The lessons of Richard Holbrooke

December 17, 2010

No man is a hero to his valet. That caution seems more true today than ever. Indeed, in the age of WikiLeaks, the stubborn indelibility of e-mail, and a democratized, 24/7 cybermedia that are avid to feed what turns out to be our insatiable appetite for details of the private behavior of public figures, you could take that proverb further and say all of us now know what the valet did, and that’s why there aren’t any heroes any more.

And yet Richard Holbrooke, who died so tragically and so abruptly this week, was a great man even in this WikiLeaks age. As I have been reading the public and private tributes to him, and talking about him with his many, many other friends, I have realized that he turned the old aphorism on its head: Described by the U.S. President as “a giant” and remembered in a front-page obituary in The New York Times Mr. Holbrooke was even more beloved and admired by those closer to him. If he had had a valet, I suspect he would have mourned and respected Mr. Holbrooke the most of all.

If I hadn’t known him, I’m sure that assertion would have surprised me because, as you can divine even from the glowing public tributes, he was no pussycat and he wasn’t Mother Teresa either. He was a bully, and not only when negotiating with Bosnian and Afghan warlords, but also in his dealings with less exotic (though in the view of some people, equally noxious) creatures such as journalists. In a beautiful appreciation of him this week, veteran diplomatic writer Carla Anne Robbins captured this quality with her recollection of Mr. Holbrooke as “one of the most unapologetic spinners” she had ever known. He had a powerful sense of his own importance and a theatrical view of the world—with himself, of course, usually cast in a central role.

In today’s pasteurized and homogenized professional world, we are suspicious of the larger-than-life character he so easily inhabited. If he had been sent to a “leadership coach” or to a PR adviser, I am sure he would have been urged to tone it down, to be less intense, less aggressive, less vivid. That is not just a suspicion. Barack Obama was unstinting in his posthumous praise, but before Mr. Holbrooke’s aorta tore, his lion-sized approach to life was creating strains with the “no drama Obama” White House: He didn’t get a seat on Air Force One on the President’s last two trips to Afghanistan, and struggled to make his voice heard in Mr. Obama’s inner circle.

But Mr. Holbrooke’s unapologetic pugnacity was central to his effectiveness in the world. In this age of milquetoast leadership in business, as in public life, he offers a powerful counter-example. As a tribute to a man I am honored to have called my friend, I’d like to suggest three lessons in leadership from one of the most accomplished statesmen, and finest men, of our time:

Believe in what you do, and do what you believe: The day after Mr. Holbrooke’s death, another mutual friend called me for help with a beloved project he has long yearned to do, but delayed. One of Mr. Holbrooke’s great strengths was his determination to commit his life to big problems he cared about deeply. Time and again, he threw himself back into what Teddy Roosevelt described as the arena. That is why what would have been intolerable arm-twisting and self-promotion in someone else was part of his charm and effectiveness—he deployed those big guns in the service of big causes and ones to which he was totally dedicated.

Kick up and kiss down: Appeasing the boss, then coming home and kicking the dog is how most of us live our lives, even if we aren’t proud to admit it. Mr. Holbrooke did the opposite. His bellicosity with some of the scariest guys in the world is legend. But he could be disarmingly humble, even about things that mattered to him a lot, in private. A small but telling example: He and his old friend Leslie Gelb debated Afghan policy at a lunch I attended not too long ago. Mr. Gelb, a fierce critic of the administration, spoke more convincingly than Mr. Holbrooke—a fact he instantly and gracefully conceded.

Be a hero to your valet: Few people lived a more public life, or one more dedicated to the big issues of our times, than Mr. Holbrooke. Yet he always found time to care about the relatively trivial problems of his friends: He was indefatigable when he pitched a story, but the times he sought me out the most energetically were when he thought I needed his help as a person. No one mattered more to him than Kati Marton, his brilliant, beautiful and wise wife. And I have rarely seen a more compelling example of uxoriousness than Richard flacking for Kati when one of her books was published. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had it easy compared to an editor being harangued about the virtues of Kati’s latest (and usually award-winning) book.

The ultimate lesson is authenticity. He really was a giant: He had a giant’s voice, a giant’s impact and a giant’s heart. Whether you were his valet or his president, those things added up to a heroic impact because they fit together so well.


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Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive


In the late 19th century vernacular of course, I concur.

Posted by dzoo35 | Report as abusive

Yes, much like Teddy in many ways! If there had been a PNAC in those days TR would have been the poster child.
Perhaps another view of the man… nes/richard-holbrooke-represe_b_796447.h tml

Posted by Avispa43 | Report as abusive

You are quite right that he kicked the dog when away and yet cared deeply about those closer to him, and that is what you wish to and will remember. History may not be as kind.

Forgive those whose loved ones were lost and whose countries remain impacted by his bulldog interference and bullying, for not seeing him in that same light.

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Chrystia Freeland has written an excellent column on Richard Holbrooke and his fantastic abilities to match his skills to the occasion. When talking with world leaders who were hot heads, he could be volcanic. When dealing with high level Chinese Leaders, he could be calm and soft spoken. His unique skills will be missed! Sadly, he left the planet far too soon.

Posted by widollar | Report as abusive

You really disappoint me.
When a comment agrees with you, you publish it.
When a comment points out the fatal flaw of your comments, namely, how the image of America being a bully is detrimental to our foreign policy in places like Pakistan/Afghanistan, you censor them.
I thought you were different!

I am all for honoring the achievement of one of our own.
However, between the lines, your article promote “bullying” as part of our foreign policy, whether you are aware it or not. And THAT is dangerous for foreign policy in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Part of the definition of bullies, is that these are people who are so full of themselves, that brute force will work. Their over-sized ego made them gullible when enemies pretend to be admiring them and offering intelligence. That’s the exact attitude and leadership that contributed to the dismantling of most of the intelligence structure in Afghanistan( the infamous bombing that killed many precious lives). Yes, in my humble opinion, the egotistic attitude is bullies, IS the number one, number two, number three reasons for America being in a the longest war in Afghanistan, only to alienate the country, and create a worse image of America there than before. Petreaus, on the other hand, is more capable of understanding the cultural reasons what bullying would backfire.

Yes, honor our serviceman, our politicians, our patriots. However, that is NOT an excuse to promote a dangerous foreign policy for our country. YES, you are insinuating something dangerous between the lines, that bullying is the way to go in Afghanistan.

My suggestion: stick with commentaries on economics. You are usually decent there.
With foreign policy, you sometimes steer many in the wrong direction with your intelligent yet misguided arguments. The fact that your underpinnings, myopia in foreign policies are hidden between the lines, makes your statements potentially even more dangerous.

Please, leave foreign policy, particularly military foreign policy, and stick strictly economics, where you tend to have decent ideas.

Posted by CommonSensLogic | Report as abusive