Video: David Petraeus on Leadership

Gen. David Petraeus (Ret.) in conversation with Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski at the Asia 21 Summit in Hong Kong. (Tahiat Mahboob/Asia Society)

David Petraeus is not afraid of competition. The retired general, best known for commanding the U.S. military "surge" in Iraq, is legendary for his intense desire to win — whether in battle or in a chili cook-off. In a conversation with Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski at the Asia 21 Summit in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Petraeus talked about how competitiveness informed his leadership philosophy. "Life is a competitive endeavor, so get over it," he said. "Accept it, embrace it, realize it. You've got to compete."

"Having said that," he added, "sometimes you have to compete to be the best team player in the world. And that's not always easy."

The discussion centered around Petraeus' history of leadership in the military, where he recently concluded a distinguished 37-year-career, and in civilian posts such as the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. In talking about the importance of persistence, Petraeus brought up the film Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's meteorologist character wakes up each day only to realize he was trapped in the day before.

"Sometimes life becomes Groundhog Day — today is the same as yesterday, and tomorrow is going to be the same as today," he said. "Every one of us was afflicted by it. The surge in Iraq was just a grinding existence. People think it must have been exhilarating to be involved in it, but I was just trying to get through each day.'

Success, Petraeus said, involves understanding the bigger picture.

"You just have to think 'this is incredible, such a privilege, such an honor,'" he said. "You realize how fortunate you are, and then you get back to ground level and put your right foot in front of your left foot."

"Work is work, in this competitive endeavor that is life, and you just have to work hard."

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.