Article first published in the Harvard Business Review by Lew McCreary in October 2007.
Think back to the most eventful and challenging year of your so-far illustrious career. Times were tough, but you learned a lot from the hardest parts—the gifts that keep on giving. In fact, thanks to the refracting mists of time, you might almost wish you were back in that bygone year, with all its intensity and challenge.
Now throw in power-hungry sheikhs, militant clerics, untrustworthy “allies,” and tribal and ethnic factions too numerous to count. Then top it all off with your offices’ coming under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds launched by the employees of a leadership rival named Moqtada…
That, roughly, was the lot of Rory Stewart, an earnest and resourceful manager in the far-flung chain of command of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the temporary surrogarchy that ran Iraq in the interval between the U.S.-led invasion and the handoff of power in 2004 to a fledgling Iraqi government. Stewart and other CPA delegates fanned out into the country’s provinces and tried to create conditions of relative stability and security, working to establish local structures that would prepare the way for democratic institutions.
We now know how well that all worked out. But in the odyssey of Rory Stewart there is a rich curriculum for any leader caught between a rock and a hard place. In the edited conversation that follows—based on an interview in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with HBR senior editor Lew McCreary—Stewart talks about the year he spent as a deputy governor in the Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces of southern Iraq and the experiences before and since that have honed his perceptions of others, both friend and foe; taught him the fine art of delegation; and helped him balance pragmatism and principle.
It is hard to imagine a still-short life that appears more eclectically accomplished than Rory Stewart’s. Stewart is Scottish, without the classic burr, and is described variously, in biographical shorthand, as a historian, a diplomat, a journalist, a soldier, an author. He was born in Hong Kong in 1973 and brought up peripatetically, in Malaysia, Vietnam, Scotland. He fits comfortably in the British tradition of roving—the impulse of citizens from an island nation to get out into the wider world and discover it directly.
Stewart’s favored means of direct discovery is to travel on foot. After hitches in the infantry and the British Foreign Office, he went for a 6,000-mile walk across Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Afghanistan. His original plan had been to walk the breadth of Afghanistan after Iran and before Pakistan, but the Taliban refused to allow him into the country. In 2002, about two months after the Taliban were overthrown by U.S. forces and Afghan opposition, Stewart began the eastward journey from Herat to Kabul that he chronicled in his best-selling memoir The Places in Between.
Living by his wits and walking most of the way alone through a land riven by the legacy of civil war, Stewart often put his life in the hands of total strangers. A risk, to be sure, but one whose quixotic improbability earned Stewart the respect and admiration of many of those he encountered, even while others clearly thought he was mad—or a spy. But it was more than the kindness of strangers that kept Stewart from coming to bodily harm. The manner of his journey honed his senses to a level of keenness unpracticed by those whose travel occurs within the dulling bubble of modern conveyances. Fully exposed as he was, Stewart learned to quickly size up people and situations—a self-protective habit that served him well once he found himself in Iraq (his second book, The Prince of the Marshes, vividly details that experience).
Stewart’s time in Afghanistan blossomed into a connection with its people and places that persists. Now back in Kabul, he’s the CEO of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a nongovernmental organization devoted to historic preservation (including renovation of the city’s old commercial district), teaching vanishing artisan skills to a generation of young Afghans, and developing new markets for Afghan crafts. But that description doesn’t quite do it justice. Stewart’s foundation aims to reclaim some of the glory of Kabul’s heritage while giving purpose to young lives that might otherwise drift toward anarchy or nihilism.
How did your trek prepare you for what you encountered in Iraq?
I stayed in 500 different village houses along the way. For 20 months I listened to villagers talking about their lives and their priorities. I learnt how guests were greeted, how people treated one another, and how headmen represented their clans and resolved disputes. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, such rural people represented the majority. They were generous and often brave, but they were also often conservative, religious, illiterate, isolated, and nationalistic. Most of my colleagues in Iraq had little sense of these communities because they had spent their careers in embassy compounds dealing with educated city people, who often despised or misunderstood rural people. When I was sent to one of the poorest and most remote provinces in the marshlands of southern Iraq, I felt the trek had given me an instinctive feeling not only for how to greet people or negotiate with them or appeal to their sense of honor but also for what was politically possible.
The situation you found there was incredibly complicated and confusing. How did you make decisions that would do the most good and the least bad?
Well, it was unbelievably difficult, because there were of course two quite distinct sorts of analysis needed. One of them, itself no easy thing, was to understand roughly what the status quo was. In Iraq the old regime had fallen, there was a war going on, and a whole bunch of new contenders for power had arisen. In Maysan, when I first arrived, 54 new political parties had emerged in only four months, and numerous tribal groups were trying to claim power. Simply understanding what it was like right now was incredibly difficult.
The second order of complexity had to do with defining a desired future—what did you want the situation to become? We face this now in Afghanistan. For example, you could analyze a village in the southern part of the country and quickly establish that its culture is conservative, Islamist, and antiforeign, and that women don’t have much freedom. But you then might go on to say that you want to improve women’s lives and introduce certain human rights, such as freedom of religion. But how on earth are you going to get that done? What kinds of costs or compromises are you prepared to make to get from A to B, and in what sort of time frame can you do it?
We’re very good at saying we want to create a gender-sensitive, multiethnic centralized government based on human rights, policy, and law. But we’re very bad at deciding at what cost and in what time frame. Are we prepared to empower a provincial warlord to keep security for five years while we get our act together? Are we prepared to allow drug cultivation to continue because we’re focused on counterterrorism? Are we prepared to say that what matters most in the early stages is economic development, not democracy, and so we might tolerate a more dictatorial system that will create economic stability? Well, we’re not prepared to do any of those things—we want it all now. And, as a result, we generally end up getting none of it.
Your first day on the job in Maysan province, you were advised by CPA colleagues not to make any promises to the Iraqis. You immediately ignored that advice.
My predecessor believed that we should make no promises unless we were certain we could keep them. He therefore spent a great deal of time saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t think we can do anything about employment or water supply.” But we had invaded the country, and Iraqis understandably expected change. They thought his refusal to make promises was a sign of inactivity and weakness. We needed to win their consent and imaginations. So I made promises and defined an ambitious vision for the future and then had to pray that through hard work and luck we could make it all happen.
At every turn, it seemed, you were faced with resolving in some way the tension between idealism and pragmatism.
That is why I find Machiavelli so useful. He is not simply an evil cynic, as he is sometimes portrayed. He genuinely does believe in the virtue of the prince, the virtue of republics, and the power to do good. What he’s doing, perpetually, is trying to make people realize how messy and difficult the business of governing is. Some of his simplest insights are so interesting. One that I particularly like—and which applies well to what we encountered in Iraq—is that those who persist in trying to do what they think they ought to do, instead of what they can, will undermine their power rather than sustain it. In much the same vein he also advises to work out whether something’s achievable. If it is, do it at once; if it isn’t, don’t even attempt it.
When Iraqi sheikhs and ethnic groups reacted to the growing anarchy by threatening to take matters into their own hands, there were certain principles of law and order you weren’t willing to compromise on. You drew bright lines.
That’s true. It’s a strange thing, because none of this was really defined very clearly from the top—from the CPA headquarters, in Baghdad. Often it came down to intuition. I focused most on two things. The first was my sense of what Iraqis wanted and expected. Above all, they wanted security and order, justice and fairness—and many of them were quite willing to resort to whatever means they thought necessary to achieve those ends. But I was worried, too, about the reputation of the United States and Britain, because there were a lot of people putting the worst possible complexion on our motives. As things began to disintegrate, I felt that we should be judged not just by the number of jobs we created or the number of schools we restored. Our purposes were also political, moral, and symbolic. How would Iraqis perceive our character, our moral character? This is why I became very upset about two developments in particular. One was that we allowed the Prince of the Marshes—the powerful, charismatic tribal figure for whom my book is titled—to use force to break a strike of oil workers in Al Amara, the capital of Maysan. I thought that was completely the wrong way to go. The second, of course, was Abu Ghraib.
I really did want to create a situation in which, if we did nothing else, Iraqis at least would say, at the end of this time, that we were honorable. We weren’t corrupt; we weren’t torturing people. They might judge that we weren’t particularly competent, but they’d see we were trying to serve the people, trying to help. I think—and this is not a statement about me, it’s really a statement about my colleagues—by and large we achieved that.
In what ways?
Well, for example, there was a U.S. State Department officer named Tobin Bradley, who worked with me in Nasiriyah. Toby set up elections all over Dhi Qar, and this really got people’s attention. I believe that if he were to go back to Nasiriyah today, most of the people who worked with him would respect him and appreciate what he did. I should add that he did this at a time when the official CPA policy was not to hold elections. I learned a lot from Toby. When I came to Nasiriyah from Al Amara, my initial reaction was, “What the hell are you doing? We’re told not to have any elections.” And I thought that Dhi Qar province, Nasiriyah in particular, was a long way behind Al Amara in terms of development. So I questioned whether holding these elections was the right priority. It was only when I began to notice how much popular enthusiasm Toby was generating with these projects that I realized he’d been right and I’d been wrong. In fact, we’d have been much better off to have held elections in Al Amara.
Was he punished for these good deeds?
Toby was fascinating. For his trouble, he got these incredibly aggressive e-mails when Baghdad began to hear about it, ordering him to cease this activity. But then the Washington Post came down, took photographs of Toby, and put the story on the front page. And suddenly Baghdad sort of woke up and thought, “Oh, well maybe…”
In the end, Toby did become very, very disappointed. He left Iraq earlier than he would have done normally, because he felt that the Italian military—which was assigned the job of protecting the province—was failing to maintain security and protect the district councils that had been elected. I suppose I was able to last longer than Toby because I’m slightly less idealistic. I’m more inclined when I hear that a council’s been toppled to think, “All right, let’s try for a political solution, let’s try to get the sheikhs together and get it back on its feet again,” rather than just say, “OK, that’s it, I’ve had it.”
Ultimately, did those of you in the provinces have quite a bit of autonomy in deciding what to do?
Yes. And I disagree with some of the criticism of the CPA. A lot of my colleagues have said they didn’t get enough support from Baghdad, that the CPA didn’t respond to their e-mails and so forth. I saw that as one of the few strengths of the organization. Because in Iraq I really do believe that politics is local. The fact that the CPA allowed us to get on with it—and, towards the end, was quite generous in allowing us money to spend—was a good thing in my view. Now, in the end it was a failure, a mess. So perhaps it didn’t really matter. But if you asked me to guess how you’d have a better shot at getting something done, I would still say through a very serious devolution down to the local level, allowing people on the ground to make decisions flexibly. Which is why when I read books and articles saying that [Ambassador L. Paul] Bremer’s staff never sent e-mails down to the governate teams and didn’t seem to take any interest, my response is that I quite enjoyed having the freedom.
Throughout your experience in Iraq, you overlooked a lot of provocations and picked your fights very carefully.
And that requires being able to tolerate quite a lot of chaos. It’s not just about delegating or about not micromanaging. It’s actually about accepting that, when you do delegate, as much as 20% to 30% of what’s being done will go quite badly. You have to know which of these things require your intervention. It’s not a science, and I’m aware that I often got it wrong.
What’s an example of that?
I got to the point, in February or March of 2004 in Al Amara, where I would hear about some new eruption of unrest and think, “Here we go again. Forget about it—I’m just going to get on with my work.” But there was one occasion, at the onset of another angry gathering in the streets, when my boss, governate coordinator Molly Phee, called me up and said, “We’ve got to deal with this, we’ve got to stop this from happening.” Molly was more inclined to jump on things than I was. My first thought was that stopping a demonstration wasn’t all that important, and anyway I didn’t think we’d be able to manage it. But I was wrong—Molly got it sorted out. And she succeeded because she is less of a delegator than I and more of a perfectionist. She won some battles that I didn’t think were really winnable. For example, she prevailed against the CPA’s threat to eliminate our civil affairs team. That was another case where I just thought, “I’ve been around, and I know how these things go. We’ll just adapt.” Molly taught me the great lesson that being too adaptable—which is very much in my nature—can have its own drawbacks.
You seemed to win a lot of unwinnable fights, though. It must have taken courage to stand in meeting rooms where people were shaking their fists and yelling at you, and still say no to something.
Well, now, that’s very interesting. An aspect of culture in rural areas of southern Iraq is that people care greatly about the idea of quwah. They translate it as “strength,” though it doesn’t necessarily mean strength in a physical or military way. It’s more about personality: the sense, first, that people are courageous; second, that they actually believe in the things they’re saying; and third, that they’re able to resolve disputes within the community and represent the community to the outside. So it’s a society that isn’t as alien to us, in the United States and Europe, as we might think. The qualities Iraqis look for in a man—and it’s usually a man that you’re talking about in this context—are very much the kinds of qualities Americans or Europeans would prize in their family lives or their personal relations with friends. These are precisely the virtues that Toby Bradley had in spades. The great thing about Toby was that he believed in what he was doing, and he wasn’t going to back down. In the end the Iraqis might shout at him, but they understood that he was serious about democracy, about elections. It was difficult to argue against that.
Shortly before power was handed over to the Iraqis, you held a meeting with a roomful of angry police and council members who blamed you and the CPA for just about everything that had gone wrong in the province.
In the end I read them the riot act. I reminded them we were leaving soon, and there’d be no one left to blame but themselves—they had to take responsibility. We should have done a hell of a lot more of that. That was one of the few moments when I really felt people were listening—they actually believed what I was saying. And they wouldn’t have if I’d been defensive and recited the litany of all these wonderful things we’d done. It was far better to say instead, “OK, you’re right—this is pathetic, and a lot of it is my fault. But now we’ve got to sort it out.”
You often had to give hope to people with good reasons not to hope. Were there times when you felt you were crossing a line between leadership and duplicity?
Yeah, I think at times I was. I mean, there’s all the difference in the world between selling a product honestly and focusing so much on the upside of your product that you fail to acknowledge the risks. I often felt that I was at some strange dot-com start-up, meeting with a big investor, giving the rosiest possible picture and not quite being honest that our technology hadn’t fully been worked out and we were a bunch of college kids who didn’t really know how the system worked.
Now, the real problem with that was the cost paid by certain individuals, particularly by two people I knew: Dr. Kefiyah, whom we encouraged to set up the women’s center in Al Amara and who was shot to death on the sidewalk on her way to work, and my friend Asad, who wanted only to start a magazine devoted to indigenous art and culture and was dragged from his car and executed at the end of last year. I think we have to be very careful in pushing agendas of gender and human rights. Often we set these people up, we encourage them—and then we don’t look after them, and they get killed. It’s all well and good to say that these are adults, that they make their own decisions. But Asad was 24 or 25. He was idealistic, and he had a very naive picture of these Islamist groups. And we got him killed. I suppose that’s where the line is between inspiring people and misleading them.
When you inspire people to do something, you have a lot of responsibility for what happens?
Absolutely. But I also think that one of the ways in which we hurt ourselves in Iraq was that we failed to realize that our idealism—as much as it could be an impediment—was also a great strength, something that Iraqis could relate to. In many respects, these are quite romantic cultures, and often the people attacking you are thinking idealistically. They’re thinking about honor or religion or some great abstraction. Looking back, I think that Ambassador Bremer could have afforded to be much more of a politician and much less of a bureaucrat. He could have done more to communicate, to really get out on the stump and try to sell a dream.
But the CPA wasn’t focused on that kind of leadership?
People in Iraq and Afghanistan working for the international community believe that the time for charismatic leadership is gone and that we need to fall back on bureaucratic leadership. In Afghanistan, for example, they are concerned mainly with creating transparent, flexible, accountable financial processes. They insist that good governance is all about sequences and processes. And in fact it isn’t at all—not least because, in such countries, the central government is unbelievably weak and seriously lacks the capacity to deliver that level of bureaucratic process.
What does exist is a very strong tradition of charismatic leadership. As we discovered when the international community toppled Ismail Khan—the powerful warlord and hero who ran Herat—the situation got worse rather than better. That was because the central government never put the bureaucratic framework in place, whereas Khan’s much more personal charismatic rule had ensured that that province was the most secure, prosperous, and stable place in the country.
That’s something you learned also in Iraq.
The fundamental mistake I think I made in Al Amara was to second-guess the governor. The guy was a crook, an authoritarian. He had opened fire on demonstrating crowds; he had closed down newspapers that were critical of him. But the bottom line was, he was the governor, and he was going to have to run the province when we left. What we chose to do was the worst of all worlds: We neither toppled him nor fully supported him. What we created was an alienated man who felt that he couldn’t trust or rely on us, and who felt weak and insecure in his relationships both with the people and with us. That was absolutely no gift to the province. However much, on some issues, we were right and he was wrong, in the end we should have simply let him get on with it.
You’re applying that lesson now in Afghanistan?
It’s really what I try to do all the time now. When one of the non-Afghan managers comes to me and complains that our Afghan chief engineer has fallen behind on his paperwork and is disregarding procedures, I say, “Forget about it—90% of what he’s doing is great. You’ve got to let him know that you admire him, that you appreciate his work. Give him all the support you can, and don’t try to turn him into something he’s not.”
You give him the freedom to be wrong from time to time, and that’s better than intervening to save him from himself?
Because I don’t interfere, the result is that he works 14 hours a day, works incredibly hard, and, actually, is solving problems in a way that we couldn’t begin to think of. When I go down there and see that he’s found another 20 street kids and he has them clearing away garbage, or that he’s propping up a building that I never thought could be propped up or laying a brick path in half the expected time, I realize that whatever his dysfunctions might be, they’re completely compensated for by the fact that he is an amazing leader. He really understands this community and can get workers on their toes. But he’s also a proud man. These are very proud cultures—people do not want to be micromanaged, particularly by foreigners.
Describe your current project in Kabul.
The Turquoise Mountain Foundation emerges largely from my experience in Iraq. Despite having $10 million a month to spend in Iraq, I felt we achieved very little. But two projects I did there really seemed to work and captured people’s imaginations. Taken together, these two successes really form the inspiration for what we are doing now in Afghanistan. The first was our effort to restore the souk (the marketplace) in Al Amara. The second—more powerful than the first—was setting up a carpentry school in Nasiriyah. In that case, Iraqi politicians, Al Jazeera, the newspapers, and the local people really understood the idea of bringing in street kids and teaching them skills. So when I came to Afghanistan and found this great unmet need—there was garbage seven feet deep in the center of the city, and all these craft skills were being lost—it seemed quite natural for me to move on from what I had done in Iraq to the work I’m doing now.
You found people who still possessed the old craft skills?
Yes, but they’re well into their seventies. One of my woodwork master instructors just died. In some ways it’s a race against time. A lot of what we’re doing—and I suppose this differs from the way businesses in the United States and the rest of the Western world operate—requires that we take a lot of shortcuts. We’ve really got to get our skates on, because it’s such a fragile situation. The necessity of winning the imagination and consent of those on the ground is so urgent. Consequently, we hire people for their versatility and flexibility. I set up this NGO and had two people working for me in March 2006, 70 by July, and about 150 by last October.
Is the community relatively tranquil?
It is, given that it’s just come out of a civil war. It’s surprising how easily people are living together. Of course, during the civil war period, these groups were literally lined up on opposite banks of the Kabul River shelling each other. It’s really quite a positive story.
What is your mission?
We combine social, cultural, and economic regeneration. We have the Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts, which trains craftsmen in producing high-quality ceramics, calligraphy, and woodwork. We have a business development section, which sells those crafts internationally. These programs work alongside our urban regeneration program, which is upgrading the historic commercial center of Kabul. We cannot afford to be too narrowly focused in dealing with the community in old Kabul. We pride ourselves on being able to respond to demands all the way from sewage to literacy to quite detailed and sophisticated conservation work on buildings. Some NGOs would say, “We only do health” or “We only do women’s issues.” But Afghans find this very difficult to relate to, and they get very frustrated by what they perceive as strange bureaucracy.
I also think that some other groups talk a lot about needs assessments and logical frameworks and put a lot of focus on job descriptions. That, too, can be an impediment in Afghanistan. In fact, in my opinion, a whole generation of young Afghans has to some extent been ruined by training courses financed by nongovernmental agencies over the past four years. When I’m interviewing young Afghans now, I might say, “Look, I’ve got a real problem in the school, and I need somebody to come in and solve it.” Often the person I’m interviewing will say, “What we need to do is redefine the job descriptions, focus on teamwork, and write a mission statement!” And I’ll say, “Please, I don’t want you to do any of those things. I want you to stop the senior ceramist from murdering the junior ceramist! And I want you to make sure that we’re productively fashioning woodwork.”
What I’m actually telling people is to try to forget everything they learned in all of those NGO training courses they took and to think of this as a family business, where everyone pitches in to do everything.
So far, we’ve cleared away about 2,000 truckloads of garbage. We’ve removed drug peddlers. We’ve improved sewage conditions. All of this provides employment and moves crime on to other areas. It also attracts visitors back into the city to shop. We’ve restored about 40 buildings, moved in carpentry workshops. We’re redoing the old souk. We’ve opened new international markets for Afghanistan’s traditional craftsmen. We’re creating a new retail quarter, a new waterfront area, a new educational quarter, and a community area. This upgraded city center will be a highly visible symbol. Together, our schools, our business programs, and our urban upgrading should create jobs, skills, and a renewed pride in national culture. All this is vital in the aftermath of war.