U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will retire next month, has discussed the difficulty of achieving goals within an organization that’s organized “to plan for war but not to fight a war.” (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did just that in his 60 Minutes sit-down—okay, not an exit interview, per se—with Katie Couric. He made one of the most insightful comments I’ve read yet about our military, the wars we’re fighting and why we may be having trouble with them all. Gates, who is retiring next month, was asked typical questions about what he learned, what needs changing and whether he had any regrets.

In response to the latter, he said the most difficult thing to deal with has been “leading a department that is organized to plan for war but not to fight a war. And so everything that I’ve wanted to do to try and help the men and women in the field I’ve had to do outside the normal Pentagon bureaucracy.”

He goes on to share examples of the armored vehicles to protect troops from roadside bombs that he procured—spending $40 billion in the process—and his mandate that it should take no more than an hour to get a wounded soldier in Afghanistan from the battlefield to a hospital. In both cases, the harsh realities of modern war were not in step with the technological and logistical plans that had been made by the bureaucrats at the Pentagon. “I’ve had to be directly involved on a week-by-week basis to make sure that it got done,” Gates went on to say. “That’s been very frustrating.”

Gates’ quandary is one many leaders find themselves trying to manage, if on a decidedly less daunting and consequential scale. Organizations that are set up to work toward one goal find their structures unprepared to deal with the crises and fire-fighting that end up becoming top priorities instead. A combination of stringent performance goals, inflexible rules and undetected ‘culture creep’ all conspire to leave behind a rigid organizational structure that can’t switch directions when crises erupt. As a result, leaders have to go around the very bureaucracy that is supposed to help them, but turns out to get in their way.

What’s worse, as Gates mentions, fighting such an unyielding system uses up the time and talents of the most senior and talented people on staff. It is only these folks who have the power to work outside of the bureaucracy, and it may be the only way to get things done. But it is also a total misuse and waste of such senior leaders’ time.

It’s a good thing, of course, that our military is not set up with an agenda to fight wars, but to plan for them when we do get drawn in. But the best organizations must be able to turn on a dime, switching between preparation and crisis modes and quickly assessing the changing needs the two require. If that bureaucracy is so inflexible that it hinders the very goal it is supposed to be planning for, then Gates’ regret is likely an indicator that something is horribly wrong.

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