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Chancellor Robert Gates discusses leadership strategies, favorite presidents, new book

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February 9, 2016

12:32 PM

College of William and Mary Chancellor Robert Gates ’65 spoke about his new book, “A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service,” in Phi Beta Kappa Hall Thursday evening.

“It’s a book about people and how to lead them where they often don’t want to go,” Gates said. “It’s about how a leader can make an institution better, both for those who work there and for those they serve. It’s about improving lives.”

After an introduction from Student Assembly President Yohance Whitaker ’16, Gates thanked the audience for attending the talk as it was raining outside.

“A couple of weeks ago, I was in Washington, D.C. during the blizzard,” Gates said. “Washington was paralyzed after the blizzard. Just like it was paralyzed before the blizzard. In fact, the only thing not frozen in Washington is Iran’s assets.”

Gates read an excerpt from the book and took several questions from Whitaker and the audience afterwards, which ranged from inquiries about his own leadership experience at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense, to his thoughts on the 2016 presidential election.

Regarding the current national political climate, he said that Republican candidate and businessman Donald Trump and Democratic candidate United States Senator Bernie Sanders have tapped into legitimate national frustrations over dysfunctional public and private institutions.  However, Gates said he condemned the extreme rhetoric that has characterized this race.

“The candidates are primarily focused on primal scream therapy, rather than actual solutions,” Gates said.  “… Some of the foreign policy and national security statements by some of the front-runners, especially on the Republican side, would embarrass a middle schooler … I think in this election, we’ve sunk to a new low. And I would say that across the entire political spectrum, not just one party or the other.”

He said his book focuses on strategies for improving institutions, as well as cultivating personal traits in leaders focused on reform. Gates emphasized the importance of humor and avoiding over-the-top, emotional outbursts as a leader. He spoke about one incident, detailed in the book, in which he reprimanded a subordinate in his office during his time at the CIA.

“This individual had made a really egregious mistake,” Gates said. “For theatrical purposes, I slammed my hand down on my desk and then told the person to get out of my office and get out quick. And the reason I wanted him out of the office was because I thought I had broken my hand. And I was hopping around the office holding my hand, alternately laughing and crying. Crying because my hand hurt so much, laughing because I realized how ridiculous I looked. I never did that again.”

You could be the toughest, most demanding boss or leader on the planet, and still treat people with respect and dignity. — Chancellor Robert Gates ’65

Gates said that his book stresses avoiding micromanagement and boosting employee satisfaction, personal esteem and job mobility. He encouraged students in the audience to avoid burning bridges at all costs in their professional lives.

“You could be the toughest, most demanding boss or leader on the planet, and still treat people with respect and dignity,” Gates said.

Whitaker asked Gates to elaborate on a disastrous meeting he called as a new CIA official. Gates had written a memo about improving analytical work at the agency, which he was asked to present to his colleagues.

“In the space of an hour, I managed to antagonize every single person, even the ones who agreed with my diagnosis,” Gates said. “Because I hadn’t talked with anybody, I hadn’t consulted anybody, I hadn’t shared my idea and gotten any feedback, prepared people for dramatic change or anything else.”

Gates also described an encounter with an unnamed United States Senator, who had explicitly requested a private security meeting, sans security and staffers. Gates said the senator asked him about the existence of extraterrestrial life.

“I said, ‘Oh, you mean the aliens?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And I courageously said, ‘Air force handles that,’” Gates said.

Gates encouraged students to pursue public service careers despite the drawbacks. He noted that, while volunteerism is a major part of campus culture, fewer young people are pursuing public service as a career.

“Young people don’t want to endure constipated bureaucracy, where change is very difficult and suggestions are rejected, particularly if you haven’t been around a long time,” Gates said.

Prompted by a question from the audience about the role of the United States in world affairs, he said that the government relies too much on military force, having decreased its emphasis on the tools of soft power after the Cold War. He compared the global role of the United States to his position as Secretary of Defense in the White House.

“I never had to be worried about being excluded from a meeting,” Gates said. “I never had to use my elbows, because as Secretary of Defense, I knew I had all the resources. I had all the guns and almost all the money. And most of the people. As Condi Rice used to tell me, I had more people in military bands than she had in the Foreign Service. I was not very pushy because I knew I would’ve always been involved … I feel that way about the United States. The United States is so overwhelmingly powerful in so many different ways that I don’t think we need to keep telling the rest of the world that we’re indispensable, because everybody knows it. We don’t need to keep telling people how powerful we are, because everybody knows it. We could do with a lot more subdued rhetoric … We can play a leading role in the world, but we don’t have to keep saying so.”

He used United States President Dwight Eisenhower as an example of a leader who handled foreign policy crises without flexing military force.

“The use of military force has become too easy for American presidents,” Gates said. “And they have used it not as a last resort, but as an early option. I think that’s wrong.”

One audience member asked Gates about dealing with toxic leaders in his years of public service.

“First of all, I think I have some familiarity with narcissism at the top,” Gates said. “I’ve dealt with Congress for 30 years. I also worked for eight presidents. When the egotist is at the top, it’s tough.”

He discussed his experience of watching senior military officials run into trouble due to their ego trips. Gates noted the fact that as Secretary of Defense, his motorcade had two cars, while many of his generals commandeered seven or eight cars.

“I would joke about the fact I lived next door to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff,” Gates said. “He had several enlisted people working for him, as cooks and yard people and so on and I didn’t have anybody. And I was his boss. And as I put it in an earlier book, he’d be heading out to play tennis and I’d be out in the front lawn watering the damn flowers. One time there was a big storm and a huge limb came down in my yard.  I waited a couple of days for the Navy to take it away. They didn’t. So I told my security guys, ‘Drag it over to his lawn, it’ll be gone in an hour.’ And they did. And it was.”

The use of military force has become too easy for American presidents. And they have used it not as a last resort, but as an early option. I think that’s wrong  — Chancellor Robert Gates ’65

Gates’s book emphasized the importance of humility in good leaders and also noted that effective leaders should interact with all levels of their organization. The former Secretary of Defense reflected on how he would meet with soldiers to learn more about their lives. He described a discussion about military dress with one particular soldier and how it stuck out to him.

“He said, ‘Well, the real problem is that the crotch in the [uniform] is too weak. And when you’re jumping over fences and crawling under fences and stuff it tears out. You know, it’s not a problem in the summer. But in the winter it can get  uncomfortable.’ And I said, ‘Well, I sure wouldn’t have heard that at the Pentagon,’” Gates said.

Having worked for every president since Johnson except for Clinton, Gates said that United States Presidents Bush and Obama were both polarizing leaders, as they demonized their political opponents and failed to dedicate enough time and energy to ensure a positive relationship with Congress. He praised US Presidents Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan for facilitating bipartisan cooperation. Gates went on to list his favorite presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

“None of those men ever thought he was the smartest man in the room, but they were self-confident enough and comfortable enough in their own skin that they were eager to surround themselves with independent-minded people they thought were smarter than they were, so they could get their advice and then integrate that with their own experience and instincts,” Gates said. “Washington was very sensitive about his lack of a formal education because he was surrounded by people like Jefferson and Adams and others. That didn’t make him lack self-confidence in dealing with those people.”

One audience member asked Gates whether he would ever consider running for president someday.

“Some day? My next birthday will be 73,” Gates said. “And, no offense to Senator Sanders, but being in your seventies is way too old to be president of the United States … My usual flip answer to this is my wife knows your name and she knows where you live.”

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About Author

Áine Cain

Senior Staff Writer Aine Cain '16 is a history major from Bronxville, NY. She was previously Editor-in-Chief, News Editor, Variety Editor and an Associate Variety Editor. Follow @ainesane on Twitter.