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Robert Gates Shares His ‘Passion for Leadership’

New Book Highlights Lessons Learned in 50 Years of Public Service

To say that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has seen a lot is undoubtedly an understatement.

He's served under eight presidents of both major parties (2006-2011), led the CIA and Texas A&M, and been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now, he’s the president of the Boys Scouts of America.

He joins us to talk about his new book, "A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service."

"As I ended my time as Secretary of Defense and looked back, I reflected on the fact that I had led several very different organizations, and that a consistent theme in my career had been to try and make the organizations that I belong to better," he said. 

"It seemed to me, as I looked around and saw all the bureaucracies in this country–both private and public–and how intrusive they've become in American lives, and how many of them don't work very well–from Veterans Affairs to Flint, Michigan–that the lessons I had learned in how you change and reform these organizations were broadly applicable. That's why I decided to write the book."

Read an excerpt from the book, below.

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.

Robert Gates (Eleanor Gates)Robert Gates (Eleanor Gates)

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.

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