The news was not unexpected: Gates has long signaled that he planned to step down this year, launching a domino effect of senior leadership changes that has had pundits guessing about his replacement—and who would replace his replacement—for months. And on the surface, at least, the Panetta and Petraeus moves should pass muster on their merits.
Panetta, who ran the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton era, will bring years of experience managing and trimming down budgets to an agency faced with budget reforms and cuts as one of its biggest upcoming tasks. Meanwhile, Petraeus’s experience in Afghanistan will offer him critical intelligence of a region that is surely the CIA’s biggest challenge. More broadly, Obama knows and trusts both men by now, and has watched them perform well under pressure. The institutional knowledge and political expertise both men have gained working with the administration in recent years—not to mention the fact that Senate confirmation should not be an issue—makes them an obvious choice.
Right? Well, maybe. Their skills and experience may offer both Petraeus and Panetta unparalleled resumes. Their knowledge of the administration’s inner workings may make their jobs—and their boss’s job—easier. And the trust and relationship built up over time between the president and each man may go a long way to making the transition run smoothly.
But as I’ve written about before, leadership is not necessarily a portable skill. And usually, that’s a direct result of organizational culture. Cathie Black learned the hard way that state education agencies are nothing like media companies. Bob Nardelli discovered that retail companies are wholly unlike industrial manufacturing giants. And the Department of Defense is surely different from the CIA.
While both practice discretion and restraint, and the military has its own intelligence operations, the levels of it at the CIA are far higher. While CIA officers operate in secrecy, members of the armed forces are typically required to be public about their roles, wearing a uniform that announces their duties. And as with any organization, there are the day-to-day acronyms, ways of working and interoffice political clashes that any outside leader will have to learn.
The moves are not unheard of by any means. Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA between 2006 and 2009, was a military general. And while it’s been 40 years since the head of the CIA left to become secretary of defense, Robert Gates is a recent example of someone who’s had extensive experience in central intelligence before taking on his current role, which he’s widely regarded to have performed in very well.
That precedent should help reassure Obama that Panetta will be able to bridge the cultural differences between the two organizations, and that Petraeus will be able to do likewise. With the right amount of listening, outreach and strong relationships, it’s certainly possible. As long as both men realize that what they bring to their reported new jobs—their skills, their experience and their relationship with the president—is less important than what they learn about the inner workings of their new one, there’s no reason either one can’t succeed.
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