Petraeus PT Job Interviews

Kris Alexander links a piece in, of all places, Runner’s World that gives some pretty good insights into the kind of man David Petraeus is:

Petraeus PT Job Interviews “When we bring a new guy in, I take him out for a run,” says Petraeus. “I’ll go out hard, then ramp it up around five miles to try to waste him. I want to know how he’ll react and respond to the challenge, what his strength of character is.”

It’s the kind of brash comment invoked by high-school football coaches. But the intellectual general (he earned a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton) has more complex motives. “Obviously, I’m not just interested in whether someone is a good runner,” he says. “But there’s something about an individual who has self-discipline, drive, basic fitness, and the heart to run reasonably well that indicates the kind of spirit that you are after in people who take on tough tasks.”

Petraeus’s aide-de-camp, Maj. Everett Spain, relates how he came to work for the general at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Spain, 37, has a Duke M.B.A., a goofy smile, and a notebook that he carries at all times to jot down his boss’s latest thoughts. “I got the call to meet the general at the gym at 0600 in my PT [physical training] clothes,” says Spain. “He took me out for a brutal five-mile run. We competed for another hour, one-on-one, in the gym. He beat me up pretty good. A little while later, I found out that he’d picked me as his next aide. That was my job ‘interview.’ We never talked about much but the workout.”

“All the commissioned officers who have worked as my aides have been decent runners,” Petraeus admits with a laugh. “You have to draw the line somewhere!”

Another officer who regularly runs with Petraeus is Col. Mark Martins. The general’s legal advisor is a Rhodes scholar, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and a class valedictorian at West Point, and has made a private study of the sort of soldiers Petraeus surrounds himself with. His hypothesis: “General Petraeus tends to attract people who value competition–not ultimately competition for itself, but for what it produces. General Petraeus is in a deadly serious business, and he’s made a habit of prevailing by ensuring he’s on the side with the better ideas, the more resilient troops, the clearer-headed and more creative leaders, and the tighter-knit and more determined units. Competition is one of the main engines for all of these things.

“The general believes that running and other sports will prepare you for the unexpected,” continues Martins, “and for the need–in life and war–to modify plans with no notice based on new information, and to take risks.”

West Point plebes are required to memorize, among countless other things, Douglas MacArthur‘s admonition that, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory.” Petraeus seems to have internalized that lesson.

The service academies have a jock culture. That’s mostly a good thing, as soldiers respond very well to leaders who are strong athletes. It’s no coincidence that the upper ranks of the officer corps is disproportionately filled with men who are very tall and who were star athletes in college.

I never had much athletic talent and didn’t get the team sports experience in high school, which put me at a decided disadvantage as a cadet. I was an above average runner, having trained myself to run two miles in a little over 12 minutes, but I was hardly a competitive athlete. Petraeus still runs five miles at the pace of my best-ever record two-mile PT test — and he’s 55 years old.

There’s a cockiness that comes with being that kind of athlete that’s a mixed bag for a leader. On the one hand, it gives one a confidence that can be inspiring to others and is probably necessary for making and standing by tough decisions. At the same time, it can lead to arrogance and a condescension toward those without those talents. People who excel at sports — much like those who are gifted in academic pursuits — often presume that those who can’t keep up are lacking in intestinal fortitude rather than raw ability.

Like his former boss, Don Rumsfeld, Petraeus is both a jock and a brain. I’m guessing he’s similarly a joy to work for.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anjin-san says:

    A reporter once asked Bill Walsh, the greatest evaluator of talent in the history of the NFL, why he did not seem to be interested in how fast players at the NFL scouting combine ran the 40, or how much they could bench.

    “I’m looking for football players” he replied, “not triathletes”.

  2. anonmilguy says:

    I worked at Ft. Leavenworth while Petraeus was CAC Commander. I’d have to agree with James’ concerns that Petraeus’ style gives too much emphasis not only to being a jock — but specifically judging subordinates on whether they are good at the very same athletic event that Petraeus is so good at.

    I know he raised serious doubts about hiring a very accomplished senior civilian professor for an academic leadership post at Leavenworth, on account of the person being in poor physical shape — “would set a bad role model”, Petraeus mused. He didn’t seriously push the issue, but it did seem clear that he had a hard time taking seriously someone who was out of shape and overweight.

    Clearly, Petraeus is much more than a jock and gives more weight to intellectual characteristics than do many military leaders. But I do have some reservations about a guy who so wants to surround himself with people just like himself, or who is hesitant to believe that a fat guy could have a great idea.

  3. Triumph says:

    Don Rumsfeld, Petraeus is both a jock and a brain.

    Rummy wasn’t really a jock. He plays squash, but only hardball–which is much less physically taxing than the tournament-standard softball game.

    Plus, Rumsfeld apparently cheats, as well.

  4. another matt says:

    I’ll be sure that when he interviews with me for a civilian job that I take him out for a 2 mile swim so I can analyze what type of competitor he is. Chances are he will fail. I guess that means he isn’t made of very stern character…

  5. James Joyner says:

    Rummy wasn’t really a jock. He plays squash

    Yeah, but he was a champion wrestler at Princeton. He’s still in pretty danged good shape for his age, too.

  6. mike says:

    Rumsfeld is a “a jock and a brain”; wrong on every decision and prediction in Iraq shows the type of brain.