Gen. Anthony Zinni (left) discusses the crisis in leadership, during a discussion at The Commonwealth Club with President and CEO Dr. Gloria C. Duffy. (Photo by John Zipperer)
With an estimated three-fourths of Americans seeing a widespread leadership crisis, a high-profile veteran of America's foreign wars came to The Commonwealth Club on Tuesday (August 18) to talk about where leadership has succeeded and failed. In conversation with Commonwealth Club president and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy, General Anthony Zinni, former commander in chief of the United States Central Command, told a lunch hour Commonwealth Club crowd that as of late there has been a leadership crisis in all aspects of society -- both at home and abroad. He underscored how the leadership lessons he learned on the battlefield could actually be applied to help people understand how to succeed in many areas of everyday life.
The surveys Zinni conducted for his new book Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom, indicated that by 2008, 77 percent Americans felt that there was a leadership crisis in every facet of society. “In not one element of society did the leadership rise above 50 percent in approval rating. Not one political leader in the world received an approval rating of over 50 percent,” he said. From the corporate world to the political arena, leaders are failing.
General Zinni argued that in the current technological environment, a new and different type of leader must emerge. Factors and personality traits that contribute to successful leadership citing include “thinking creatively and strategically, knowing how to guide and communicate, being a unique decision maker, understanding the complexity of a new environment, and having a visionary approach,” he said.
Dr. Duffy, a former nuclear arms negotiator and assistant deputy of defense under Bill Clinton, remarked that we have witnessed numerous examples of failure in leadership recently -- from Detroit to the airline industry to Katrina -- and asked Zinni to share examples of good role models. General David Petraeus is a great leader who executed a “different approach to Iraq,” Zinni responded. “He liked to think out of the box.… He was more analytical and invited in contrary views. He operated outside the norm and did things on the ground that went far beyond the military dimension. Patreus saw the scope of what was required.” Zinni also highlighted how Patraeus deployed his troops to assist in all aspects of Iraqi life, from helping rebuild communities to job training. On a recent visit to Iraq, Petraeus told Zinni, “You’re not going to shoot your way to success here.”
Zinni observed that great leaders sometimes have to take great risks and suffer the most, doing their utmost to understand the needs of the people they lead. It was Israeli leader Shimon Perez who told Zinni that great leaders must also ignore “the righteous and the debaters.” Zinni commented that good leaders allow people to fail and show them how to improve saying, “They reach across lines to help others and believe in participatory decision making.” Amongst great world leaders, Zinni cited Jordan’s King Hussein, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, and Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He also said the Bush administration failed to adequately acknowledge the leadership skills of Colin Powell, whom Zinni thinks was a tremendous asset to the country.
In the business world, Zinni attributed the success of Toyota and Honda to “the ability of their leadership to assess consumer desires, needs and expectations.” He also praised the charismatic attributes and skills of airline magnate Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airways. In an industry of bankruptcy and failed models, Zinni noted, Branson succeeded.
Though he mentioned all of those leaders whose qualities impressed him, Zinni lamented that “we are living in confusing, complex times. The focus and cry now is for leadership. We are going to have to find human solutions.”
Zinni, who currently teaches at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, is a retired four-star general in the United States Marine Corps and former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command. In 2002, he was selected to be a special envoy for the United States to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. While serving as a special envoy, Zinni was also an instructor in the Department of International Studies at the Virginia Military Institute.
--Commonwealth Club Media & Public Relations Department