Robert Gates on Leadership

Robert Gates, who served four and a half years as defense secretary, was not always a good manager. When he was head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s analytical division, he was considered a bully. His managing technique turned many subordinates against the changes he wanted to implement. He learned many lessons in his first senior management job.

Gates has developed important managing guidelines. He understands the need to listen to professionals and hold them accountable. Gates also believes that it is imperative to show respect to the professionals who staff and help lead an institution. Otherwise, managers will find their ideas ignored or actively resisted. Gates has learned that symbolic gestures and symbols are important.

Current and former staff explained, “Mr. Gates has an open leadership style and doesn’t dominate meetings, but relishes making decisions at their conclusion.” He encourages participation until a decision is made and then expects people to adhere to his decision.

Gates believes that new leaders should not bring a large group of their own people into a new job. Instead, they should arrive alone. While being the defense secretary, Gates wanted his ideas to be embraced by all military statuses: mid-ranking military officers and junior military officers to top generals. Gates worked to ensure his ideas were embraced by teaching classes at the service academies and giving speeches to various war colleges. Furthermore, studying the Soviets taught Gates that “when multiple generations of lower-ranking officials believe in reforms, they are much harder to undo.”

To learn more, read the June 20, 2011, Wall Street Journal article entitled “Basic Training: How Gates Grew” by Julian E. Barnes.

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