“Rumsfeld’s Rules” are a series of aphorisms, sayings, and observations about life in leadership, business, and politics by Donald Rumsfeld, who was a Congressman, Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense during his long, storied career.
These rules were collected over a period of time on 3×5 index cards, and were eventually compiled, typed up, and circulated throughout Washington and beyond.
The Wall Street Journal once referred to these rules as “required reading,” and they were touted in a New York Times review in 1988: “Rumsfeld’s Rules can be profitably read in any organization…The best reading, though, are his sprightly tips on inoculating oneself against that dread White House disease, the inflated ego.”
Over the years, Rumsfeld’s observations have been a staple of Washington, and in 2013 were published into a book: Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.
From the book: “These eminently nonpartisan rules have amused and enlightened presidents, business executives, chiefs of staff, foreign officials, diplomats, and members of Congress.”
While the lion’s share of Rumsfeld’s rules are apolitical, they are not without controversy, as some that criticize Rumsfeld’s leadership style have wondered why his leadership rules have caught on. As it was diplomatically put by Forbes Magazine in an article called Rumsfeld’s Rules: Seriously?: “The question that students of leadership may raise when reading Rumsfeld’s Rules is this: is it okay to listen to some who writes well but does not hold himself to the same standards? My response is yes. When it comes to leadership you can learn as much from rascals, maybe even more so, than from saints. The challenge for readers is to read what he writes through the lens of history.”
From the Washington Post: “Dick Cheney, George P. Schultz, and Henry Kissinger – all very bright men with long establishment resumes – endorse the book on the back cover. Chenery reveals that he was ‘an early practitioner of Rumsfeld’s Rules….I came to regret it on the few occasions I violated them.’”
In 2004, 9 years before the Harper Collins book was published, The Atlantic put together a short list of the rules that they call “worth revisiting,” essentially creating a “best of”:
- “Establish good relations between the departments of Defense and State, the National Security Council, CIA and the Office of Management and Budget.”
- “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.”
- “Don’t do or say things you would not like to see on the front page of the Washington Post.”
- “If you foul up, tell the president and correct it fast. Delay only compounds mistakes.”
- “Be able to resign. It will improve your value to the president and do wonders for your performance.”
- “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.”
- “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.”
As has been noted by many, that last rule resonates in light of Rumsfeld’s involvement in orchestrating the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War.