Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Robert Gates on Leadership

Over at the Commentary Contentions blog, Peter Wehner reprints some passages from a speech that outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave to the graduates of the U. S. Naval Academy. Link here.

At a time when the male of the human species is increasingly subject to withering criticism for bad and sometimes appalling behavior, it is refreshing to read about the positive side of the masculine ethos.

As it happens, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield comments on the same question here.

I have posted a bit about commencement advice, and I find that Gates’ words are among the more interesting and compelling that I have seen.

While touching some of the most salient, and not self-evident points about leadership, Gates also offers a primer in basic ethical principles.

He begins with self-confidence, which should not be confused with self-esteem or the other kinds of self-puffery that the therapy culture has been promoting.

Gates explains: “Self-confidence is still another quality of leadership. Not the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see and read about all the time. Rather, it is the quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success. The ability to stand in the shadow and let others receive attention and accolades. A leader is able to make decisions but then delegate and trust others to make things happen. This doesn’t mean turning your back after making a decision and hoping for the best. It does mean trusting in people at the same time you hold them accountable. The bottom line: a self-confident leader doesn’t cast such a large shadow that no one else can grow.”

A good point, but who do you think he had in mind when he was talking about the “chest-thumping, strutting egotism” that refuses to stand in the shadow? Could he be referring to his boss?

Next, courage: “A further quality of leadership is courage: not just the physical courage of the seas, of the skies and of the trenches, but moral courage. The courage to chart a new course; the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular; the courage to stand alone; the courage to act; the courage as a military officer to ‘speak truth to power.’

“In most academic curricula today, and in most business, government, and military training programs, there is great emphasis on team-building, on working together, on building consensus, on group dynamics. You have learned a lot about that. But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time will inevitably come when you must stand alone. When alone you must say, ‘This is wrong’ or ‘I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.’ Don’t kid yourself—that takes real courage.”

What better advice could he give to Annapolis graduates? First, that leadership has a vertical and a horizontal dimension. Team building and consensus are well and good, but eventually someone has to take charge. Don't get suckered into thinking that organizations can function effectively by following the circle-of-feelings model.
Also, Gates emphasizes that true courage does not involve macho displays of derring-do, but the ability to stand alone as a leader, to chart a new course, to set a new policy, to do what is right even when it is not expedient, and to risk disagreeing with those who have more power.

Then, Gates addresses integrity: “Another essential quality of leadership is integrity. Without this, real leadership is not possible. Nowadays, it seems like integrity—or honor or character—is kind of quaint, a curious, old-fashioned notion. We read of too many successful and intelligent people in and out of government who succumb to the easy wrong rather than the hard right—whether from inattention or a sense of entitlement, the notion that rules are not for them. But for a real leader, personal virtues – self-reliance, self control, honor, truthfulness, morality—are absolute. These are the building blocks of character, of integrity – and only on that foundation can real leadership be built.”

Integrity means following the rules even when you don’t have to, even when you can get away with not following them. It means having strong character, an ability to overcome all personal considerations in order to identify fully with your mission.

And then there is common decency: “A final quality of real leadership, I believe, is simply common decency: treating those around you – and, above all, your subordinates – with fairness and respect. An acid test of leadership is how you treat those you outrank, or as President Truman once said, ‘how you treat those who can’t talk back.’

“Whatever your military specialty might be, use your authority over others for constructive purposes, to help them – to watch out and care for them and their families, to help them improve their skills and advance, to ease their hardships whenever possible. All of this can be done without compromising discipline or mission or authority. Common decency builds respect and, in a democratic society, respect is what prompts people to give their all for a leader, even at great personal sacrifice.”

This is a variant on an old principle. If you are looking for a job you should know that you will be judged according to how you treat the waiter in the restaurant or the company receptionist.

People who lack decency talk down to their subordinates, because they can get away with it.

Always keep in mind, that if you fail to treat your subordinates with respect a time will come when you need them to do something for you, and you will discover that they are not there.

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