Book Review: Open Gates for Leadership Tips


Robert Gates’ A Passion for Leadership (2016) is an illuminating and essential resource for tips to navigating and leading large, complex organizations.

My interest in Gates was piqued by his success as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, as Secretary of Defense for Presidents Bush and Obama, and as President of Texas A&M. Drawing upon his 50 years of public service, including leadership of these three large, complex institutions, Gates offers both government and private-sector types of candid insights and actionable recommendations. These insights and recommendations are based on real-world examples of reform initiatives, bureaucratic challenges and public policy conundrums.

Students of leadership will recognize the topical terrain Gates covers: establishing a vision, paying attention to strategy, monitoring and adjusting implementation (including tips from his own playbook), keeping focused on the people who do the work, tending to stakeholders (including elected officials and former officials/alumni, communities where the institution works) and knowing when to quit.

His essential message is simple: good leaders are good listeners. One of his favorite sayings is “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

Cultivating this practice along with the humility that he was never the smartest person in the room served him well. He explains, “Leaders of institutions that approach their jobs with some humility are far more likely to get from their subordinates the kinds of ideas and advice critical to success and to build a solid team than those who presume to know all the answers.”

He then offers this self-assessment:

“What I brought into the room was a willingness to listen (I got better at that with every passing year), an ability to analyze and synthesize large and diverse amounts of information, opinions and recommendations and come up with practical solutions to problems and proposals for reform.  That, and a willingness to be bold.”

Along with being a good listener, empowering subordinates is the book’s other common thread. Gates explains how he enhanced the contributions of others by selecting key leaders who embraced his vision (while maintaining flexibility on how it was achieved), holding leaders accountable and always investing and promoting his people – even in cases when letting them leave his own organization was difficult in the short-term.

For Gates, supporting those who worked for him was a deeply ingrained and deliberate habit. He paid close attention to the people around him and how they did their jobs, at times choosing to bring junior staff into a high-level meeting to provide them with valuable experience and new insights and to reward their hard work.

A close friend of mine who piloted for Secretary Gates on a number of international trips told me that Gates was sincere in his appreciation of those under his command. At the end of a particularly intense multi-country trip, as my friend escorted Dr. Gates to the plane for their return home from Kuwait, the Secretary thanked him for his professionalism, knowledge, organization and advice. “He said I made it all look easy…as professionals do, but he also knew that a lot was going on ‘below the water line’ that he did not see that aided in the trip’s success.”

Humility and the ability to empower others are at the core of Gates’ own leadership practice. He describes the kind of place I would have liked to work and an office I would have been honored to lead:

“If a leader’s organization is seen as high performing and a place where promising people have a chance to grow and to see their careers fostered and advanced, the highest-quality individuals will want to work there. Such an office will soon acquire a reputation as a launching pad for further career success rather than a dead-end job. Believe me, a leader’s own superiors will notice when a disproportionate number of highfliers seem consistently to come from one place.”

Gates’ description of tending to shareholders illustrates the critical importance of understanding the institution’s strategic environment and maintaining extensive and effective relationships. In his varied leadership roles, Gates developed deep knowledge of the workings of Congress, inter-agency relations, the media, the Texas legislature and a university Board of Regents. This experience led him to understand the needs, prerogatives and incentives at play on the many actors within these major public policy institutions. Sadly, few leaders seem to take the time or muster the energy to tend the garden as they should.

Gates’ leadership lessons are persuasive because of his candor: about his early missteps as Deputy Director at the CIA, his distaste for the often arrogant, self-indulgent, petty tyrants he encountered along his own leadership journey and his self-restraint when harangued by uninformed congressional overseers.

Those looking for a tasty morsel for the Washington cocktail circuit, such as “How did you manage your superiors – from the self-described “gut player” George Bush to the more cerebral and aloof Barack Obama?” will find that his candor has its limits. Nor does he have all the answers. Gates never found a truly functional performance evaluation system.  Written evaluation systems rarely offered him useful assessments or ways to deal with poor performers. Like many federal managers, he found ways to manage around problem employees and poor performers rather than making performance evaluation a target of reform.

Written a year before the 2016 election, Gates’ description of the most desirable leadership competencies seems particularly relevant – even prescient. In his chapter entitled, “The Agent of Change: ­­Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” he outlines the most important requirements as follows:

  • The best leaders have their egos under control.
  • A leader must have integrity.
  • Self-discipline is central to the leadership of institutions and to reforming them.
  • Courage is essential for reform.
  • When a leader is fighting bureaucratic battles for reform, she needs a few senior associates who are trustworthy, share a commitment to her agenda for reform and are capable of effectively implementing her decisions.

From Langley to the Pentagon to the Lone Star State, these lessons are portable and can be applied from the West Wing to the C-Suite. A Passion for Leadership truly belongs on the nightstand of today’s public and private sector leaders.  Our institutions and their long-needed reform will be the better for it.

Neil A. Levine is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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