Rumsfeld’s Rules

One of the highlights of SXSW the past two years for me has been attending a dinner hosted by friends Rick Murray and Mike Krempasky of Edelman Digital. At this year’s dinner, I was chatting with Mike about politics — which is fairly natural for us, as Mike is a co-founder of, and I, well, let’s just say I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out at 🙂

In any event, we got to talking about Donald Rumsfeld. I have a friend who met Donald Rumsfeld at a cocktail party (I’ll let her tell the story – it’s a good one) and she came away stunned at how incredibly smart he was. (This was during the “there are known knowns, and known unknowns, but unknown unknowns” days, when his public persona seemed to lower expectations.) I relayed that anecdote, and Mike and his wife shared similar observations from their friends. Then Mike pulled out his Blackberry and pulled up Rumsfeld’s Rules, and e-mailed me the link.

They are, simply put, brilliant.

Published in the Wall Street Journal as he was about to begin serving under President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld outlined his approach to public service, working in the White House, business, and life. He attributes the quotes/maxims when he knows the source, and groups the rules according to his career: Serving in Government, Serving in the White House, Being the Secretary of Defense, Politics, The Press, Business, and Life. A few of my favorites:

Serving in the White House:

  • Don’t say “the White House wants.” Buildings can’t want. 
  • Don’t begin to think you’re the president. You’re not. The Constitution provides for only one. 
  • Visit with your predecessors from previous administrations. They know the ropes and can help you see around some corners. Try to make original mistakes, rather than needlessly repeating theirs.
On Doing the Job in the White House:
  • Don’t be a bottleneck. If a matter is not a decision for the president or you, delegate it. Force responsibility down and out. Find problem areas, add structure, and delegate. The pressure is to do the reverse. Resist it. 
  • Look for what’s missing. Many advisers can tell a president how to improve what’s proposed or what’s gone amiss. Few are able to see what isn’t there.
On Business:
  • That which you require be reported on to you will improve, if you are selective. How you fashion your reporting system announces your priorities and sets the institution’s priorities. 
  • Don’t let the complexity of a large company mask the need for performance. Bureaucracy is a conspiracy to bring down the big. And it can. You may need to be large to compete in the world stage, but you need to find ways to avoid allowing that size to mask poor performance.
On Life:
  • “It takes everyone to make a happy day.” — Marcy Rumsfeld, age seven 
  • “But I am me.” — Nick Rumsfeld, age nine 
  • “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.” — Shimon Peres 
  • “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower 
  • “Most people spend their time on the ‘urgent’ rather than on the ‘important.’” — Robert Hutchins
The entire list really is worth reading; there’s a lot to digest. On the balance, the impression you’re left with is that this is a man who took his duty seriously, served his country when asked, and worked hard to keep his work and family in balance. I’ve had harsh words for Secretary Rumsfeld in the past, and his legacy at the Pentagon is (to say the least) a complicated one.
To that end, I’m going to be reading By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld and I understand that Secretary Rumsfeld is working on his memoirs. From a review of his rules above, I expect both to be tremendously interesting (if not equally enlightening).

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