A Passion for Leadership

Title:                      A Passion for Leadership

Author:                 Robert M. Gates

Gates, Robert Michael (2016). A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change And Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2015010209

E897.4.G37 A3 2016


  • Why bureaucracies so often fail us—Where you want to go: “the vision thing”—Formulating a strategy—Techniques for implementing change—It’s always about people—Stakeholders: friends and foes—The agent of change: “mirror, mirror on the wall”—Money, money, money: reforming in scarce times—Reform: the never-ending story—A flaming heart.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      September 25, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Former DCI Robert Gates begins A Passion For Leadership with a simple truism:”Everybody hates bureaucracies, even those who work in them.” (p. 89) The reasons, he assures us, are neither complicated nor profound “as bureaucratic tentacles extend their reach into every nook and cranny of America, the litany of their incompetence and arrogance grows exponentially.” (p. 4) The irony is that many have “become indispensable,” especially at the national level. P. (4) Gates quickly gets specific, citing examples that include the 9/11 intelligence failures, the IRS, the failure to plan for a post-invasion Iraq, inconsistent rules for airport security, and “the entrenched cultures that make real change difficult” (p. 5)-to name just a few. The influence of bureaucracies on “the everyday experiences of Americans makes a compelling case that [they] do not work and cannot be reformed.” (p. 6) It gets worse when “elective bodies with oversight responsibilities also are unreliable, unpredictable, and even irresponsible when it come to the lifeblood of public institutions—funding … And when you toss in the mindless acts of congressional misgovernance—such as shutdowns, furloughs, and sequestration—and micro-management masquerading as oversight, just keeping the doors open is a challenge.” (p. 10) A final contributing factor “is the uneven quality of the individuals elected or appointed to fulfill” key positions. (p. 11)

And yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, Gates concludes it doesn’t have to be this way. In A Passion for Leadership he offers “leaders in bureaucracies-public and private, at all levels of leadership-specific ideas and techniques that can enable them to successfully reform and improve their organizations.” (p. 20) Drawing on his experiences “leading transformational change” (p. 10) at the CIA, as president of Texas A&M University, Secretary of Defense, chancellor of William and Mary College, and president of the Boy Scouts of America, Gates argues that “reform is not a luxury but a necessity” and that his book “is about people and how to lead them where they often don’t want to go.” (p. 21)

Before he provides examples of how he approached his leadership challenges, Gates considers two of the 54 dictionary definitions of the term “leader” or “leadership.” Calling a leader “a pipe for conducting hot air [is] an apt definition perhaps for Washington, DC,” but does not suit his purposes: rather, his definition is “one who guides; one who shows the way.” (p. 23) The principal characteristic a leader must possess, writes Gates, is a bold vision of the organization’s future, and “a realistic path to attaining that future,” with the understanding that the “transformation must start at the top.” (p. 24)

Each of the 10 chapters in the book covers factors Gates deems essential for a successful leader, with examples of how these factors should and should not be applied. In the latter category, he reveals how he approached the need for change in the Directorate of Intelligence at CIA when he became its director in 1981. He filled the auditorium with managers and analysts, lectured them on their deficiencies, and informed them how they would be corrected—with the result being that he managed to alienate everyone, even those who agreed with his ideas. He admits that “the resentment smoldered for a long time” (p. 41) and his approach to reform changed forever.

Some of the topics Gates covers in the book are the risks of reorganizing to achieve operational benefit, encouraging the use of task forces to achieve specific goals, the importance of the “people factor” in all decisions, setting positive examples, the necessity of delegating authority, and the value of humor. In a surprising editorial gesture, Gates takes the somewhat stunning approach of defying convention with sentences such as this: “A leader’s heart must be on fire with belief in what she seeks to do. Changing institutions is a battle, and she must undertake it with courage. She must believe in it before she can persuade others to believe in it.” (p. 227) While there are one or two uses of “he/she” (where either could be employed), the female pronoun is dominant throughout the book—without comment from the author.

A Passion for Leadership is full of valuable guidance and, while it does not tell how to train a leader, it does offer criteria that defines a good one.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 124-125). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

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