A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service
I work in state government and have seen all the "barnacles" that Gates describes. I am closely observing how our newly-elected Governor, Matt Bevin (R), with no prior political experience, tries to lead Kentucky's executive branch bureaucracy through transformative change (my observations at the bottom of this review). I find it encouraging that a manager of billion dollar budgets would write a book specifically targeting leadership and management in government bureaucracies. He admits that much in the book is "common sense," but adds that the reader may be surprised how little actually exists in government management; Gates is exactly right, unfortunately. However, I felt that this book fell short of Gates' goal: making government a more encouraging place for Millennials to want to work, rather than shunning it as they increasingly do. He does little to prescribe anything specific toward the concerns of Millennials. I listened to Gates' recent interview about the book at the Council on Foreign Relations; he does a better job critiquing specific leaders and policies and stating the purpose of the book in the interview than he does in his writing. In his memoir Duty (which I loved), Gates was rather revealing in his criticism of specific policymakers and leaders; there is nothing like that in this book. I recommend Duty over this one, especially for more specifics about how Gates had to work and negotiate the Defense budget with the White House. Someone once said "where you find a leader, you find a reader," but Gates doesn't mention many books that were influential to his leadership-- a big disappointment, if not a red flag.
"Everyone hates bureaucracy," even those who work in them their entire lives. Gates worked in three different bureaucracies to trim the inefficiency and advance them into more modernity-- The CIA, The Defense Department, and Texas A&M. 95% of the book focuses on these three institutions, while the rest is autobiography and some mentions of the Boy Scouts and a few companies (Chili's, Starbucks) for which he serves on the Board. In government, you're usually legally limited in what you can offer by way of pay raises and advancement. Most leaders are short-term appointees, even if short-term means a full four-year term. He or she is then limited in what they can do, the budget he inherits, and not inclined to rock the boat. Gates had to reform the Defense Department's employee review system, it seems more archaic than the 360 degree method used at the State Department. In government, there is limited ability to mark someone down negatively on their performance reviews. Like Gates, I've seen supervisors inflate reviews positively in the hopes that another agency will hire the sub-standard employee away; there is little ability to fire someone.
Sec. Gates understands this environment and argues it is still possible to have transformative change and boost the morale of everyone, making the department or agency more efficient and productive. One book I kept thinking of in reading Gates' work is The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins (I highly recommend, especially if you're in a bureaucracy or an institution with any history or tradition). Gates does not give many specific prescriptions about how to go about implementing change quickly in a bureaucracy, but just some basic guidelines. Be aware that "outside ideas automatically generate antibodies within the organization." Gather input from stakeholders, inside and out, and set your goals "quickly." Make your goals known to everyone, and empower those beneath you to figure out how to accomplish them. Reach down to low-level employees for input, include them in the process. This will boost morale and give the Chief a greater understanding of how things look at the ground level. He encourages the reader to first gain respect of long-term employees and approach them with new ideas first; once they buy in, they will bring everyone else along.
Most of his "chafing against institutional tradition" stories come from Texas A&M, which is a different culture than most people outside of Texas realize. He first fought a battle to become President, his nomination was opposed by Governor Rick Perry, who made the fight personal. (Gates adds that he tried sending handwritten notes to Perry but never got a response.) When he wanted to increase racial diversity, he got pressured by university stakeholders and politicians. (Sadly, some in elected office privately agreed with him but publicly blasted him.) He simply let everyone felt the need to vent, and calmly pushed ahead because he knew it was the right thing to do. He was successful in seeing his minority initiative take hold and grow the diversity of the campus by (sadly) a large amount. He included students on his major decisions, including budgets. He reached out to many on campus, getting to know people from the bottom up before he announced any initiatives. Another initiative was to fire the AD and hire a new football coach to reinvigorate the base of football boosters and to empower Deans on their budgets and decisions. Gates moved power from trustees to a larger body that included councils made up of the deans of the colleges, requiring everyone make one-year and five-year plans by department, including specific goals of what would be accomplished in those years. He also worked to make A&M a more-recognized teaching university, initiating awards for faculty (I can't believe they didn't do this until his tenure).
Another weakness of the book is that Gates doesn't lay out his criteria for when to push back, when to compromise, and when to give in. When students started a living wage campaign, he started a working group to study the situation over the objection of certain stakeholders. While he personally disagreed with the need, he gave workers a modest raise. A&M has a large endowment plus money from Texas oil, so budgeting may not be much of a concern-- just look at what donors were willing to pony up for athletics facilities to compete with UT Austin. Where he had money, he spent it to placate his opposition, be it students or US Senators.
Gates doesn't write too much about institutional change at the CIA or Dept. of Defense. He mistakenly began his time at CIA with a scathing critique of the organization that led to hostility he would later regret-- live and learn. He would eliminate Don't Ask Don't Tell in the army and considers this a success, but omits the bit from his memoir of his anger at the Obama administration for pushing too fast and getting ahead of the formal review process previously negotiated on with the White House. Similarly, he has pushed the Boy Scouts toward more inclusive policies toward homosexuals.
The key to change is to focus on how people do their jobs, not where. Leave the organizational charts alone, focus on the efficiency of the tasks everyone actually performs. In implementing your strategy, make it clear that the outcome is the same for every goal. Form working groups and task forces so that everyone feels they are a part of the process. I was surprised he did not mention the importance of "red teams," people with an outside view to critique the assumptions and strategies. (That seems to be much more common at the CIA today than in Gates' time.) Include a clear timeline with your strategy. Gates spends an hour a day on his daily agenda alone, and how it fits into his larger strategies. Be sure to heap praise on workers at every level, but keep the BS to the minimum.
The most interesting advice comes in regards to the media and leaks: accept them, embrace them, "the media is not a hostile force." Gates would not have known troops needs for MRAPS or the scandalous conditions at the VA without the media. While he does disdain leaks of intelligence that put people in harm's way, he accepts leaks on major programs or budget decisions since it is taxpayer money and ridiculous to expect an airtight ship of thousands of employees who are affected by every cut. The leader should avoid opaqueness in the budget process, in any case. He urges political leaders not to be condescending to the media; "the media will always have the last word." Likewise, encourage candor among employees. Candor helps identify problems. He does mention that leaders who won't accept criticism or candor typically have insecurity issues and are poor leaders. Gates, however, does not talk about negativity or dealing with toxic attitudes among subordinates.
But Sec. Gates coyly explains that in diplomatic positions you have exercise self-discipline to put a lid on your candor in front of your patrons or superiors. "Never miss a good chance to shut up." "Always suppress the urge to blow up regardless of how stupid the idea is that you are hearing." Several in Congress were surprised to read of Gates' disdain for them in his memoir-- he gave no such hint of his disgust while in office. He exhorts the reader also not to be "little Stalins," those who make sure everyone obeys their whims or face punishment. He points out a few commanders and superiors he's met who were "jackasses" and Gates always told cadets they would work for at least one in their careers-- learn to deal with it and resolve not to be one yourself when you get a command. He encourages the leader to "fire incompetence instead of micromanaging it" but that contradicts his earlier understanding of how hard that is to do within the government merit system.
The book that comes closest to this one in my library is Colin Powell's It Worked for Me, which lays out his principles of management (more readable and applicable than Gates' work; interestingly, Gates doesn't mention Powell. Gates would seem to agree with Powell's principle "Don't be a busy bastard," don't be a workaholic such that your subordinates feel they have to match the effort to gain your favor. Gates did not work on Saturdays as a rule and let his subordinates go home. (I would note that Gates' successor Leon Panetta flew home to California most weekends with a similar mindset.)
Another merit to Gates' style, and perhaps something he has picked up from private companies he has worked with, is his belief that organizations should be aware of how they impact the community. He was briefed daily on conflicts between military bases and their civilian surroundings. He encourages open forums to talk to community leaders. Organizations, like their leaders, should be seen as having impeccable character. He reminds us that while the corrupt get media coverage, the best leaders have good character. Sometimes they don't get glory because they learned to compromise. He points Republicans to Ronald Reagan - Reagan said "take the deal if you can get 60" of the rest, you can come back for the rest later." Listen to views that are different, even if they are crazy. Plenty of times at Defense they would read an analysis that on its whole was "insane" but contained some kernels of truth or nuggets Gates hadn't considered. Gates closes the book with a rant on Congress for its polarization and unpopularity, further discouraging young people from considering public service.
My observation of newly-elected Governor Bevin is that his playbook is similar to Gates. He has reached down to low-level employees, letting lower-level staffers attend and voice opinions in meetings critical to forming his budget. He also encouraged all employees to email in ideas just before releasing his budget. (That maneuver was interesting because his budget decisions had already been made; perhaps some minor tweaks were made due to employee suggestions.) He invited them to his State of the Commonwealth and recognized them publicly.
Governor's Bevin's first budget contains the "intestinal fortitude" (Gates) of not budgeting to zero. While the cuts were widespread, there were some programs largely spared, so it was strategic and not completely across-the-board-- and Gates would agree with this strategy. Bevin implemented a hiring freeze, and Gates maintains such a freeze should not last longer than a year; it disrupts the flow of recruitment and replacement, and is dangerous for morale and efficiency. Further, implementation of Bevins cuts was delegated to the Cabinet Secretaries and program Commissioners. Bevin has, by and large, been slow to replace previous non-merit appointees. Gates was similar, adopting a philosophy of working with the previous administration's appointees until he could figure out who he could or could not work with.
Bevin's biggest departure from the Gates playbook has been with the media. Several writers covering the state have written of his harshness and condescension, both on the campaign trail and in office. Gates would remind Bevin that this is a long-run losing strategy because the media will always have the last word. The positives of the media (exposing corruption, finding mistakes to be corrected, etc.) outweigh the costs.
In all, I give this work 3 stars out of 5. I might highly recommend it if you are in government, but there are 100 books better than it if you work in the private sector without the same constraints. Gates leaves too much out that is critical to management.