How (Not) to Run the Pentagon

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Robert M. Gates, the former CIA director tapped by President Bush to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary, would bring to the Pentagon some clear ideas about how to lead and reform unwieldy public institutions. In a recent speech at Texas A&M University, where Gates serves as president, the nominee cautioned against new leaders arbitrarily imposing their ambitious agendas, only to witness the reversal of their efforts immediately after they leave.

"It is a fact of life in institutions that leaders come and go. Sometimes when they leave, there is regret among the professionals and staff who remain. More often, the celebrations begin before the departing executive's taillights are out of sight. Some leaders arrive with ambitious agendas and seek to impose them by fiat -- unilaterally and from above. They usually provoke either paralyzing opposition and internal warfare, or see the reversal of every action immediately after their departure. We can all think of specific examples of both at other universities over the last year or two.

What, then, is the formula for successful leadership in public institutions, above all a great university? I believe it begins with a leader's recognition that his or her time in office is finite and that the institution and those who carry out its mission endure. They were there long before the leader arrived, and will be there long after he or she departs. Whether at CIA or at a university, the professionals outlast both good and bad leaders.

I have long believed that the secret to successful leadership of public institutions -- especially in leading change -- is the involvement in decision-making of those who carry out the institution's mission: involvement in setting the agenda, involvement in shaping options, involvement in decisions, and involvement in implementation."

-- Robert M. Gates, Sept. 8, 2006

© 2006 The Washington Post Company