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David Petraeus praises George Washington’s ‘seat-of-the-pants leadership’

One military hero salutes another: The retired general — a USC faculty member — speaks at the annual Leadership Lecture in Virginia

David Petraeus in Virginia
David Petraeus at Mount Vernon, Va. (Photo/Allison O'Brien)

At the third annual George Washington Leadership Lecture in Mount Vernon, Va., retired four-star Gen. David H. Petraeus praised the military acumen of Gen. Washington. Petraeus noted Washington’s military leadership and victory in the Revolutionary War were all the more impressive, given the many obstacles that he faced, including a lack of formal military training.

Petraeus served 37 years in the military and was in command of U.S. and NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2011 to 2012. He is currently a Judge Widney Professor at USC, which includes a joint appointment at USC Price.

Unique path to leadership

Petraeus’ lecture came 240 years after Washington assumed command of the Continental Army fighting the British in Massachusetts.

Petraeus had the advantage of many years of military training before assuming command and was assisted by a large, professional staff, he noted. In contrast, Washington was alone and had only the experience of the French-Indian wars, where his performance was not particularly impressive. Yet suddenly, Washington found himself in command of the American Army, the fate of a young nation on his shoulders, but with none of the advantages of today’s modern military.

He really was someone who learned on the job.

David Petraeus

“He really was someone who learned on the job,” Petraeus said, describing Washington’s command as “seat-of-the-pants leadership.”

Although both he and Washington had challenges in their commands, Petraeus said Washington’s were much more complex. Among them was trying to cobble together a fighting force from diverse groups of patriots who were untrained and unorganized as opposed to the professional soldiers of today.

“It was not quite the bar scene in Star Wars, but it had some elements,” Petraeus said.

Calm in the face of crisis

At various times during the conflict, Washington had to deal with no logistics, no rations, no support, no uniforms, no shoes, near mutiny and a brutal winter at Valley Forge. At one point, his force dwindled to 3,700, yet Washington somehow had “the fortitude to keep on going,” Petraeus said.

Washington was always “placid and calm,” Petraeus continued, adding that “the best leaders I have known always get calm in a crisis.”

People take their lead from how their leaders handle bad news.

David Petraeus

Added Petraeus: “There’s something about never letting your shoulders slump. People take their lead from how their leaders handle bad news.”

Washington also was a great politician and statesman, effectively dealing with Congress when lawmakers tried to interfere with the war effort, Petraeus said. “Everything was on the line for the country, and he got that right.”

USC Price Professor David Sloane, who moderated the discussion, asked Petraeus whether the British could have won the war.

“The British beat themselves,” Petraeus replied. By the time the war started, the British had made so many “irretrievable political mistakes” and created such animosity in the colonies that it is hard to imagine them regaining control, he said. Nevertheless, “I can’t rule it out,” he added.

He said if very early on, the British had dealt with the opposition in New England and made some sort of a deal with the Southern colonies where there was a larger group of loyalists, “it might have been possible to make some compromises short of a military conflict.”

Healing ‘invisible wounds’

During the Q&A session, Petraeus was asked about the military men and women who return home from the Middle East suffering from post-traumatic stress. Petraeus noted that some wounds are obvious, such as a soldier who has lost a limb or suffered serious brain injuries, but there also are “invisible wounds.”

“We do have post-traumatic stress, and it’s something that accumulates,” he said, noting that “these are the longest wars in our history,” and the invisible effects of combat can last far beyond a soldier’s 12-month tour of duty.

“Individuals accumulate the mental scars” of fear, violence, deaths and injuries, he said. “The magnitude of this outstrips what we have in terms of capabilities.”

Although “we have made strides,” more needs to be done. “We’ve really got to help those [service men and women] get healthy again,” Petraeus said.

The event, held on Oct. 15, was sponsored by the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. The lecture series was established in 2012 through a gift by Maribeth Borthwick ’73, who also serves as the Vice Regent for California of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

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David Petraeus praises George Washington’s ‘seat-of-the-pants leadership’

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