that I think comes from studying in graduate school.”
He advised that the selection of their thesis or dissertation topic was of critical importance, suggesting they pick a subject that will provide an intellectual foundation for the field in which they will operate in the future. His own doctoral dissertation was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” Afterward, he listened to the thesis ideas of a select few doctoral students who are focusing on security and intelligence issues.