Robert Gates on Leadership
In his latest book, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates looks back on five decades of leadership experience. The structure of his argument is straightforward: Gates starts with the claim that bureaucracies are often inefficient and fail their clients. He then offers lessons for leaders on how to fix these failures. Each lesson is clearly stated and neatly wrapped up with an anecdote.
When turning the last page, however, the reader is left with a feeling of slight dissatisfaction: the book does not really “fit.” Gates makes it clear from the outset that it is not intended to be a leadership guidebook for the self-help section of a bookstore. And it is not your traditional guidebook: it contains many anecdotes from Gates’ experiences as Secretary of Defense, President of Texas A&M University, and Director of Central Intelligence. All of his stories do translate into lessons and advice, particularly on how leaders should engage with people from within a bureaucracy to affect change, how change should be announced and communicated internally and publicly, and how plans should be implemented and monitored. Thus, the book is full of strong advice for good leadership, albeit not novel.
However, if not a guidebook per the author’s interpretation, it is clearly not a biography or a historical recounting either. Gates’ leadership experience in the highest positions of government could have made A Passion for Leadership stand out from all the other books offering leadership advice, yet it falls short. The anecdotes are useful but often lack depth because they are condensed and intended to illustrate only specific leadership skills rather than providing a broader context and coherent storyline. Being as succinct as they are, the anecdotes often fail to adhere to the well-known writing tip “show, don’t tell.” Perhaps this is due to the fact that leadership is more of an art than a science. Yet, more narrative, even at the expense of focusing on only one leadership role rather than the three Gates chose to emphasize, would have made the book far more engaging. As it is, the book falls short of the high expectations of those who appreciated Gates’ autobiographical work Duty.
The most valuable contribution to the discourse on leadership is Gates’ conception of what ‘leadership’ means—although its distinguishing feature remains unstated until the very end when he juxtaposes leadership and management. Gates defines leadership as having a visionary element, guiding an organization into a new direction by implementing reforms. This emphasis on reform is puzzling (is constant reform the only successful way to lead?) until Gates reveals the key distinction in the last chapter: a leader guides an organization into the future while a manager “controls” and “directs [the business of] an institution.” The unexpected takeaway from the book is that this distinction between leading and managing may be underappreciated in practice. Do we need to change the way we think about leadership? Do our leaders spend too much time on management and too little time on paving a way forward?
With its uneasy fit between guidebook and biography, this book on leadership from a man with such distinguished experience does not reach its full potential. Although the definition of leadership itself is thought provoking and worth reflecting on, the cut-and-dry narrative detracts from what could have been a compelling chronicle with interwoven lessons of leadership. At a minimum, however, A Passion for Leadership provides interesting insight into Gates’ understanding of the impressive leadership positions he has held.
Sarah Lohschelder is a MSc Foreign Service/Juris Doctor candidate at Georgetown University. She is a Defense Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
Originally published in The Huffington Post.
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