The lessons of Richard Holbrooke
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.