When Ignorance is Bliss
Technical expertise is no guarantee of success.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has a confession to make: She doesn’t use email. In fact, she says she doesn’t have any personal online accounts. “Some would call me a Luddite, [but it’s] my own personal choice,” Napolitano explains.
No doubt there are times when many of us also would like to go off the grid. And yet Napolitano’s revelation, which she made during an interview with me at a Government Executive cybersecurity conference in September, sparked some bewildered reactions among journalists and technology experts. That’s because Napolitano is the top government official in charge of protecting civilian agencies’ cyber networks from hackers and spies. You’d think someone with that job would be plugged in to the infrastructure she’s trying to defend. Nope.
But we shouldn’t be too surprised—or even worried. When it comes to running a Cabinet department, expertise is overrated. The qualities that matter most are more ephemeral, hard to learn and harder still to master: leadership, management acumen, the ability to govern. These are the predictors of management success; technical fluency is not.
Consider some recent examples. Leon Panetta knew little about covert intelligence when he became CIA director in 2009. As President Clinton’s chief of staff, Panetta read intelligence reports and sat in on the president’s national security briefings, but he was by no means schooled in the tradecraft of espionage.
Yet Panetta succeeded as director largely by being a superb manager. At a time when the CIA was under fire from Congress over interrogation and covert counterterrorism programs, he seemed instinctively to know that the best way to lead his agency was to defend it politically. And in politics, Panetta was expert, one of the shrewdest tacticians in Washington. He also worked closely with the Pentagon on global counterterrorism operations rather than try to outmaneuver the military. You could argue that Panetta recognized he was outgunned, but that’s also the sign of a good manager—knowing when to cooperate and not to fight.
Similarly, nothing in Robert Gates’ career obviously qualified him to run the Pentagon in wartime. Gates was an intelligence officer, the first career CIA employee to rise to the director position, in 1991. But he excelled as a Defense secretary—under two presidents—because he is a stalwart manager with a superbly tuned political ear. Gates was recruited by the George W. Bush administration to head the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but turned down the job because he knew it didn’t have the bureaucratic muscle and political clout of the CIA or Defense Department.
Like Panetta, Gates took over an organization in crisis. Despite his 13-year absence, Gates and his team were heralded by intelligence and military veterans as the “return of the grown-ups.” It didn’t matter that Gates was a career spy and not a soldier. He knew a lot about running organizations whose credibility was strained. When he led the CIA, the agency was being faulted for not predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Defense secretary, Gates was praised for his steadfastness, calm and resolve in the face of turmoil. The rare bipartisan support he enjoyed on Capitol Hill was a big reason President Obama asked Gates to stay on in his administration, the only Bush Cabinet official to make that transition.
Expertise is no guarantee of success. It might even be an obstacle. Maybe Napolitano’s Luddite ways will turn out to have served her well.
Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, and was a staff writer for Government Executive.
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