University of Southern California

Affirmative and Adaptive Leadership
General Petraeus on the Intersection of Military and Corporate Leadership
April 2, 2014 • by News at Marshall

David Petraeus, retired four-star general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, spoke at the USC Marshall School of Business on March 27th about adapting military leadership skills to civilian organizations. Petraeus, a Judge Widney Professor at USC, offered his perspective as part of a panel discussion organized by students of Marshall’s inaugural Master of Business for Veterans program.

The discussion was moderated by Warren Bennis, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Management and Organization. In addition to General Petraeus, the panel included James G. Ellis, dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, and Ed Roski, chairman of the USC Board of Trustees.

Petraeus described the ideal leadership style as one that is adaptive and affirmative.

"You want to have a light hand on the reins, whenever possible, to promote initiative and independent action -- while still providing clear guidance and direction," he said. "Beyond that, as you progress in an organization, your leadership style has to change not just with your position, but also with those whom you are leading – always seeking to provide the specific style of leadership appropriate for each individual who directly reports to you and for the organization collectively."

He went on to outline what he termed an “affirmative model of leadership,” founded on an assumption that the vast majority of people want to do the best that they can. Conveying this, he explained, “inspires those an individual leads to do just that, to do their best to ‘be all that they can be.’ It's a style or approach that's very conscious in conveying a respect for the individual," he said, “and that conveys that the leader looks forward to confirming the excellence of those he is privileged to lead.”

After 37 years in the military and 14 months as the CIA Director, Petraeus, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University, has taken on positions with a global financial firm, various academic posts (including his position at USC), speaking, and support for a number of veterans’ organizations.

In conversation with his fellow panelists, Petraeus went on to describe what he termed the four key tasks of strategic leadership: getting the big ideas (or strategy) right for the organization, communicating the big ideas throughout the breadth and depth of the organization, overseeing the implementation of the big ideas, and identifying how the big ideas need to be refined, in order to perform the process again… and again.

"I don't care what organization you are in,” he noted, “that construct applies and it's worth thinking about explicitly.”

Marshall's Master of Business for Veterans (MBV) program is a one-year program during which military veterans and active-duty personnel prepare to employ their management and leadership experience in the private sector. The inaugural class includes nearly 40 active-duty military and veterans.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.