Robert Gates On Leadership And The 2016 Election

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Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has served eight U.S. Presidents of both political parties and he has led the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Texas A & M University. (U.S. Army Europe Images/Flickr)
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has served eight U.S. Presidents of both political parties and he has led the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Texas A & M University. (U.S. Army Europe Images/Flickr)

In his new book, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks about how leaders can make what he calls transformational change in their organizations, the kind of change that sometimes puts them at odds with entrenched bureaucracy. Surprisingly, he's a fan of task forces.

Gates has served eight U.S. presidents of both political parties and he has led the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Texas A & M University. He is currently president of the Boy Scouts of America.

He discusses leadership and his book, "A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service," with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. He also talks about he thinks is lacking in the 2016 presidential election.

Interview Highlights: Robert Gates

On his proudest accomplishment

"I think what I am most proud of is the things that I was able to do between 2006 and 2011 to help protect our men and women in uniform during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to get them better armor, better medical care, better intelligence and reconnaissance. I think the thing I am proudest of is the measures that I took based on everything that I’ve been told and heard. Saved a lot of lives and limbs and I can’t think of anything that makes me prouder than that."

On his appreciation of task forces to get things done

"Well they are silo-busters. Most organizations are like pyramids, pretty good communication up and down but very poor communication laterally between different elements of an organization, between different colleges or schools in a university, between different services in the military. Task forces provide a way to get people out of their ordinary bureaucratic routine and get them in an environment where they are sharing ideas with people from different parts of an organization and people often in those kinds of settings can come up with great ideas and new approaches. They key is to be careful how you structure a task force and to always put a deadline on when you are going to dismantle it."

On his role pushing for changes on gay rights at the Pentagon and at the Boy Scouts of America

"There was a third - I did the same thing in 1992 at the CIA. I think that they all presented their own challenges and the key is again letting people feel like they have a voice. We did a survey of 400,000 men and women in uniform and 150,000 military spouses and the amazing thing is we discovered through those surveys that about two-thirds of those in uniform thought that changing the rules on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would not have any negative impact on the military and in fact might improve things."

On there being critics of the leadership he’s shown on gay rights

"Well that probably is true but I think actually that they are in the minority, particularly in this day and age. One of my favorite sayings is to avoid criticisms say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. At a certain point you just have to exercise leadership and move the organization forward."

On President Obama’s leadership

"Well I think that the biggest problem that the president has had is when it comes to devising strategies and the implementation and execution of those strategies. He is very good at articulating a goal, at articulating a need that the country has but when it comes to actual execution there have been a lot of shortcomings. The best example is the difficulties in the rollout of the Obamacare website. Frankly, my own view is part of the problem is his unwillingness to truly delegate authority to his cabinet officials and centralizing implementation in the White House where they don’t have the capability to do that."

On Hillary Clinton’s leadership

"I worked with Secretary Clinton only on foreign policy and national security issues and I really had no insight into her management of the state department. I found her a good colleague, I found her tough minded. We worked well together."

On the current crop of presidential candidates

"I’m hearing a lot of promises, I’m hearing a lot of grandiose ideas and proposals and so on. But I’m not hearing much about how do you fix the dysfunctional bureaucracies that are so frustrating to most Americans. One of the issues that people like Sanders and Trump and others have tapped into is frustration and disgust on the part of a lot of Americans with our political leaders and with the bureaucracies they have to deal with every day. I’m not hearing any of the candidates talk about how they are going to make life better for Americans by making government and other organizations work better."

On whether he would consider serving in another administration

"Well I’m getting pretty old at this point. I think it’s time to pass the baton."

Book Excerpt: 'A Passion for Leadership'

By Robert M. Gates

I have observed many presidents, cabinet officers, generals, admirals and CEOs over many years. Some in their actions are superb examples of how to treat subordinates and motivate them; others were from the “fear and loathing” school of leadership, treating those below them with contempt and disrespect. What follows is distilled from my observations of others and my personal experience over some four decades of leading

very different kinds of organizations, often under the most trying conditions. For a young person just starting a career, a middle manager or someone in a more senior position, I believe the lessons are equally applicable.

People, not systems, implement an agenda for change.

As a leader pursues her reform agenda, she can’t get so enamored of flow charts and PowerPoint slides that she overlooks a critically important factor that will determine her success or failure: the attitudes and commitment of the people who work for her. A leader who can win their support and loyalty will be well on her way to successful reform. Whatever a leader’s place on the public or private bureaucratic ladder, she must provide the people working for her with the tools and opportunities for professional success and satisfaction. She must empower them and provide them with respect, motivation, job satisfaction, upward mobility, personal dignity, esteem and, finally, the confidence that, as leader, she genuinely cares about them collectively and as individuals. If a leader convinces them of that, employees will forgive a lot of the little mistakes which are inevitable.


People at every level in every organization need to know their work is considered important by the higher-ups. At every level, a leader should strive to make his employees proud to be where they are and doing what they do. It doesn’t matter whether you are president of the United States, CEO of a huge company or a supervisor far down in the organization.

Belief in the importance of what one does is of course vital in any job. Bureaucrats, wherever they work, want to believe that what they do every day has real value for their company, community or country. It is up to leaders—at every level—to explain why their work is important. Even if the organization is a little one tucked away in an obscure part of the enterprise, part of a leader’s responsibility is to ensure that employees know how their work fits into the bigger picture, how it makes a contribution, a difference. Taking time on a regular basis to explain to employees the organization’s mission and why they matter is an important leadership obligation on its own merits, but also because it is both motivational and builds the individual esteem of every member of the team.

A leader must not only explain to and reassure employees that their jobs are important to the overall mission of the organization, he must ensure that their work really does contribute, that it is not pointless make-work or wheel-spinning.

To lead reform successfully, a leader must empower subordinates.

Whether the changes a leader wants to make are sweeping, minor or something in

between, she cannot achieve them alone. She needs to trust those on the team below her who should have been involved from the outset in establishing goals and the plans to achieve them. A leader must be willing to delegate to them the authority to carry out plans. One person simply cannot effectively oversee implementation of significant change which affects multiple parts of an organization. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a government bureaucracy or a business.

At each affected layer of the organization, there needs to be a leader committed to the overall agenda, a leader who has the authority not only to implement but also to adjust or adapt plans as needed. Generals develop strategy; they don’t hover over captains and lieutenants to see if they are doing their job on the front lines. There is a reason for the military chain of command—everyone knows his or her job but, within the realm of their specific responsibilities, can make tactical adjustments to achieve success. The same principle applies to bureaucracies, public and private.

A successful leader, and especially one leading change, treats each member of his team with respect and dignity. It seems obvious, but in far too many bureaucracies, bosses at all levels fail to do so.

Nearly everyone has worked for a “toxic” boss, someone who bullies, belittles,

humiliates or embarrasses subordinates. A shouter. A desk pounder. They can be found at every level. As I told midshipmen at the Naval Academy and cadets at West Point, “You will all surely work for a jackass at some point in your career. We all have.”

Such poisonous pills may be smart, charismatic, decisive and able mostly to get the job done—traits which can get you pretty far in most organizations. But the cost in morale, employee dissatisfaction and creating a toxic environment is very high. People whose day-to-day job life is miserable are not going to feel motivated to excel, make change work or better serve a customer or policymaker. And it doesn’t matter whether they are CIA spies or retail clerks. I have long called these kinds of bosses “little Stalins.” They choose to demonstrate they are in charge by using their authority—their power—mainly to make people miserable.

You can be the toughest, most demanding leader on the planet and still treat people with respect and dignity. Whether it’s the lowest level supervisory position or the very top job, a leader can and should treat people right. To quote President Truman, “Always be nice to the people who can’t talk back to you. I can’t stand a man or woman who bawls out an underling to satisfy an ego.”

Excerpted from A PASSION FOR LEADERSHIP by Robert M. Gates. Copyright © 2016 by  Robert M. Gates. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 


This segment aired on January 12, 2016.


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