Author,Research Associate , Harvard University
Posted on: July 29, 2012 | Go to profile
Paula Broadwell’s passion for leadership stems from her background in the U.S. military, and her academic pursuits. Having led troops after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Paula was immersed in the theory and practice of leadership on the line. Paula has lived, worked, or traveled in over 60 countries during more than fifteen years of military service and work in geopolitical analysis and counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. During that time, she had assignments with the U.S. intelligence community, U.S. Special Operations Command and an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. As an author, Paula was granted unprecedented access to one of America’s most acclaimed leaders – General David Petraeus – as she wrote a best-selling biography, war chronicle, and portrait of strategic leadership at his elbow in a war zone. Paula is married to Dr. Scott Broadwell, and they have two young boys, Lucien and Landon. They live together in Charlotte, NC, and when Paula is not on the frontlines, online, or writing, they love to run, ski, and surf together.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: In high school, I had an interest in either running for office or sojourning into international affairs. In the year I was to choose a college, I recall being struck by the First Gulf War — the shock and awe campaign that repelled the Iraqi Army from Kuwait in 1991; this experience set me on my professional trajectory. In just a few days, the war was over. I thought to myself that as a woman who aspired to a career in the global arena, I would need to understand that “instrument of power,” the military. If I could gain an understanding of the makings of war and peace, those skills would set me apart in that man’s world. That exposure led me to apply to a military service academy for college.
Since graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I have lived, served and traveled in over 60 countries across the globe – from conducting surveillance on the DMZ in Korea, providing conflict resolution training in Africa, conducting document exploitation against war criminals in Bosnia, jumping out of airplanes to earn Thai, Indian, and Czech parachute wings, putting together infiltration plans for special forces commandos, serving undercover with the FBI, living in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan while studying Arabic, and drinking three cups of tea in primitive villages in Afghanistan. I’m grateful for the opportunities the military provided.
At the time my husband and I decided to have children, after ten years of military service, I left active and reserve military duty and began to pursue graduate school. It was on this journey that the opportunity to meet and work with Petraeus arose. From the University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies, to the University of Amman, to Harvard I pursued graduate school to begin to broaden my experiences and forge a new career field for myself. It was in graduate school at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where I first met General David Petraeus who had come to speak to students about counterinsurgency. Soon after, I asked him if I could use him a case study for my doctoral dissertation. Petraeus agreed, and I began to write an “intellectual history,” exploring how he’d developed his role as a maverick who galvanized organizational innovation. When he was selected to become the Commander in Afghanistan in 2010, I proposed turning the dissertation into a book. I arranged for my first Afghan visa and was given the privilege of shadowing him by his side in the war zone; the rest is (captured in a) history (book)!
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: Integrity, or adherence to a strict moral and ethical code, is a hallmark quality of a great leader. Without it, a leader will lose the trust and respect of the populace it leads and serves. In the military, this could lead to a lack of public trust, which ultimately threatens peace and security. On a personal level, military leaders are often dealing with life and death decisions, and integrity in thought and deed is even more vital. If the leader cannot be trusted to be consistent in actions, values, principles and outcomes, the bonds of trust that bind a team together will be diminished if not shattered and the mission is likely to fail. Whether in or out of uniform, in fact, a leader who lacks integrity will soon lack the ability to inspire and transform.
A second characteristic is vision. As we were taught in the military, strategic leaders develop and communicate a compelling, understandable, and strategic vision for the organization. This vision is a mechanism that helps to focus an effort and make progress towards a desired end-state. Vision is an image but also a process used to guide the execution of a strategy for how to “get there from here.” As leaders do not have the monopoly on good ideas, creating the vision requires a collaborative effort in support of the leader. A leader who can envision the big picture, has the ability to anticipate second and third-order effects of each course of action, and maintains the intellectual humility to surround oneself – as noted above – with experts when she doesn’t know it all is the ideal. That said, a leader must also inspire others to think and act, challenge followers to meet high standards, communicate optimism about future goals, and provide a strong sense of purpose and meaning for the mission at hand. In sum, a leader must coordinate ends (vision/goal), ways, and means – and energy – to achieve the mission.
Great leadership is also defined by intellectual humility. While one presumes a leader naturally has great vision and the sagacity to surround herself around the best and brightest subject matter experts, she must also have a consciousness of the limits of knowledge and the constraints of native egocentrism, sensitivity to bias, prejudice, and the limitations of one’s viewpoint. This does not imply submissiveness; rather, it applies self-actualization and intellectual courage.
Q: Can you share a story of how networking led to a great success?
A: Networking is a critical skill. Ever since I took a Harvard class called “Managing Social Networks: Tools for Public Policy Leaders,” I look at the world as a series of webs to be connected. The more one can play the connector, or maven, the better informed one will be, and the more valuable you make yourself to each of the networks that want to be connected. My philosophy has always been to seek ways to help others connect, to be “pathologically helpful,” as Malcolm Gladwell aptly captured it in “Tipping Point;” such a philosophy always ends up benefiting the connector as well. Figure out (map it out mentally or even on paper) your networks and think about how you can capitalize on being a connector between the different webs, too!
On a different note, I think it is also important to understand the strength of ties within one’s various networks. My largest and most helpful network is my college alumnae group. This group was instrumental in helping me to gain access to key players in the government and military for my book-writing endeavor. This was easy to do given the strength of weak ties amongst members of the West Point “Long Gray Line,” as the alumni group is called. Membership in this “fraternity” meant ease of access to most all graduates — peers as well as superiors — in part through our common formative experience and shared values instilled by our alma mater. Obviously, I shared this common ground with Petraeus and had a bit of instant rapport. Additionally, four of my West Point classmates had been general’s aides to General Petraeus; one of my professors at West Point as a cadet served with Petraeus in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan and became an excellent source for material as well as guidance for my endeavors; others in the book were soldiers and officers with whom I’d studied or served abroad and most were willing to provide info or make introductions. Mapping out these networks and understanding who key players are, then capitalizing on how you can help each other is a helpful approach to connecting to important networks, and better enabling the exchange of information and assistance.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for networking?
A: 1. It is better to give than to receive (to be cliché). Never just ask for something, always offer something in advance of a request, whether that is to give a shout out for the other person’s endeavors, make an important introduction for them, or simply saying “what may I do for you today?” This is not to imply that you should be “transactional,” rather that offering gratitude through some gesture is simple but effective way to disarm others, especially those who are inundated with requests for help. Think of ways in the future to support that person in order to express your appreciation, though your gratitude should be explicit up front as well. (In fact, hard copy thank you notes mean even more these days; don’t underestimate the power of such simple gestures). In addition to reciprocating, I’d also recommend trying to “pay it forward” as often as you can. By “pay it forward,” I mean you should preemptively look for ways to help others in need. Do this altruistically, but watch how you’ll ultimately always benefit, too! A great book that captures this frame of mind is called “Go Giver.” Ask yourself: How do you create value for other people? Excellence, consistency, attention, empathy, appreciation are keys! The more you give away (appreciation, acknowledgment, wisdom, attention, care), the more you have.
2. Always bring business cards to events and make a point to ask for cards from those whom you meet. Take a few moments to write all the personal info you know about the cardholder on the back of the card so in future exchanges you can recall something from the conversation. I find this little effort pays huge dividends for building rapport. And be sure to send follow up emails as soon as possible (“It was a pleasure to meet you and I hope we have the chance to work together some day!”). Set reminders to follow up on a future date as well.
3. Be positive. Everyone likes to be around people who exude energy. Find a way to give energy and encouragement. It is amazing how the right attitude and the ability to make others feel good about themselves can be a magnet for new friends and colleagues! A book that captures this phenomenon is Celestine Prophesy.
Q: If you had the opportunity to give advice to your younger self at say the age 13, what would you say?
A: If you can dream it, you can do it; don’t let gender, wealth or poverty, geography, or ACT/SAT scores deter you from pursuing your passion. Success in life truly is as much from determination, hard work, and resilience. Those statements are all so trite, of course, but I remember feeling limited by many of those constraints as I grew up in a rural part of the country. In hindsight, however, I have learned that hard work does pay off, as does pursuing one’s passion.
I would also advise, in that vein, that certain skills will help one in pursuing any dream, namely public speaking and writing skills. Communication through both mediums is powerful, and as such refined communication skills is a key for leaders to be able to inspire, persuade, compel, negotiate, and/or disarm, and implement vision and intent.
Q: What do you think is the key to happiness?
A: I think the keys to happiness are first attitude and second pursuing something for which you have passion. As for attitude, several great quotes come to mind. Albert Einstein aptly stated, “Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.” And Oprah took it further, “The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.” And, as captured in my book, General Petraeus packaged it neatly for the military, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” But Winston Churchill got it best of all, “The pessimist sees a challenge at every opportunity; the optimist sees opportunity in every challenge.” Free your mind, and the rest will follow.
After you make up your mind to embrace all that life presents, it may take some time to find that passion. In your pursuit, enjoy the journey and live each day as if it were your last, but never stop seeking. Along that path, I also find that a continuous cycle of learning is important; in this regard, self-development (e.g., joining book clubs, taking language or photography or gardening classes, joining professional organizations) is important for expanding personal horizons and gaining exposure to new ideas, frameworks, and heuristics for decision-making. Finally, I think surrounding oneself with uplifting, interesting and interested friends brings happiness. After all is said and done and a career has passed, fame has been fleeting and adventures are forgotten, relationships will remain. There is a wonderful TED talk by Doris Kearns Goodwin wherein she references that the richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms – work, love and play. And that to pursue one realm to the disregard of the others is to open oneself to ultimate sadness in older age where as to pursue all three with equal dedication is to make possible a life filled not only with achievement, but also with serenity. Goodwin emphasized the importance of finding balance in life, giving President Lyndon Johnson as an example. An excerpt from her speech: “Johnson should have had everything in the world to feel good about in those last years in the sense that he had been elected to the presidency, he had all the money he needed to pursue any leisure activity he wanted. He owned a spacious ranch in the countryside, a penthouse in the city, sailboats, speedboats, he had servants to answer any whim, and he had a family who loved him deeply. And yet years of concentration solely on work and individual success meant that in his retirement, he could find no solace in family, in recreation, in sports or in hobbies. It was almost as if the hole in his heart was so large that even the love of a family without work could not fill it. As his spirit sagged, his body deteriorated until I believe he slowly brought about his own death. In those last years, he said he was so sad watching the American people look toward a new president and forgetting him. He spoke with immense sadness in his voice, saying maybe he should have spent more time with his children and their children in turn. But it was too late. Despite all that power, all that wealth, he was alone when he finally died, his ultimate terror realized.”
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: I used to think I was invincible and could do it all, but having children helped me to realize my limits. I now believe a woman CAN do it all, just not all at the same time. I realized this in graduate school when my virtual plate overflowed. I was at Harvard attempting to pursue an advance degree in a challenging program while running a counter-terrorism research center at The Fletcher School and several extra curricular university-wide student (security) programs, all while maintaining my status as a Reserve Army officer, while nursing and raising a baby and toddler, while my husband was in a demanding medical fellowship – so I was essentially a single mom. Needless to say, I had a hard time doing it all and realized I wasn’t being a good mother, much less wife, and probably under-performing in other areas as well. I decided to put a few endeavors on hold and stop putting pressure on myself to do it all at the same time. I came to that realization that it was okay to put a few missions on the back burner in great part because I finally had female mentors (working female professionals) who reassured me that I should put less pressure on myself and soon enough I would be able to get back “in the arena.” I would not accept this message from my male mentors; it had to come from an ambitious woman who had been there to really sink in. I had been programmed to think that saying no to opportunities was a sign of weakness. Now I think it is a strength and sign of discipline to be able to say no! Furthermore, I see it as a near moral obligation to empathize and try to help and encourage other young working mothers; they need a voice of reason that can only come from someone who has been there.
ON Taking Risk
Q: Usually reaching something great or grand in life requires taking a risk. What has been your greatest risk so far and how was it rewarding?
A: I am generally not averse to risk. I like to jump out of airplanes, ski in avalanche territory, and have even interviewed “terrorists” in pursuit of content for my grad school thesis. In spite of these adventures, I think one of the most important risks I took was joining the Army.
As previously noted, I decided to apply to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to escape my humble farm family roots and sojourn into the world of international relations. Having grown up in a rather rural part of America, I had not been exposed to the military and was unfamiliar with the regimentation and rigors of life in an Academy. I was, however, attracted to the concept of leadership and international affairs that the Academy symbolizes, but I was uncertain with where such a career might take me. Ultimately, the process of applying (training for and conducting fitness and psychological tests and the acquisition of a nomination from a Congressional Senator) turned out to be quite an investment of time and energy, and I decided to take it seriously. When I was accepted and began the Academy, I realized I had no idea what I was getting into! It was the hardest four years of my life but equally the most formative, and I’m grateful for the myriad opportunities I have subsequently had – because of the military – to live, travel, and serve my nation in over 60 countries across the globe. I also feel this decision and experience in a man’s world has uniquely positioned me to have greater opportunities to serve at the highest levels of government in the future. The bottom line for me was that I am proud I took the risk of pursuing an atypical career for a woman. I would do it all again!
ON Time Management
Q: How do your prioritize your time?
A: I am very regimented or “military” with my approach to time management. I stick to a daily routine: rise early (5AM) to read the online news and set priorities for the day, get kids ready for school (by 7:30AM), hit the road for a 6-10 mile running session and schedule calls while running (earpieces work great for this multitasking endeavor), then I carve out time for thinking/writing in solitude until late afternoon when I turn into soccer mom (they are only little once!). I’m with my boys and husband until the kids are down for bed, around 9pm, and then it is back to work to schedule the next day’s events. Lights out at 11pm. I prioritize time for family, fitness, and connectivity to the rest of the world, then isolation each day and feel I have balanced all well, but it takes discipline and regimentation for me to do that. I’m grateful for the time management skills I gained in the military. But to best manage time, one must recognize the distracters. On that note, everyone knows her own strengths and weaknesses, and I have found that if I don’t “unplug” from all the smart media and instant messaging, I cannot get in the writing zone. If I am not traveling, I schedule two or three hours of solitude. After that “blackout time,” I also try – when researching or writing – to turn off my phone ringer and avoid email, only checking at the top of each hour. This management article helped me to figure out why it is I need to operate this way: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html
Take charge of your life!
ON Giving Back
Q: Can you share with us an experience of giving that was extremely rewarding or transformational?
A: I have chosen to use the media attention from our best-selling book to draw attention to an issue that I care deeply about: supporting veterans and wounded warriors. Having served abroad and experienced some of the stress and horrors of a war zone, and having documented some of the selfless service and sacrifices those troopers make in our book, I realized I was uniquely positioned to be an advocate for their needs, in particular, the needs of those with “invisible wounds” including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
While over 40,000 of our Iraq and Afghanistan vets have visible wounds, including amputations, over 400,000 have been diagnosed with the debilitating mental wounds. In that population of vets, child abuse is up 40%, sexual violent crimes are up 30%, and substance abuse, divorce rates, and suicide are higher than the national average.
The government is not prepared to adequately help these troopers reintegrate into our society and find a “new normal,” so I think it is incumbent on every day Americans to step up and find ways to give back. In addition, using media time, not just for my book marketing but also to bring attention to this issue has been very empowering and rewarding, as has raising tens of thousands of proceeds to help wounded warrior groups, in particular Team Red White and Blue, a veteran support organization that uses fitness as a mechanism to connect with wounded warriors and their families and help them find their new normal as they attempt to reintegrate after experiencing the traumas of war. I’m grateful for their service, and grateful for the chance to give back! It’s our turn!
Q: What are the top 3 things that you do to stay healthy?
A: I think there are many benefits to staying “fit to fight,” and a physical fitness regime is therefore a necessity. As such, I am religious about running, calisthenics (pushups, abs exercises, and other core strength building exercises), and weights. I’m addicted to running endorphins and those who know me generally don’t want to be around me unless I have had my workout! In sum, besides the high from endorphins, exercise helps me feel good about myself and that translates into confidence in poise. Additionally, working out gives me time to reflect and plan; it also gives me time to mentally rehearse speeches or think about my writing objectives for the day. Leadership in solitude is under-rated! In addition to fitness, I focus on healthy eating (organic food, and generally lean proteins and low carb foods). Finally, I try to incorporate my family into all of the above, including active playtime and hiking adventures and healthy eating habits with my children and husband. We keep each other accountable.
Q: What place in the world has the most sentimental value to you and why?
A: I first traveled to the Middle East (Israel and Egypt) as a young cadet at West Point on a program intended to help future military officers understand the dynamics of the region. It was transformative for me and, ever since, I have been enthralled with conflict resolution initiatives there, to include programs like Seeds of Peace, The Geneva Accords, and Women Waging Peace. During that trip, I was exposed to the Israeli Defense Forces as well as the Palestinian Liberation Organization. I met high level politicians and officials and gained an understanding of the dynamics of life on a communal kibbutz, in a refugee camp, and in a Bedouin village, having “embedded” within each community. Gaining an understanding of the religious, ethnic, and cultural differences as well as the shared common ground. As violence has ebbed and flowed in the region, I’ve maintained a deep interest (e.g., studying Arabic in the Levant a decade later, training Israeli and Arab women in conflict resolution, teaching Iraqi women networking skills in Jordan, embedding in refugee camps in Jordan and Palestine to capture perspectives) and hope to some day play a role in galvanizing peace there.
Q: What do you believe is the secret to finding the right person and maintaining a long term, good relationship?
A: The secret is first to BE the right person. Additionally, if you, as a woman, are career oriented and independent, don’t settle for a man who will not support your ambition. That doesn’t mean he has to expect you to be the breadwinner, though if he is open-minded in that regard, awesome. And that doesn’t mean you don’t support his dreams as well. It means that you find a partner who wants you to succeed as much as you want him to succeed, but that may require sacrifices by both parties. Before my husband and I got married, for example, we made an agreement that every other geographic move would be the other person’s choice. We have always considered the others’ circumstances, but this agreement has generally served us well when our career paths were at odds. Finally, ensuring constant communication is crucial, especially when children enter the equation and there is less “adult” time together and more tension with all the competing demands for attention. A few solutions have been to preserve “date nights,” to insist children go to bed at a decent hour so there is at least some quiet time, and to try to schedule surf or ski getaways for just the two of us where we can enjoy our pre-children, carefree selves again!
Q: How do you balance career and motherhood?
A: On the one hand, I outsource as much as we can afford, to include housekeeping, delivery of groceries, laundry, and occasionally after-school care for our children. We have to sacrifice in some ways in order to have these luxuries, but it is worth it for the peace of mind and extra time it allows for my husband and I to focus on our priorities: our children/family and our careers. On the other hand, I am generally dedicated to attending every sport practice session and game in which my children participate, and I spend time weekly managing their other extra curricular activities, to include foreign language lessons and other developmental activities. We make it a point to read daily with the children, and to preserve quality time, which my boys call “Green Alert:” a snuggle session on the couch or bed with all four of us.
I have been fortunate to have tremendous support from my in-laws and parents in regards to childcare when I have been absent (e.g., as an embedded journalist in Afghanistan off and on for nearly a year, and while on the nation-wide book tour for three months).
While it is challenging to strike work-life balance, if one hopes to be consequential in the world, perhaps one’s progeny is the best way to accomplish that. As such, investing in one’s children’s future by focusing on their early childhood development is a critical mission, and inherent in that is simply making sure they feel loved and cared for. So even while working towards your professional goals, keep the family central. (See note above on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s advice in this regard – find balance between work, love, and play!)
Q: If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
A: I’m very humbled by the opportunity to have written and published a New York Times bestselling book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Writing is not an easy endeavor, at least for me. In fact, writing a nearly 400-page book is a daunting task for someone who is not enamored with isolation. That said, it has been a tremendous privilege to craft a biographical and leadership sketch of a serving official in real time. It was also an adventure to spend time shadowing Petraeus in Afghanistan and to have the opportunity to gather stories while on patrol with the troops in the Hindu Kush, the lush Argahandab River Valley, and the Pakistan border. In the process of writing about someone else’s “education,” and doing it through participant observation and cultural immersion, if you will, I have gained a tremendous education myself, and I’m grateful for the journey.
Q: What are the beauty items you could not live without?
A: Dumbbells (20 lb), Lipstick (Revlon 420), and Obagi skin care.