Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses an audience in October 2017 at a national security forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University.

Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses an audience in October 2017 at a national security forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. Steven Senne/AP

Four Leadership Takeaways from Ash Carter

The former Defense secretary has important advice for both political and career executives.

In his sprawling 466-page new book, Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter covers a lot of territory. There is something for everyone. He provides a comprehensive overview of how the Pentagon operates, both on the military side and on the civilian side. He discusses five major strategic challenges facing the United States: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and the threat of terrorism. There is also a detailed discussion of “troops in action,” including understanding of the chain of command, combat readiness, and the importance of clarity of purpose. 

The book also sets out to be a guide for new political executives, as well as career executives throughout government. Carter is eager to pass on what he has learned during his nearly 40-year career in and around the Defense Department. There are four key management takeaways for federal leaders.

1. Experience Matters 

Prior to confirmation to his confirmation to serve as the 25th Defense secretary in February 2015, Carter had served in three key presidentially-appointed positions at the Pentagon. During the Clinton administration, he served as assistant secretary for Defense for global strategic affairs, and During the Obama administration, he served both as under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, and deputy secretary. Even when he wasn't directly working in government, Carter served on the Defense Science Board and Defense Policy Board as well as on numerous other advisory committees. 

Carter represents the honorable tradition of the “in-and-outer,” individuals who held academic or private sector positions in between their government service. They came back to government service with extensive experience in their fields. In Carter’s case, he describes how he had seen Defense “not only from ‘up on the bridge,’ where policy is made, but also ‘down in the engine room,’ where all the gears turn and the money is spent.” To say he was well prepared to lead the Defense Department is an understatement. Today, the pejorative term “revolving door” (often deserved) is used to describe the careers of many political executives. Carter describes what the career of an “in and outer” looks like and makes a strong case for experience serving as the primary criteria for political appointments. 

2. Facts Matter   

Carter was trained as a scientist (as were former Defense Secretaries Harold Brown and William Perry). Carter writes, “I am a scientist by inclination and training—which means that a policy of using hard facts as the basis for action is deeply ingrained in me.” Carter’s first experiences with Defense involved work on the controversial issues of where to base MX missiles, the Star Wars missile defense program, and the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction initiative. “I was exposed early and often to one of the central challenges faced by any government policy-maker: figuring out how to make solidly fact-based decisions in an atmosphere of intense, emotional, often vitriolic political debate—and how to win enough support for those decisions that they can be effectively carried out for the good of the country,” he writes.

Carter’s reflections on the use of facts in decision making is indeed timely. He writes, “In times of extreme partisan polarization, those in leadership roles may feel tempted to skew their judgements according to what is ideologically correct or politically expedient. It may work for a while—but plans made without due regard for fact generally backfire, reflecting the way reality ultimately takes revenge on those who try to ignore it.”  

Carter concludes, “The truth matters—and in most cases, in the long run, the truth wins out. At least, that has generally been the case in my public career until now.”  

3. Preparation Matters  

One cannot read Inside the Five-Sided Box without noting the importance of preparation on two levels—individual and organizational. Both Carter and the Defense Department take preparation seriously.   As an executive, Carter discusses the importance of preparing adequately for congressional hearings, press briefings, and meetings. He writes:

“We’ve all seen how being unprepared for a curveball from an influential representative or senator can get a cabinet officer in trouble, generating a needless controversy that might take weeks to defuse. I preferred to invest my time, thought, and energy beforehand and so prevent such controversies from ever arising . . . While preparing for a press appearance, I generally composed my own material . . . When a major announcement was in the offering, I would often devote most of a weekend to composing a first draft, since it was impossible to fit the job into a busy workweek.”

This same discipline and preparation are also seen within the department and throughout the military services. While it is clearly the department’s “job” to always be prepared, Carter devotes a chapter to the key ingredients of readiness. Many other federal departments and agencies could learn from the department’s approach to preparing for its key mission. 

4. People Matter  

The final section of the book is titled “People Matter Most.” While many memoirs of political executives focus primarily on their policy-making initiatives, Carter’s memoir focuses on people—troops, the department’s public servants, and his personal staff. Throughout the book, he is generous in singly out (naming names) the people with whom he worked closely on Defense initiatives. Many memoirs give the impression that there are just three or four people in addition to the author working on these important issues. For those who know government well, people do indeed matter and the success of any leader is dependent on how well they manage and lead their workforce. 

Memoirs range widely in the quality of the author’s insights. For future political and career executives, Ash Carter’s offers many valuable lessons.  

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is