Leon Panetta’s Hard Lessons in Leadership

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 last 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 Worthy Fights, Leon Panetta chronicles his tenure during the first term of the Obama administration as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (February 2009 to June 2011) and as secretary of Defense (July 2011 to February 2013). He also served as a member of the House and as budget director and chief of staff for President Clinton. While Panetta’s memoir is stirring controversy over his criticism of President Obama’s leadership style, the management insights for government leaders have received far less attention:

Involve key staff in decision-making. Panetta acknowledges that his credentials for the CIA position were not based on prior experience in covert action or intelligence gathering, and says he got the job because he knew something about running organizations. Based on his work in the Clinton administration, Panetta had seen the value of including all key staff members in decision-making. He expanded the number of people attending his daily staff meeting, which was a major cultural change for the agency.

“At first staff was aghast that I would discuss sensitive operational details in front of the comptroller or public affairs chief,” he writes. “But I knew from my (Clinton) White House days that the most important thing I could do was to get the senior team on the same page.” Panetta told his staff, “I need you to be honest with me. The last thing I want is for something to be going on in the bowels of this place that I don’t know about.” This approach enhanced communication by engaging more staff members and encouraging discussion among the various components of the agency.

Make accountability clear. In overseeing the effort to track down Osama bin Laden in 2009, Panetta recalls his frustrations over the lack of leads. In one meeting with senior staffers, he asked who at the CIA was responsible for finding bin Laden. Four or five officials raised their hands. “If I’ve learned one lesson in management over the past 40 years, it’s that if everyone is in charge, nobody is,” Panetta writes. He settled on two people from the National Counterterrorism Center who would take the lead and report to him weekly with updates on the search. The search for bin Laden picked up steam and his capture ranks as the major accomplishment during Panetta’s tenure at the agency.

Push back and ask for more options. In parts of his book, Panetta expresses frustration with the bureaucracy. In attempting to verify bin Laden was hiding inside the infamous Abbottabad compound, Panetta recalls staffers reporting they had already used every tool in the agency’s toolbox to confirm bin Laden’s location and could not imagine what else to try. “I would not accept that we were out of ideas,” he writes. “Frustrated, I told them I wanted 10 new thoughts at our next meeting. I was openly angry, furious at their seeming acceptance that we had done all we could.” Instead of 10 ideas, they came back with 38 ideas. Panetta adds that his team was energized by the effort.

Understand your organization. This was clearly a goal of Panetta at DOD, but it is unclear whether he succeeded. He describes getting to know the CIA pretty well during this tenure, but notes that the CIA and DOD aren’t comparable in scale. “It was, I said at the time, like moving from the local hardware store to Home Depot,” Panetta recalls.

“My greatest fear was that the size of the Defense Department would overwhelm me, that I would never be able to truly take command of it,” he writes. “Many a secretary of defense had been swallowed up by the job, and I was determined to fight against the pull. It was a concern that dogged me throughout my tenure at the department.” His predecessor, Robert Gates, had similar concerns at DOD, but his longer tenure there offered more opportunities to tackle the challenges. While it is easy for executives to get caught up in the policy game, they must allocate substantial time developing and overseeing management improvements.

Be prepared to manage up. Panetta voices annoyance at what he viewed as White House micromanagement and laments the trend toward more White House involvement in departmental business. “I had to submit speeches for the White House approval, and when I would forward requests for interviews, the White House would take weeks to respond, effectively killing the idea without ever saying so directly,” he writes, noting that the White House also discouraged his interactions with Congress.

This oversight had “the effect of reducing the importance of the Cabinet members who actually oversaw their agencies,” he says. “Those agency heads were rarely encouraged to take their own initiative or lobby for priorities. In fact, several times when I reached out to Congress or the press without prior White House approval, I was chastised for it.” Gates, Timothy Geithner and Hillary Clinton all wrote of similar experiences in their memoirs. The lesson is clear: Executives must carefully pick their battles. Deciding when to take on the White House and fight back on issues that are crucial to agency operations is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

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.