What Agency Executives Can Learn From Robert Gates

From the memoirs of Obama administration appointees.

A host of memoirs by former Obama administration Cabinet chiefs have been arriving in bookstores, offering valuable management lessons for political appointees and career civil servants. This is the second in a series on the experiences of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (Stress Test), Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Duty), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Hard Choices), and Defense and intelligence chief Leon Panetta (Worthy Fights).

In Duty, Robert Gates chronicles his four and a half years as secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama, in which the nation fought two wars. Among insights for government leaders:

Know whether you are accepting a policy or operational position.  There are two basically two types of leadership positions in Washington: policy jobs and operational jobs.  It is crucial that government leaders know which type job they are accepting and understand the challenges of each.  In his memoir Stress Test, Timothy Geithner fully understood that he was accepting a policy job and he describes the challenge of working to get agreement on the “right” policies.  In contrast, Robert Gates knew he was accepting an operational position and that most of his time as Defense secretary would be spent executing policy. “I participated in the development of our strategies both within the Pentagon and in the White House,” he writes, “and then had primary responsibility for implementing them: selecting, promoting—and when necessary, firing—field commanders and other military leaders; for getting the commanders and troops the equipment they needed to be successful; for taking care of our troops and their families.” While many come to Washington to make policy, Gates knew his success was in implementing policy.

The bureaucracy is a special challenge. Gates was one of the most qualified Defense secretaries in recent history. He brought extensive experience to the Pentagon after his previous positions in the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency. But even with his vast knowledge of government, Gates found the Pentagon bureaucracy to be painfully slow moving. “Even though the nation was waging two wars, neither of which we were winning, life in the Pentagon was largely business as usual when I arrived,” he writes. “I found little sense of urgency, concern, or passion about a very grim situation.” At the end of his tenure, Gates was still frustrated by his inability to reform the Defense machine. Chapter Four, “Waging War on the Pentagon,” should be required reading for civil servants to better understand the perspective of a political appointee coming into the bureaucracy with an urgent agenda. There is a wide gap in the time perspective of appointees and career civil servants.  Appointees sprint to get as much done as possible during their tenure, which is tied to political shifts in presidential administrations. In contrast, civil servants often view themselves as marathon runners pacing themselves for a long race.

When necessary, go outside the bureaucracy. When Gates saw an intractable problem, he went outside the bureaucracy to address it. A prime example is the troubled procurement of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles. There were numerous delays in getting MRAPs to the field in Iraq. Describing his workaround, Gates writes, “I approved putting the MRAP in a special, very small category of Defense procurement, effectively setting aside many bureaucratic hurdles typical of military programs . . . I also directed establishment of a department-wide MRAP task force and asked to be briefed every two weeks.” If Gates had stayed in his role longer, it would have been interesting to see whether he would have tried to institutionalize fast track procurement and worked to change the internal operations of the Pentagon instead of having to go outside the bureaucracy to accomplish his priority objectives. When political appointees implement such initiatives, civil servants have the opportunity to streamline the way they do business internally.

Be selective and specific about your agenda. Gates advises that an appointee who intends to run a department or agency—rather than preside over it—should “be selective in identifying his agenda, and both realistic and single-minded in developing strategies for achieving each specific goal.” Otherwise, he says, “exhortations to be more efficient or to achieve some broad goal are akin to shouting down a well.” In pointing to his experience with MRAPs, Gates writes, “The organization must understand that the secretary is personally invested in these issues and determined to drive the process to specific outcomes.” Gates says he gave very specific objectives with tight deadlines and required regular in-person reports.  He argues that getting personally involved in select issues was the only way he could get people focused and ensure they were performing. He also believed that his agenda for change could not be delegated to the deputy secretary. “The secretary has to master the details and fully understand the issues and problems,” Gates writes. “The challenge is to maintain a high-level broad perspective, understand enough details to make sensible and executable decisions.”

Be patient when working with Congress. While showing respect for Congress as an institution, Gates is highly critical of the many lawmakers he dealt with as Defense chief. “I was exceptionally offended by the constant adversarial, inquisition-like treatment of executive branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when the press and televisions cameras were present,” he writes. “Sharp questioning of witnesses should be expected and is entirely appropriate.  But rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior as they postured and acted as a judge, jury and executioner.” Future political appointees stand warned. On the advice of his staff, Gates says, “the clenched teeth behind my smile when on the Hill remained well hidden . . . I dutifully marched to the Hill to meet with the leadership, party caucuses, committee leaders, and individual members . . . I behaved myself in hearings, letting my respectful demeanor implicitly draw the contrast with the boorishness of members.”

Political appointees must collaborate with career civil servants. While Gates is candidly critical of the bureaucracy, he writes, “I have not given due credit in these pages to those civilians who played a key role in everything I did—and accomplished—as secretary. Career professionals and political appointees, men and women, worked countless hours to prepare me for meetings and helped shape decisions, then saw to their implementation. I depended on these civilians to help me frame the agenda to change, to help me come up with specific strategies for accomplishing each initiative. Their insights, dedication, and skills are critical assets that any secretary of Defense and the American public must always value.” The message from Gates is clear: Any future secretary who wants to reform the Pentagon must remember that the civil service is essential to success. Duty also points out, however, how hard political appointees must work to speed up the bureaucracy and create a greater sense of urgency.

Gates is frank about the many rough patches during his tenure as Defense secretary. He frequently had difficulties with the White House, as well as his department’s bureaucracy. He often considered resigning, but he didn’t because of his commitment to supporting the troops. “The troops were the reason I took the job, and they became the reason I stayed,” he writes. The power of commitment to mission is perhaps Gates’ greatest lesson for both political appointees and career civil servants.

Mark A. Abramson is president of the management consulting firm Leadership Inc., and Paul R. Lawrence is a principal in Ernst & Young LLP’s Government Practice. They are the authors of What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage.