Donald Rumsfeld's Rules: Advice on Government, Business & Life


Be able to resign. It will improve your value to the president and do wonders for your performance,

One of Rumsfeld’s Rules.

Rumsfeld is resigning. He doesn’t know it, but he was one of my teachers.


Donald Rumsfeld and

Charmaine Yoest Your Business Blogger served a tour of duty in government years ago. Unlike most bureaucrats, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even pretend.

Not that anyone noticed anyway.

But when I was appointed, the first Rules I got from a friend were Rumsfeld’s. I kept them in a notebook and referred to them daily.

Rumsfeld’s Rules

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,…Credit is given where known.

Serving in the White House

(for the White House chief of staff and senior staff)

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.

Know that the immediate staff and others in the administration will assume that your manner, tone and tempo reflect the president’s.

I knew the following rule, and used it to confirm my usual dazed looked,

Learn to say “I don’t know.” If used when appropriate, it will be often.

Rumsfeld says that bad news doesn’t get better with age,

If you foul up, tell the president and correct it fast. Delay only compounds mistakes.

Rumsfeld also practiced management by walking around,

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 have yours.

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 those goals.

Don’t say “the White House wants.” Buildings can’t want.

Make decisions about the president’s personal security. He can overrule you, but don’t ask him to be the one to counsel caution.

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.

The role of White House chief of staff is that of a “javelin catcher.” — Jack Watson

Don’t blame the boss. He has enough problems.

Enjoy your time in public service. It may well be one of the most interesting and challenging times of your life.

Have a deputy and develop a successor.

Cuddly Rummy also has a rule on that work/family balance…and everyone ignores…don’t bother with this one,

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.

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.

If you are lost — “climb, conserve, and confess.” — U.S. Navy SNJ Flight Manual

Rumsfeld has Doing the Job in the White House. These rules are applicable for managers everywhere.

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 or intuitive.

Don’t “overcontrol” 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” take control.

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.

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 out.”

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 wrong.

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.

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 there.

Don’t do or say things you would not like to see on the front page of the Washington Post.

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?’ ”

If in doubt, don’t.

If still in doubt, do what’s right.

Don’t necessarily avoid sharp edges. Occasionally they are necessary to leadership.

“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.”

Rumsfeld does war. But he also has rules On Business

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 ratio.”

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.

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.

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.

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 axiom

Rumsfeld and Jack Welsh would agree,

Remember: A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s.

More Quotes,

“For every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken

“Most people spend their time on the ‘urgent’ rather than on the ‘important.’ ” — Robert Hutchins

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

And everyone’s favorite,

If you think you have things under control, you’re not going fast enough. — Mario Andretti, racecar driver.


Thank you (foot)notes:

Rumsfeld’s Rules were published in The Wall Street Journal, Monday, January 29, 2001

Robert Gates will be replacing (The Real Donald) Rumsfeld.

Management Training Tip, from Rumsfeld, If you develop rules, never have more than 10.

Captain Ed has the story and more.


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