Empowering Reform Is the Key to Robert Gates’ Leadership Approach

Empowering Reform Is the Key to Robert Gates’ Leadership Approach
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates addresses the Boy Scouts of America’s annual meeting, Nashville, Tenn., May 23, 2014 (AP photo by Mark Zaleski).

Robert Gates’ new book on leadership has powerful lessons for how American institutions, both public and private, are inspired and managed. At a time when U.S. citizens despair of ever fixing the country’s political system, he conveys some hope that positive change in political and bureaucratic behavior is possible. And beyond the U.S., Gates’ approach to leadership could also be applied to how Washington engages with democratizing countries struggling to build new social contracts between their leaders and citizens.

Gates’ third book since leaving public office, “A Passion for Leadership,” draws from his 50 years of public service under eight presidents of both parties, including as the head of the CIA and the Department of Defense. Added to that mix are his experiences as the president of Texas A&M University, as a member of various corporate boards and as national president of the Boy Scouts of America, one of his current affiliations. Gates uses the range of these leadership positions to illustrate his belief that there are more similarities than differences in the talents needed to be a good leader, whether in large public administrations, corporate settings or the nonprofit sector.

Without resorting to management school jargon, Gates lays out some basic principles for effective leadership, starting from the premise that all organizations need to be in a perpetual search for reform. Any new leader, he argues, must set goals to change and improve the organization, even in organizations deemed as performing well. But he also makes clear that new leaders need to listen before they act, and that once a course for change is set, the leader needs to empower the system in place not only to implement plans, but also to modify and adjust them as needed. Treating subordinates with respect and dignity is important, even when removing them from positions as part of processes of change. As defense secretary, for instance, Gates spoke at the retirement ceremonies of senior officers he had fired in very public ways.

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