Rumsfeld's Rules

By: Donald Rumsfeld



The “Other” Donald, and his Rules

When I first picked up this book, I didn’t know much about Donald Rumsfeld other than that I had seen him on TV quite a bit after 9/11, and associated him solely with President Bush’s inner circle. But the more I learned about the man, the more intrigued I became.

Rumsfeld has seen it all through his storied career. He is best known for being both the youngest and oldest US Secretary of Defense, having served under President Gerald Ford and President George W. Bush. He was a four-term U.S. Congressman from Illinois, and the White House Chief of Staff. He was also the CEO of two Fortune 500 companies, leading the turnaround of G.D. Seattle & Company, which was later sold to Monsanto.

As the Greek stoic Epictetus once said, “It is difficulties that show what men are”. As Rumsfeld can attest to, if there’s one thing that you are assured to experience in business, it’s difficulties. How you lead in these situations can literally mean the difference between success and failure.

And that’s exactly what we are going to cover today - Rumsfeld’s Rules for leading in a crisis.

Where The Rules Come From

“Once you quit one thing, then you can quit something else, and pretty soon you’ll get good at being a quitter.”

This was the advice that Rumsfeld’s father gave him in an overseas letter during WWII, in response to Donald’s desire to quit the boy scouts. He made it clear that the decision was Donald’s to make, but that he should seriously think about the consequences of his actions.

This piece of advice became the first of Rumsfeld’s Rules, an ever-evolving collection of wisdom he has gained over the years.

Years later, when he was in a meeting with President Gerald Ford, Rumsfeld mentioned one of his “rules”. When Ford found out that Rumsfeld had a file full of other quotes and observations, he asked to see them. Ford named them “Rumsfeld’s Rules” and gave a copy of them to each of the senior members of the White House staff.

As we work through Rumsfeld’s rules for leading in a crisis, it will help to keep in mind one of his favourite rules - “All generalisations are false - including this one.” Rules are meant to be used as guides, and not as a substitute for judgment.

Rule # 1: Trust your instincts

As Rumsfeld tells us, “Success depends, at least in part, on the ability to “carry it off.”

Whatever crisis you find yourself in, the biggest mistake you can make is to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s a perfect response plan for you to follow. There isn’t.

When Rumsfeld felt the walls of his office shake when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon on 9/11, there was no long-term crisis response plan to follow. The first thing he did was to start moving, trying to figure out what happened and looking to see if there were injured people he could help.

They gathered as much information as they could and met with the military leaders to determine what the next step would be.

Rule #2: Don’t “over control” like a novice pilot

When something unexpected happens, the last thing you should do as a leader is panic, or even more importantly, give the appearance of panic. It reduces the confidence of your team, who will be looking to you for reassurance and a sense that there is a way forward.

When Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon’s national command centre to be briefed, smoke coming into the rooms through the ventilation system made it almost impossible to get work done. He was advised that he should fly to an off-site command centre, but he felt that it was important to be visible on the site to demonstrate strength and leadership.

So make sure that you don’t panic, but also make sure that you are seen and heard taking care of business.

Rule #3: First reports are often wrong

One of the reasons it’s important to keep a calm head in a crisis is that the first reports are often wrong. So while it is tempting to start creating plans immediately, make sure that you have the correct information in your hands before you start mobilising any actions that will have long-term consequences.

On the flip side of this rule, Rumsfeld points out that:

“with most problems, 80 percent of what can be known relatively rapidly, but the remaining 20 percent can take forever.”

So once you are clear that you have the first 80 percent of the information correct, don’t waste precious time and energy looking for the other 20 percent.

Which brings us to the next rule…

Rule #4: Speed kills

In the military world, speed creates opportunities, denies the enemy options, and can often be the difference between victory and defeat.

So, once you are sure that you have enough information to act, you should make a decision and get in motion.

A famous corporate example comes from Johnson and Johnson’s response to poisoned Tylenol capsules that killed seven people in Chicago in the fall of 1982. They immediately issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol, which cost them millions of dollars. It stopped production, halted all of their marketing, and offered to replace any previously purchased Tylenol with tablets that had been tested and proven to be safe.

The crisis led to the development of what is now the standard for over-the-counter medications - tamper-proof containers.

Rule # 5: Never Waste a Good Crisis

As Rahm Emaneul - President Obama’s first Chief of Staff - once said,

“You never want a serious crisis go to waste.”

As Rumsfeld points out, as a leader, a crisis gives you the opportunity to act boldly to improve things in ways you might not otherwise be able to do.

What most people remember about a crisis is how the leaders responded, and whether or not they took whatever measures were required in order to fix the problem.

Johnson and Johnson took extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of their customers, and now they are written about in every business book ever published as a shining example of how to “make things right”.

Whatever crisis faces you right now, use it as an opportunity to create the change you’ve always wanted to make.