Robert Gates on the Essentials of Leading Change
IN A TIME when change is not just inevitable, but must be encouraged and led, Robert Gates’ A Passion for Leadership is a must read.
Gates has led and continues to lead in a wide variety of organizations and organizational cultures. His collected wisdom serves to inspire us to lead others where they don’t often want to go and improve people’s lives. In addition to serving on numerous corporate boards, he has served as a United States secretary of defense, a director of the CIA, served eight presidents, served as president of Texas A&M University, and is currently the chancellor of the College of William and Mary and president of the Boy Scouts of America.
The one feature of the institutions with strong cultures he has led has been a strong sense of family. He describes it as a “commitment to taking care of one another at all times but especially in adversity or times of need.” All great cultures do have this sense of family.
At the same time, it is easy then to become insular and tolerate long-standing but inappropriate practices and behaviors because they are a tradition. It is important to define what traditions must be defended and those that must be changed to enable future success. “A good leader,” writes Gates, “must keep coming up with new perspectives, new ideas, new improvements. Only a committed leader can keep an organization—a bureaucracy—on its toes, continuously adapting, innovating, improving.”
Gates recognizes that we need leaders at all levels in an organization that are able to mobilize the willing and bring about productive change. More often than not those leaders are there, they just need to be liberated by the person at the top in an organizational culture of leadership. Not surprisingly, he identifies listening as the most critical thing a new leader can do. “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
CIA director Bill Casey gave him some good advice early on. “Bill advised me not to focus on what I disagreed with but to see if there were one or two kernels of information or wisdom worth seizing on—finding a little wheat amid all the chaff. Just because 95 percent of what someone says is nuts, he would say, laughing, doesn’t mean you should ignore the 5 percent that might be useful. (He was always handing me pamphlets or books to read, warning, ‘This guy is crazy, but there’s an interesting idea on page x.’)”
To be an effective leader, one must demonstrate from the start an understanding of and respect for the role and views of the career employees in an organization and be clear that the new boss intends to make them participants and partners in reforming the place. This is the best possible preparation of the bureaucratic battlefield.And that doesn’t mean just rearranging the organizational chart. “The main target is how people do their work, not where.”
Gates offers from experience, strategies, techniques, and principles for implementing change. He includes many examples from the organizations he has served.
Leading change is hard work and can’t be done from on-high. Gates cautions that while micro-knowledge is necessary, micromanagement is not. “For a leader to get the big things right depends a great deal on knowing the little things, especially when implementing difficult and controversial change. Without micro-knowledge, you are the prisoner of your bureaucracy and your staff, and they will play you like a cheap fiddle.”
☙ You can be the toughest, most demanding leader on the planet and still treat people with respect and dignity.
☙ A self-confident leader doesn’t cast such a large shadow that no one else can grow.
☙ Leaders who think they don’t need frank, critical advice every day are usually doomed.
☙ To change bureaucracies effectively, a leader must first make his people proud and eager to excel.
☙ Formal education can make someone a good manager, but it cannot make a leader, because leadership is more about the heart then the head.
☙ Core to leadership is the ability to relate to people—to empathize, understand, inspire, and motivate.
☙ If you fundamentally don’t like or respect most people, or if you think you are superior to others, chances are you won’t be much of a leader.
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