Rumsfeld's Rules Advice on government, business and life. By Donald Rumsfeld
The Wall Street Journal,
Monday, January 29, 2001
Many of these rules, reflections
and quotations came from my role as chairman of the “transition
team” for President Ford and my service as White House chief of staff. Others
came from experiences as a U.S. naval aviator, a member of Congress, ambassador to the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization, secretary of defense, presidential Middle East
envoy, business executive, chairman of the U.S.
Ballistic Missile Threat Commission, and other experiences.
These reflections and quotations have been gathered over the past 40 years. Credit is given where known. As the quotation has it, “If it's not
true, it's still well founded.” -- Unknown
Serving in the White House (for the White House chief of staff and
Don't accept the post or stay unless
you have an understanding with the president that you're free to tell him
what you think “with the bark off” and you have the courage to do it.
Visit with your predecessors from previous administrations.
They know the ropes and can help you see around some corners. Try to make
original mistakes, rather than needlessly repeating theirs.
Don't begin to think you're the
president. You're not. The Constitution provides
for only one.
In the execution of presidential decisions work to be true to
his views, in fact and tone.
Know that the immediate staff and others in the administration
will assume that your manner, tone and tempo reflect the president's.
Learn to say “I don't know.” If used
when appropriate, it will be often.
If you foul up, tell the president and correct it fast. Delay
only compounds mistakes.
Walk around. If you are invisible, the mystique of the
president's office may perpetuate inaccurate impressions about you or the
president, to his detriment. After all, you may not be as bad as they're saying.
In our system leadership is by
consent, not command. To lead, a president must persuade. Personal
contacts and experiences help shape his thinking. They can be critical to
his persuasiveness and thus to his leadership.
Be precise. A lack of precision is dangerous when the margin of
error is small.
Preserve the president's options. He may need them.
It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.
Don't divide the world into “them” and
“us.” Avoid infatuation with or resentment of the press, the Congress,
rivals, or opponents. Accept them as facts. They have their jobs and you
Amid all the clutter, beyond all the obstacles, aside from all
the static, are the goals set. Put your head down, do the best job
possible, let the flak pass, and work toward
Don't say “the White House wants.”
Buildings can't want.
Leave the president's family business to him. You will have
plenty to do without trying to manage the first family. They are likely to
do fine without your help.
Make decisions about the president's personal security. He can
overrule you, but don't ask him to be the one to
Being vice president is difficult. Don't
make it tougher.
Don't automatically obey presidential
directives if you disagree or if you suspect he hasn't considered key
aspects of the issue.
The price of being close to the president is delivering bad
news. You fail him if you don't tell him the
truth. Others won't do it.
You and the White House staff must be and be seen to be above
suspicion. Set the right example.
The role of White House chief of staff is that of a “javelin
catcher.” -- Jack Watson
Don't speak ill of your predecessors
or successors. You didn't walk in their shoes.
Remember the public trust. Strive to preserve and enhance the
integrity of the office of the presidency. Pledge to leave it stronger
than when you came.
Don't blame the boss. He has enough
Keeping Your Bearings in the White House
Enjoy your time in public service. It may well be one of the
most interesting and challenging times of your life.
Don't think of yourself as
indispensable or infallible. As Charles de Gaulle said, the cemeteries of
the world are full of indispensable men.
Let your family, staff and friends know that you're
still the same person, despite all the publicity and notoriety that
accompanies your position.
Have a deputy and develop a successor. Don't
be consumed by the job or you'll risk losing your balance. Keep your
mooring lines to the outside world -- family, friends, neighbors, people
out of government and people who may not agree with you.
When asked for your views, by the press or others, remember
that what they really want to know is the president's views.
Most of the 50 or so invitations you receive each week come
from people inviting the president's chief of staff, not you. If you doubt
that, ask your predecessor how many he received last week.
Keep your sense of humor. As Gen. Joe Stillwell said, “The
higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of his behind.”
Be yourself. Follow your instincts. Success depends, at least
in part, on the ability to “carry it off.”
Know that the amount of criticism you receive may correlate
somewhat to the amount of publicity you receive.
If you are not criticized, you may not
be doing much.
From where you sit, the White House may look as untidy as the
inside of a stomach. As is said of the legislative process, sausage making
and policy making shouldn't be seen close-up. Don't let that panic you. Things may be going better
than they look from the inside.
Be able to resign. It will improve your value to the president
and do wonders for your performance.
If you are lost -- “climb, conserve, and confess.” -- U.S.
Navy SNJ Flight Manual
Doing the Job in the White House
Your performance depends on your people. Select the best, train
them, and back them. When errors occur, give sharper guidance. If errors
persist or if the fit feels wrong, help them move on. The country cannot
afford amateur hour in the White House.
You will launch many projects but have time to finish only a
few. So think, plan, develop, launch and tap good people to be
responsible. Give them authority and hold them accountable. Trying to do
too much yourself creates a bottleneck.
Think ahead. Don't let day-to-day
operations drive out planning.
Plan backward as well as forward. Set objectives and trace back
to see how to achieve them. You may find that no path can get you there.
Plan forward to see where your steps will take you, which may not be clear
like a novice pilot. Stay loose enough from the flow that you can observe,
calibrate and refine.
A president needs multiple sources of information. Avoid
excessively restricting the flow of paper, people, or ideas to the
president, though you must watch his time. If you overcontrol, it will be your “regulator” that
controls, not his. Only by opening the spigot fairly
wide, risking that some of his time may be wasted, can his “regulator”
If in doubt, move decisions up to the president.
When you raise issues with the president, try to come away with
both that decision and also a precedent. Pose
issues so as to evoke broader policy guidance.
This can help to answer a range of similar issues likely to arise later.
See that the president, the cabinet and the staff are informed.
If cut out of the information flow, their decisions may be poor, not made,
or not confidently or persuasively implemented.
Don't allow people to be excluded from
a meeting or denied an opportunity to express their views because their
views differ from the president's views, the views of person who calls the
meeting, or your views. The staff system must have integrity and
When the president is faced with a
decision, be sure he has the recommendations of all appropriate people, or
that he realizes he does not have their views and is willing to accept the
consequence. They will be out of sync, unhappy
and less effective if they feel they are or are seen as having been “cut
Don't be a bottleneck. If a matter is
not a decision for the president or you, delegate it. Force responsibility
down and out. Find problem areas, add structure, and delegate. The
pressure is to do the reverse. Resist it.
If the staff lacks policy guidance against which to test
decisions, their decisions will be random.
One of your tasks is to separate the “personal” from the “substantive.”
The two can become confused, especially if someone rubs the president
Test ideas in the marketplace. You learn from hearing a range
of perspectives. Consultation helps engender the support decisions need to
be successfully implemented.
If a prospective presidential approach can't
be explained clearly enough to be understood well, it probably hasn't been
thought through well enough. If not well understood by the American
people, it probably won't “sail” anyway. Send it
back for further thought.
Many people around the president have sizeable egos before
entering government, some with good reason. Their new positions will do
little to moderate their egos.
Move decisions out to the cabinet and agencies. Strengthen them
by moving responsibility, authority and accountability their direction.
Control your time. If you're working
off your in-box, you're working off the priorities of others. Be sure the
staff is working on what you move to them from the president, or the
president will be reacting, not leading.
Look for what's missing. Many advisers
can tell a president how to improve what's
proposed or what's gone amiss. Few are able to see what isn't
Think of dealing with Congress as a “revolving door.” You'll be back to today's opponents for their help
tomorrow. Presidential proposals will need a member of Congress's support
on some issue, at some time, regardless of philosophy, party or their
positions on other issues. Don't allow White
House links to members to be cut because they may disagree on some or even
Work continuously to trim the White House staff from your first
day to your last. All the pressures are to the contrary.
Don't do or say things you would not
like to see on the front page of the Washington Post.
Serving in Government
Public servants are paid to serve the
American people. Do it well.
Congress, the press and the bureaucracy too often focus on how
much money or effort is spent, rather than whether the money or effort
actually achieves the announced goal.
It is very difficult to spend “federal (the taxpayers') dollars”
so that the intended result is achieved.
Beware when any idea is promoted
primarily because it is “bold, exciting, innovative and new.” There are
many ideas that are “bold, exciting, innovative and new,” but also
The federal government should be the last resort, not the
first. Ask if a potential program is truly a federal responsibility or
whether it can better be handled privately, by
voluntary organizations, or by local or state governments.
As former Rep. Tom Curtis of Missouri
said, “Public money drives out private money.”
Strive to make proposed solutions as self-executing as
possible. As the degree of discretion increases, so too do bureaucracy,
delay and expense.
Presidential leadership needn't always
cost money. Look for low- and no-cost options. They can be surprisingly
Include others. As former Sen. Pat Moynihan (D., N.Y.)
said, “Stubborn opposition to proposals often has no other basis than the
complaining question, 'Why wasn't I consulted?' ”
Watch for the “not invented here” syndrome.
“The atmosphere in which social legislation is considered is
not a friend of truth.” -- Pat Moynihan
If in doubt, don't.
If still in doubt, do what's right.
Treat each federal dollar as if it was hard
earned. It was -- by a taxpayer.
“Try to analyze situations intelligently, anticipate problems
and move swiftly to solve them. However, when you're up to your ears in
alligators, it is difficult to remember that the reason you're there is to
drain the swamp.” -- Unknown
“In Washington, D.C.,
the size of a farewell party may be directly proportional to the honoree's
new position and their prospective ability to dispense largess.” -- D.G. Cross
“Every government looking at the actions of another government
and trying to explain them always exaggerates rationality and conspiracy,
and underestimates incompetency and fortuity.”
-- Silberman's Law of Diplomacy,
U.S. Circuit Court
Judge Laurence Silberman
Politics, Congress and the Press
First rule of politics: you can't win
unless you're on the ballot.
Second rule: If you run, you may lose.
And if you tie, you do not win.
Politics is human beings; it's
addition rather than subtraction.
“The winner is not always the swiftest, surest or smartest.
It's the one willing to get up at
and go to the plant gate to meet the workers.” -- Unknown
In politics, every day is filled with
numerous opportunities for serious error. Enjoy it.
The most underestimated risk for a politician is overexposure.
When someone with a rural accent says, “I don't know much about
politics,” zip up your pockets.
If you try to please everybody, somebody's
not going to like it.
Don't necessarily avoid sharp edges.
Occasionally they are necessary to leadership.
“The oil can is mightier than the sword.” -- former
Sen. Everett Dirksen (R., Ill.)
Arguments of convenience lack integrity and inevitably trip you
Remember where you came from.
Members of the House and the Senate are not there by accident.
Each managed to get there for some reason. Learn what it was and you will
know something important about them, about our country and about the
With the press there is no “off the record.”
“There are only three responses to questions from the press:
(1) 'I know and will tell you'; (2) 'I know and I can't tell you'; and (3)
'I don't know.' ” -- Dan Rather
For the Secretary of Defense
The secretary of defense is not a super general or admiral. His
task is to exercise civilian control over the department for the commander
in chief and the country.
Reserve the right to get into anything, and exercise it. Make
your deputies and staff realize that, although
many responsibilities are delegated, no one should be surprised when the
secretary engages an important issue.
Manage the interaction between the Pentagon and the White
House. Unless you establish a narrow channel for the flow of information
and “tasking” back and forth, the process can quickly become chaotic.
Normal management techniques may not work in the department.
When pushing responsibility downward, be sure not to contribute to a
weakening of the cohesion of the services; what
cohesion exists has been painfully achieved over the decades.
When cutting staff at the Pentagon, don't
eliminate the thin layer that assures civilian control.
Avoid public spats. When a department argues with other
government agencies in the press, it reduces the president's options.
Establish good relations between the departments of Defense and
State, the National Security Council, CIA and the Office of Management and
Be sure key U.S.
ambassadors are informed on defense activities in
Develop a personal relationship with the chairman
and each of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are almost
always outstanding public servants. In time of crisis, those
relationships can be vital.
“If you get the objectives right, a lieutenant can write the
strategy.” -- Gen. George Marshall
Napoleon was asked, “Who do you
consider to be the greatest generals?” He responded, “The victors.”
When you initiate new activities, find things you are currently
doing that you can discontinue -- whether reports, activities, etc. It
works, but you must force yourself to do it. Always keep in mind your “teeth-to-tail
Watch the growth of middle-level management. Don't
automatically fill vacant jobs. Leave some positions unfilled for six to
eight months to see what happens. You will find you won't
need to fill some of them.
Reduce the layers of management. They put distance between the
top of an organization and the customers.
Find ways to decentralize. Move decision-making authority down
and out. Encourage a more entrepreneurial approach.
Prune -- prune businesses, products, activities, people. Do it annually.
Know your customers!
Develop a few key themes and stick to them. It works.
Repetition is necessary. “Quality.” “Customers.” “Innovation.” “Service.” Whatever!
That which you require be reported on
to you will improve, if you are selective. How you fashion your reporting
system announces your priorities and sets the institution's priorities.
People do better in staff jobs if they have had operational
experience. It helps to look at things from others' perspectives.
Reduce the number of lawyers. They are like beavers -- they get
in the middle of the stream and dam it up.
Beware of the argument that “this is a period for investment;
improvements will come in the out years.” The tension between the short
term and long term can be constructive, but there is no long term without
a short term.
Too often management recommends plans that look like Bob Hope's
nose or a hockey stick. The numbers go down the first year or so and then
up in the later years. If you accept hockey-stick plans, you will find
they will be proposed year after year.
The way to do well is to do well.
Don't let the complexity of a large
company mask the need for performance. Bureaucracy is a conspiracy to
bring down the big. And it can. You may need to
be large to compete in the world stage, but you need to find ways to avoid
allowing that size to mask poor performance.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” -- Old military
Remember: A's hire A's and B's hire C's.
“The advantage of a free market is that it allows millions of
decision-makers to respond individually to freely determined prices,
allocating resources -- labor, capital and human ingenuity -- in a manner
that can't be mimicked by a central plan, however brilliant the central
planner.” -- Friedrich A. Hayek
On Life (and Other Things)
“You can't pray a lie.” -- Mark Twain, “Huckleberry Finn”
“It takes everyone to make a happy day.” -- Marcy Rumsfeld, age seven
“The most important things in life you cannot see -- civility,
justice, courage, peace.” -- Unknown
“Persuasion is a two-edged sword -- reason and emotion -- plunge
it deep.” -- Prof. Lewis Sarett Sr.
“The art of listening is indispensable for the right use of the
mind. It is also the most gracious, the most open and the most generous of
human habits.” -- Attributed to R. Barr, St.
“In writing if it takes over 30 minutes to write the first two
paragraphs select another subject.” -- Raymond Aron
“In unanimity there may well be either cowardice or uncritical
thinking.” -- Unknown