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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Rumsfeld’s Universe

Lessons on leadership from the ground up -- from a man of honor.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War and Life
By Donald Rumsfeld
(Harper Collins, 2013, 293 pages, $27.99)

THERE ARE an awful lot of books on leadership, and a great many of them have one unfortunate thing in common: They are written by people who haven’t led anything. 

That certainly can’t be said of Donald Rumsfeld. Twice secretary of defense, CEO of the Searle pharmaceutical firm, White House chief of staff, congressman, and head of the Nixon-era Office of Economic Opportunity, he’s spent his life—all 80-plus years of it—becoming a capable and effective leader.

Hence Rumsfeld’s Rules. As the author acknowledges, they aren’t all rules, and they aren’t all Rumsfeld’s. What they are is—on the one hand—the most informative compilation of lessons on leadership from the ground up that has come around in many a decade. On the other hand, the book has a bit of Horatio Alger in it, briefly coaching young people on what to do in an interview and how a corporate officer looks at résumés. Helping prepare young people to be future leaders is clearly on his mind. 

One of those people is someone whom Rumsfeld hired at the age of 28. This man likes to claim that he rewards hard work well done with piles of more hard work. Which, Rumsfeld eagerly explains, is true. Matter-of-factly he explains that this man never complained about his salary or angled for a promotion. Instead, he progressively took on more responsibility, did work that wasn’t asked of him (but needed to be done), and proved one of Rumsfeld’s first rules: If you work hard and do your best (regardless of whether you like the job), people will notice. Apparently, they did. That young man’s name is Richard Cheney.

Rumsfeld’s rules dive right into how to lead and manage. There’s a distinction between these two activities, and Rumsfeld offers advice about how to do both, sometimes simultaneously: when and how to call a meeting (usually, not unless you have to), how to pick people (quoting Dr. Ed Feulner’s “People are policy. Without the best people in place, ideas don’t matter”), and how to make yourself understood without jargon and corporate-speak.

Rumsfeld is a firm believer in thinking on your feet, which helps to explain why he was regarded as a very tough boss in the Pentagon. If you believe, as I do, that PowerPoint is a lousy substitute for thought and a barrier to communication, you’ll love Rumsfeld’s comment that he was surprised by reports that some anonymous colonel or general was offended by his supposedly abrupt treatment when he questioned a presentation. “The fact is,” he writes, “some presenters had difficulty departing from PowerPoint slides, thinking on their feet, and responding to a series of probing questions.” Rumsfeld writes that he sometimes called a meeting to a halt when things got too badly off track.

Having served in a lesser post in the Pentagon, I still know precisely what Rumsfeld means. First, the bureaucracy will schedule meetings from morning till night without a break. The object is, largely, to prevent anyone from interfering with the bureaucracy’s somnolent goals. With PowerPoint, it’s too easy to bury an audience in meaningless details or take off on a tangent. When you stop them, they rebel. Too damned bad. 

It’s a small example, sure, but it encapsulates leadership. Bureaucrats must be led in the direction that policymakers want them to go. Left to its own devices, the Army will insist on the Army’s priorities, the Navy on the Navy’s, the Air Force on the Air Force’s. Rumsfeld offers a great example of how these unfortunate bureaucratic tendencies can thwart leadership, and how they may be dealt with. During Rumsfeld’s second term atop the Pentagon, Army Secretary Thomas White had his job precisely backwards. White believed that he was  supposed to represent the Army to the administration, not the other way around. So when Rumsfeld tried to cancel the Army’s “Crusader” siege cannon—which was too big and too heavy to deploy to any battlefield—White went around him and lobbied Congress to reverse Rumsfeld’s decision. It should have cost White his job, and it did.

It would be simplistic and wrong to say Rumsfeld had a “love-hate” relationship with the press. For months after 9/11, he was a media darling. Nothing he said or did was unworthy of praise. Then, as he reminds us, prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail were abused, damaging the administration considerably and making Rumsfeld the favorite target of both Congress and the media. (He twice offered his resignation to President Bush over the matter: both times it was rejected.)  

His rules for dealing with the media are both simple and complex. He tells readers they should record every interview as a defense against misquotation. Rumsfeld gave several interviews to “Mortuary Bob” Woodward of the Washington Post, but the quotes in Woodward’s book were not accurate, so Rumsfeld published the full transcripts from his recordings online. He advocates giving just the facts (“Nothing proves more persuasive than a clearly stated fact”). And he makes it clear that nothing, these days, is off the record. Whatever a reporter learns will be published. (The only notable exceptions to this are Barack Obama and Eric Holder.)

Which certainly is not to say that Rumsfeld believes everything should be published. With some humor, he reflects on times he has responded to a reporter’s question concerning a classified CIA operation by saying, “I’m working my way over to figuring out how I won’t answer.” He recommends that leaders and CEOs sometimes take advantage of the simple but unfortunately neglected “I don’t know.”

There is a fascinating, and undoubtedly intentional, confluence of what Rumsfeld writes about the press and the intelligence community. Both are comprised of imperfect people.

RUMSFELD'S CHAPTER on “Unknown Unknowns” discusses how leaders deal with surprises. Examining one study of the Pearl Harbor attack—historically comparable only to the 9/11 attacks—Rumsfeld points out that the author of the study’s introduction wrote that “more often than not surprises are the result of bureaucracies coping with too much information rather than too little.” They were, Rumsfeld contends, failures of imagination as well as failures of intelligence analysis.

This connects, almost too well, with part of Rumsfeld’s commentary on the media. He writes of the “growing glut of unfiltered raw information and images” on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that can be overwhelming, even disorienting, to the public. 

Juxtapose the two, and you have the sort of dilemma that has on occasion destroyed nations. People can be misled, confused or simply neglectful of information that may prove crucial. Populations are easy to confuse because they don’t usually pay enough attention to events. Intelligence analysts aren’t supposed to be, but they’re human too.

Rumsfeld’s remedy may not be foolproof, but it is very close. He advocates bringing a wide variety of people together periodically to brainstorm possibilities. There may still be a conglomeration of information, but there shouldn’t be a failure of imagination in that process. And from such gatherings can be derived options for the president.

There’s a lot more of Rumsfeld’s Rules, too many to encapsulate here. What isn’t here is the revisionism that sometimes comes with second volumes of memoirs. And there’s one of the rules that is possibly the most important—it may be the capstone. Rumsfeld writes, “What sets the U.S. military apart from some other armed forces—and even some American institutions—is that it encourages principled but loyal dissent.” In other words, you’re obligated to tell your boss, privately if possible, when you disagree with him and explain why. But after the boss has made a decision, even if you don’t like it, your only choices are to resign or to do your damnedest to get the job done in the manner requested. That is a code of honor, and a pretty good summary of the life of Donald Rumsfeld. 

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.