Leadership of Generals Chesty Puller and David Petraeus


Let’s compare and contrast the leadership styles of Generals Chesty Puller and David Petraeus. Both men who defined leadership in their times, General Puller for World War II and Korea and General Petraeus for America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Both men were products of their times and left huge legacies from their service.

Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller

No individual service in the fabled history of the Marine Corps and embodies the service’s ethos as General Chesty Puller. Puller went far beyond; he personally crafted the way the Marine Corps has defined itself since World War II through his own personal example, first as a battalion commander at Guadalcanal and later as a Regimental Commander at Battle of Peleliu.

The Marine tradition of were the officers eating last in field messes, in descending order of rank, is something Puller started. It got his officers into the habit of leading from the front. Puller was certainly not the only senior Marine of World War II and Korea to put his command post on the front lines, but his stubborn habit of always doing so was unusual even among Marine leaders (Davis, 1991).

Puller’s real value to the Marine Corps lies not only in his impressive combat record, but in the legacy of what he saw as the greatest virtue of military leadership: “leadership by example.” He had uncompromising approach to tough, realistic training. He had a dedication of taking care of his Marines without coddling them and treating them like men made him a beloved figure among the Corps.

His 14 decorations, to include five Navy Crosses, plus a long list of campaign medals, unit citation ribbons and other awards are part of Puller’s enduring lore, but maybe the stories of his leadership, courage, honor, and fighting ability are his most important legacy.

Chesty as a Combat Advisor

Advisory Teams were nothing new in the history of the United States. The Marines was the force of choice for these tough, obscure missions.

The Marine Corps has a long tradition in these kinds of conflicts; its Small Wars Manual, published back in 1940, had noted that they “represent the normal and frequent operations of the Marine Corps,” which, from 1800 to 1934, had landed 187 times in 37 countries “to suppress lawlessness or insurrection,” mainly in Latin America but also as far away as the shores of Tripoli, as the “Marines’ Hymn” put it (Kaplan 2013).

“Chesty” fought as an advisor battling guerillas in Haiti and Nicaragua, here he would earn two of his five Navy Crosses.

General David Petraeus

Petraeus, with his affair aside, is one of the most transformational leaders of this last decade (Ricks, 2012). Petraeus revolutionized the way America fights its wars, starting with the surge in Iraq and continuing into his last command in Afghanistan.

Petraeus faced a relentless challenge and using his unceasing drive, groundbreaking methods in got the army to be serious about counterinsurgency (COIN) for the first time since the Vietnam. He helped haul America out of one of its darkest moments in the war in Iraq.

I briefed General Petraeus in the fall of 2010 on the future of the Afghan National Army Special Forces Program. He was a slight man who still looked boyish even in his mid-50s, he looks more like a bookworm professor than the world class warrior he was in the press.

Cheerful by nature, he was eager to both listen and talk to a lowly Major. I felt like he was addressing me as a peer with my presentation in the general’s own words, “… been PowerPointed to within an inch of his life.”

Petraeus learned at the foot of several masters, including Gen. John “Jack” Galvin, who retired as the supreme allied commander, Europe in 1992.

Petraeus, as a captain, served Galvin as his aide-de-camp in the 24th Infantry Division. Galvin, is considered one of the most intellectual officers of his generation, often discussed decision-making and the problems of command with his young protégé.

Galvin, who encouraged Petraeus to attend graduate school at Princeton, where he earned both a Master’s and Ph.D. Petraeus believed that a great leader must weave a myth about himself—both to enhance the loyalty of his cadres and to build popular support for his mission (Kaplan, 2013).

Petraeus learned the lesson well from Galvin and applied it with skill and vigor.

In Iraq

It’s worth noting that some of our nation’s greatest achievements during the Iraq war were the result of his leadership. Early in the occupation, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he brought order to the city of Mosul by applying principles of COIN theory—creating a new political system, vetting candidates, providing economic services, opening the border to Syria—entirely on his own initiative and with little or no guidance (Ricks T. E., 2006).

Later, when he became commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, he launched raids on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia, the Mahdi army, without telling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki what he was doing.

Finally, during the Sunni Awakening that emerged in Iraq’s western provinces, he had his subordinate commanders recruit thousands of ex-militants into the Sons of Iraq, without telling anyone in Washington that he was paying them with U.S. Army funds (Ricks T. E., 2009).

This allowed him to put an “Iraqi Face” on the changes happening in and around the country. Petraeus was a genuinely talented general: intellectually agile, strategically minded, and tactically bold. But the myth-making enshrined him, in the eyes of many, as an icon.


Davis, B. (1991). Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller . New York: Bantam

Kaplan, F. (2013). The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War . New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ricks, T. (2012). The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. New York: Penguin Books.

Ricks, T. E. (2006). Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq . new York : The Penguin Press .

Ricks, T. E. (2009). The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq . New York: Penguin Group.

Chesty & Petraeus