Richard Smith: learning from a four-star general on leading in a time of pandemic

No matter what you think about the US, war, or the invasion of Iraq, you can’t help thinking that a four-star general who has led several hundred thousand people in a surge to bring some sort of order in Iraq must have something useful to say on strategic leadership and responding to the covid-19 pandemic. And David Petraeus, who has more the air of a professor than a soldier, did not disappoint in a talk at the London School of Economics last week.

For him strategic leadership has four tasks, and the first task—without which nothing happens—is to have what he called “the big idea,”—the strategy. For him in Iraq the big idea was the “surge,” to increase not decrease the number of troops in Iraq, to try and bring some more order to a country on the brink of civil war. Interestingly, Petraeus said later in his talk that he did not use terms like victory and defeat; rather like an epidemiologist he looked for an improvement in the “metrics.” “You live and die by metrics,” he said.

The big idea with the pandemic is, he said, to try and minimise deaths by testing, contact tracing, and isolating. But he recognised that if that strategy fails, as it has in both the US and UK, then you have no choice but to lockdown for a while. He thought that the big idea with the pandemic is largely agreed and that “lives versus livelihood” was a false choice because people would have no confidence to restart the economy if they thought their health at risk.

Petraeus was not asked what he thought of leadership in the US and UK, as if it had been agreed beforehand that he would not be asked about that, but he was asked about the problem of “managing upwards.” He answered that you tried to persuade, concentrating on arguments that you thought would work for the leader, but he was clear that “you don’t win all the time.”

The second task of strategic leadership is relentlessly to communicate the big idea. Before the surge he had to convince a highly sceptical Congress to fund the surge. He was honest that things would get worse before they got better. Having communicated upwards, you then need to communicate to the troops. He was clear that leading an army was different from leading a country, but even with an army you need to convince everybody of the worth of the big idea. If you are reduced to saying “you must do it because I say so” you won’t do well even with an army. In the war Petraeus communicated directly with those immediately under him but also used video and written material to communicate with the troops.

It goes without saying that the message must be clear, particularly in a war, and I heard Petraeus speak the day after the “car crash” of Boris Johnson’s attempt to communicate his “big idea” on managing the pandemic to the British people; and the day afterwards I watched comedian Matt Lucas’s demolition of Johnson’s attempt at communication. In contrast, Petraeus spoke of the formidable communications skills of Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill.

Churchill was also strong on the third task of strategic leadership—an intense concentration on implementation: hiring the right people; getting the funds; providing equipment; setting the right metrics; and adapting from day to day.

Thinking of the pandemic in the UK and the US, we see an “army going into battle” with inadequate equipment. 

The fourth component of the strategic leadership is a formal mechanism for learning and adapting the big idea and the means of implementation. In the Iraq war it was necessary to move from fighting the various opponents to reconciliation. We had, Petraeus said, to sit down and talk with people we had been fighting just a few weeks before.

There is no learning without recognition of what is going wrong, and leadership in both the US and UK seems to have difficulty talking about what has gone wrong and what changes will be needed.

In questioning, Petraeus was asked about the importance of answering “How will this end?” Unsurprisingly he doesn’t know how the pandemic will end, but he imagined a point where people would be able to test themselves everyday and communicate the results with their phones—allowing immediate contact tracing and isolation.

He was asked as well about leading on multiple issues at once. He referred to when he was responsible for an area stretching from Pakistan to Somalia: there were wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, pirates off the coast of Somalia, and “terrorists everywhere.” You are, he said, like a circus performer, trying to keep multiple plates in the air at once. You must decide which plates you can’t drop, and for world leaders now the two plates are the pandemic and climate change.

Finally, he was asked about global leadership in the pandemic. This is not, he said, a time for recriminations. Instead, he emphasised the importance of working together globally by saying “No one is safe unless everyone is safe.”

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.