Rumsfeld's Rules

On Tuesday, former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld died. In 2013, I spoke with him about his book, Rumsfeld’s Rules. 

On Tuesday, former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld died. In 2013, I spoke with him about his book, Rumsfeld’s Rules

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: Tell us if you would a little bit about how Rumsfeld's Rules—your collected observations about leadership, business, and life—came into being.

Don: My mother was a school teacher and when I asked her what a word meant, if I were reading a book or something, she’d say, “Well, write it down on a card and keep it and then look it up, and then review it once in a while.” So I did, and then I started keeping not just words, but thoughts or ideas or rules or anecdotes, and one day when I was White House Chief of Staff to President Ford, I mentioned one of these rules, and he said “Well, what's that?” And I told him, and he said, well, he'd like to see it. So I got them typed up, but they were just in a file or a shoe box or something, and he immediately labeled them “Rumsfeld's Rules” and asked me to give them to the senior staff in the White House, which I did. And then over time, they've kind of just taken on a life of their own. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times have written about them, and I've been asked for copies, so eventually, I decided to just write a book about them so that anyone who wanted them could have a copy.

Matt: Some of this is stuff that, you know, might only apply if you're at the top levels of government, but a lot of it is stuff an intern could benefit from and here's what I wanted to ask you about it. This is from when Vice President Cheney worked for you, and, you write, “I never heard Dick complain about his salary, or ask for a better office or angle for a promotion.” What advice would you give that young person who's starting a job or an internship in terms of how to get ahead without being overly ambitious?

Don: The thing about Dick Cheney was he put his head down, did a great job, did everything he was asked, and then did some things he wasn't even asked to do. And the harder he worked, the more people the more we gave him to do and he just was terrific at it. And people who spend their time trying to plan the next move and where might they go next and that kind of thing. I think that's a terrible waste of time. If you put your head down and do a good job—people will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Well, why don't you do this?” There are only three things I've ever volunteered for in my life that I can remember. One was when I got married. Another was to join the Navy. And the third was when I ran for Congress the first time. Everything else in my life I never aspired to, particularly, but someone came along and urged me to do something else. And it's been my great good fortune to be able to do a lot of different things, which I think makes life more interesting and keeps you learning all the time.

Matt: I learned from the book that you also had a fondness for Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Talk a little bit about him.

Don: He was the domestic adviser in the White House when I resigned from Congress, and became head of the Office of Economic Opportunity and for whatever reason, we became very good friends, and I just thought the world of him. He's so smart and so lively and a wonderful sense of humor. As a matter of fact, I had a cup of coffee with his widow, gosh about probably five or six months ago in New York, a lovely lady. But Pat's gone. And it just was always fun to be around him. He sparkled. Very, very, very smart, and interested in everything, and lively, and enjoyed life full of enthusiasm, always in a smile. 

Matt: In my estimation, you are a lot funnier and friendlier than people who maybe just watch the news and buy into the stereotype would think. Is there a dichotomy between the image and the man, or do you have to be a little bit tough in order to get results?

Don: Well, I guess I've never really thought of myself as tough particularly. I asked a lot of questions, and if someone is uncomfortable answering questions, I suppose they would view it that way. But, you know, basically people that know you, know you as you are and people that don't know you, but know of you through the media know the way the media presents you. And there's no there's not much you can do about that, that's life.

Matt: So getting back to the maxims, you write, “There are a great many people who have the ability to review something and make it better, but there are precious few able to identify what's missing.” Talk about that.

Don: You can be in a meeting, and people can critique something or comment on it or calibrate it modestly, and refine it, make it a little bit better and raise questions about it. But the thing that too few people really understand is the importance of figuring out what's missing, what isn't there, what haven't we talked about what hasn't been considered, what hasn't been discussed? And for some reason, I got in the habit early on, towards the end of the meeting, of saying, “What's missing, what have we forgotten?” And sometimes people have something in the back of their mind that they didn't really want to mention…and if you ask the question, they may very well be willing to say, “Well, what about this?” And often when I send a memo out, at the end of it, I will say “What's wrong with this? Or what have we missed? Or what do we need to think about beyond this to somebody?” And I found it a useful thing to do because it is not an easy thing to really imagine something in your mind that hasn't been brought up or hasn't been discussed.

Matt: People are obsessed with growing and adding, but you say to “Prune business, products, activities, and people, and to do it annually.” Why is pruning important?

Don: Well, it seems to be a pattern in government, and even in business, that people get bigger salaries if they have more people working for them, or they get bigger salaries or bigger bonuses if they have more products. And it seems to me that what we need to do is constantly be thinking about how we can improve something. And the way you improve something is to add to it to be sure, but at the same time you're adding value, you might want to look at the things in the lower five or ten percent, and prune them out. And that can be a very useful thing because it improves the productivity of the enterprise, quite substantially, if you keep adding in improvements and at the same time dropping out things that were interesting or valuable or useful in an earlier period, but may not be quite as useful or valuable as things change, and the world evolves.

Matt: You write, “If you're lost, climb, conserve, and confess,” tell us about that.

Don: Well, that one I learned when I was a Navy pilot, and if you're lost in a FMJ airplane…the handbook said, “if you’re lost, climb, conserve, and confess. Get some altitude, lean out the fuel, and then get on the radio and say, ‘I am lost, and I need help.’” Now, that's not bad advice. All of us get lost once in a while, and if you stop, take a deep breath, and get some help, that's probably pretty good advice.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.