A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service. Robert M. Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
In the last chapter of Duty: Memoirs of A Secretary at War, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes that public servants “can move mountains” with the right leadership. In his most recent book, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, Gates turns to the question of how leaders can help public servants move mountains.
He answers the question with writing that is gritty, funny, and practical. He advises leaders to “praise in public and criticize in private…but keep the bullshit quotient to a minimum.” Gates admonishes bureaucrats to take a break from work every once in a while with the story of Dorothy Parker, an American writer. While traveling on her honeymoon, Parker received a telegram saying she was about to miss an approaching deadline. She replied: “Too f****** busy and vice versa.”
Public leaders are key to reform, and reform—constant reform—is necessary to make government work.
Casual writing style aside, Gates does not joke about the importance of public leadership. Public leaders are key to reform, and reform—constant reform—is necessary to make government work.
Lessons for Bureaucratic Leaders
A Passion for Leadership leverages all of Secretary Gates’ experience in public office. In addition to over four years as Secretary of Defense for Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, Gates was the president of Texas A&M University, head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under George H.W. Bush, a senior staff member on the National Security Council, a mid-level analyst in the CIA, and a junior officer in the U.S. Air Force. He’s seen his fair share of public leadership, both good and bad.
His first lesson for future leaders is to understand how challenging reform in government actually is. The first line of Chapter 1 reads, “Everybody hates bureaucracies, even those who work in them.” The rest of the chapter is less generous. He rants about “stupefyingly complex” bureaucracies that at best annoy and at their worst cause real damage. Coming from someone who has spent 50 years trying to fix bureaucracies, this is self-damning criticism. He is okay admitting as much.
This is the first indication that we are in the hands of a humble person, and it leads to his second leadership lesson. Humble leaders “are far more likely to get from subordinates the kinds of ideas and advice critical to success than those who presume to know all the answers…No matter what room I was in, I always knew I was not the smartest person there.” This was not false modesty—Gates admits to a D in freshman calculus and to struggling with chemistry, biology, and engineering. But this only helps his cause. His unspoken message is, “If I can learn public leadership, you can too.”
A third lesson is that public leaders should study the “DNA of bureaucracy.” The DNA consists of a bureaucrat’s desire to do good work and gain esteem, a bureaucratic bottom line that includes equity and fairness, not just money, and political overseers who “vary dramatically in expertise, diligence, understanding, and just plain smarts.” Another crucial component of bureaucracy’s DNA is the culture of risk avoidance. “It is almost always safer for the public bureaucrat to say no than yes.”
The public leader who wants to work around this risk aversion should listen, craft a vision, and tirelessly work toward reform. Working toward reform means, for practical purposes, using deadlines. Gates proclaims, “If I were limited to just one suggestion for implementing change in a bureaucracy, it would be to impose short deadlines on virtually every endeavor.” Bureaucracies grow static when given time; they grow energetic when given deadlines.
Bureaucracy & Politics
Gates’ most memorable passages come in story form, especially when those stories are loaded with political red meat. Before he was confirmed as president of Texas A&M, Gates got a taste of Texas politics and a run-in with former governor Rick Perry. Perry had apparently promised the university presidency to Senator Phil Gramm, a former economics instructor at A&M.
“After the search committee had settled on me, I received a call from Perry, who pressured me to withdraw my candidacy. He said he did not want me at A&M, neither did many Aggies, and he would be appointing all the members of the board of regents in the future—hinting I would face very rough going as President. The last thing I wanted was to get mixed up in Texas politics, but I also wasn’t about to let the governor intimidate me into pulling out. As I later told my wife, I had been confronting—in person—the leadership of the KGB while this guy was a freshman member of the Texas House of Representatives.”
Gates did not back down. After he was confirmed as university president, he sent several private, hand-written notes to Governor Perry. None of the letters were returned.
Part of a public leader's job, writes Gates, is to grin and bear it when duly elected leaders do not behave up to their ideals. Leading public change “is not for the fainthearted or the egomaniacal.”
(Not Quite) Something for Everyone
With time at the top of the Department of Defense, the CIA, the National Security Council, and Texas A&M, Gates claims his book has something to offer everyone. This is partly true. The general leadership lessons he draws from his experience—the morals of his stories—have something to offer everyone. However, a moral of the story can only go so far. “Communicate often” is good advice, but the best advice is to show how to communicate in the right way, at the right time, and in a specific environment. This is the role of the story itself. Gates’ stories with governors, senators, and presidents leave his readers in admiration, but they can also be difficult to apply to the life of the average bureaucrat.
“Public business my son, must always be done by somebody—it will be done by somebody or other—If wise men decline it others will not: if honest men refuse it, others will not.”
Still, Gates’ book is a worthwhile read. It reminds public servants at all levels of the important purpose behind their work. He invokes a message John Adams sent to his son, John Quincy Adams: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody—it will be done by somebody or other—If wise men decline it others will not: if honest men refuse it, others will not.” Gates’ “fervent hope” is that the book will encourage the wise to pursue public service.
From the autumn of his lifetime in public service, Gates offers a final lesson for reformers. When the ideas for change stop flowing, leave. “The reality of reforming bureaucracies is that when a leader thinks he is done, he probably is done.” This is a straightforward statement, but its implications are radical: leadership is reform, and reform should be constant.
Brad DeWees is a Tactical Air Control Party officer and an instructor in the United States Air Force Academy’s Department of Political Science. He teaches courses on American government and “Innovation in Government.” The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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