By Kevin Meyer
Today's Parade Sunday supplement has a good interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, where he has some choice comments on leadership.
As the former president of Texas A&M University, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates holds a solemn distinction among top federal officials: He is the only man in America to have signed the diplomas of young college graduates, then signed orders sending some of them into combat, and then signed letters to their families saying they weren't coming home. The key to ensuring that young American lives are not sacrificed unnecessarily on future battlefields, Gates believes, lies in the development of a new generation of ethical, independent-minded military commanders.
Gates, 67, who is expected to retire next year, has his critics, but many think he will be remembered as the best defense secretary since his hero, George Marshall.
So what are his thoughts on leadership?
These kids are the next great generation. But how do we avoid suppressing them when they come back to a desk job after the war? I'm trying to instill the importance of independent thinking and moral courage. If you see something that needs to be fixed or done better, persist — respectfully, loyally — but don't give up. So much of leadership training is about team-building and collaboration. I say, "That's all very important, but there will come a time when you will have to stand alone and say, 'This is wrong' or, 'This is my responsibility — I don't agree with you, and I'm going to do what I think is right.'"
That's the importance of individual leadership. We spend so much time on teams and teambuilding that we sometimes forget the value of the individual. Gates doesn't.
Look in all the parks in the whole world, and you'll never find a statue built for a committee. Whether it's in business or anyplace else, it requires one person who has a vision and then has the ability to execute that vision.
You have to have a person at the top of the heap who will say, "Push back. Don't be afraid to push back." Offer candor, encourage candor, stand up for what you think is right. Don't be buffaloed, because generals — and secretaries — can be wrong.
How do we grow that individual leadership and courage?
That's always a problem in big institutions. In the years I was with the National Security Council, I had the opportunity to go to the State Department or come to Defense, and I went back to the CIA. It's a bureaucracy, too, but I felt that it was by far the most entrepreneurial organization in the government.
We're more self-aware and self-critical than any country in history. That doesn't mean we're a bunch of geniuses. It just means — due, in no small part, to a free press — that we recognize our problems faster than anybody else and move to correct them faster.
The individual courage to stand up, identify and face problems, and find solutions. Are we encouraging that in our organizations? Or stifling it with layers of bureaucracy and ego?