Wednesday, January 29, 2014

If you thought Don Rumsfeld was a buffoon, think again

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, collections, adages, memoirs

One of my little books of business maxims is titled No Chairs Makes for Short Meetings (author R.E. Rybolt). That's a bit snappier than the way Donald Rumsfeld says it in his book: "Standing up while working tends to be an incentive for those who come in for a discussion to say what they need to say, and not linger," and "…to avoid meandering sessions…it's helpful to have a meeting where no one sits down."

As you can see in this image, from an Air Force photo taken in 2003, Don Rumsfeld does have a sit-down desk, but he doesn't use it much. In his book Rumsfeld's Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life, the care and feeding of meetings comes in an early chapter, about 1/10 of the way through the book.

He has collected pithy statements from the wisdom of others all his life. Over time, he has also added many of his own, condensed wisdom in his own words. In 1974, President Gerald Ford learned of his growing collection and asked to see them, then dubbed them Rumsfeld's Rules. In their current form, found in Appendix B, more than 400 fill 33 pages. The first is "What you measure improves" and the last, with colossal irony, is "If you develop rules, never have more than ten." Well, God got by with ten Commandments, but He is perfect. 400 isn't too bad!

It takes an extraordinary mind to think of collecting wise sayings at a young age. Among the Biblical Proverbs we read "foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child … fools despise wisdom and instruction." (22:15 and 1:7) Yet a few, wise beyond their years, willingly learn of others, realizing that they might thus avoid mistakes aplenty. The young Don Rumsfeld was one such. He realized there were numerous new and improved mistakes to be made, without repeating history.

The book consists of the author's commentary on groups of selected rules. I don't think 290 pages would suffice for wise commentary on all of them, and an 81-year-old would have too little time to do so! So we find the Rules providing the structure for a memoir of more than a half century spent in both public and private service. I believe the writers of the Constitution of the U.S. had people like Don Rumsfeld in mind: able to move easily between business and government, not hindered by either from serving the other. They, like I and many others, abhorred the notion of career politicians. I find it interesting that there is no mention of term limits in the book. Yet Don Rumsfeld is a great example of the good one can do with serving a term of one kind, then spending time running a business or two, returning to public service for a time, and so forth.

Near the close of the book, in a chapter titled "The Case for Capitalism", we find, "America is not what is
wrong with the world." Here the author eloquently states what so many of us want to say: Imperfect it may be, but the U.S.A. is much more about what is right with the world. Capitalism and Freedom simply work better than anything else ever tried. He demonstrates by showing a satellite photo like this one. Diagonally at the top, a few Chinese cities are lit up along the border with North Korea. The North/South Demilitarized Zone shows up as a wavy line of light. Between, only Pyongyang is meagerly lit, and at most six or seven other cities in the North. The huge glowing blob just south of the DMZ is Seoul, South Korea and its environs. Is there any starker contrast between freedom and its lack?

A few raw Korea facts:

  • GDP/capita: South = $32,000, North = $1,800.
  • Life Expectancy: South = 79.5 yrs, North = 69.5 yrs - living in the North can take a decade off your life!
And a few of the Rules that struck me as I read:
  • People don't spend money earned by others with the same care that they spend their own.
  • Never assume the other guy would never do something you would never do. (to which I would add, in war let there be nothing you would never do; it improves the imagination)
  • What you see is what you get. What you don't see gets you. (related to his discussion of "unknown unknowns")
  • Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see —Arthur Schopenhauer.
  • The first consideration for meetings is whether to call one at all.
As you can see, I am partial to Don Rumsfeld's distillation of wisdom in his own words. Whatever your political persuasion, or if you have none, you'll profit from reading this book. I may or may not re-read the book, but I will re-read the Appendix with the bare list of the Rules.

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