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General David Petraeus: Military planning for business success

The decorated wartime commander explains how corporate leaders can stay one step ahead of the enemy.

One of the most celebrated and respected military commanders of the last half century, four-star general General David Petraeus led United States forces in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan before being appointed director of the CIA by President Obama.

His 37 years in the US Army also included heading up US Central Command, overseeing coalition forces in Iraq’s International Security Assistance Force and leading all allied troops in Iraq’s Multi-National Force, where he worked with the new government to try to bring peace to the country.

His reputation took a serious hit in 2012 when it was revealed that he had handed classified documents to his biographer, with whom he was having an affair. He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors, but it didn’t stop him becoming an influential academic during his retirement and a visiting professor at Harvard, spearheading a project on strategic leadership.


He has often lectured on the similarities between corporations and the military.

“Strategic planning is strategic planning,” he says. “At Central Command, we had 250,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, and probably 250,000-300,000 contractors, so the scale rivals the largest firms in the world..

“They’re similar to aircraft carriers in the sense that if you want to turn it around, you need to think about it way before you need to actually be carving that turn,” he continues. “Planning and execution are long-term endeavours. You don’t flip an aircraft carrier over like you do a speedboat, and the same is true of large organizations.”

Military planning

When speaking at the many universities that have awarded him honorary degrees, consulting for investment corporations or running charitable bodies, Petraeus takes the metaphor even further.

“The mark of a leader is how he or she responds in the face of adversity.”

“Planning is critical,” the Ducere Global Leader Faculty Member says. “It has to be carried out in a systematic fashion. It has to be thorough. You should war game against it, determine the big risks and the enemy’s most dangerous course of action. You’ve got to get it right because if you don’t, I don’t care how much detailed planning you do, you’re not going to succeed.”

Nor will you prevail in either the theater of war or a high-stakes business deal if you don’t learn from skirmishes that don’t turn out how your detailed plan said they would, he believes.

“There are going to be setbacks as well as successes on the battlefield,” he says. “The mark of a leader is how he or she responds in the face of adversity, figures out the lessons and learns what to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”


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