What Gates’ Guidelines Really Mean

Posted: June 21, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Rumsfeld’s Rules or Gates’ Guidance?

Julian Barnes, writing at the Wall Street Journal, lays out Robert Gate’s 7 Rules for Managing the Pentagon.  The WSJ effort is a part of the SecDef’s victory lap which has transcended the media, the DoD bureaucracy, and the world.

While it would be imprecise to say the Pentagon can’t be managed—after all, cats and chickens can be managed, right?—the Pentagon is  more than just a bit unwieldy and Gates has done an admirable job. 

So off we go:

Guideline No. 1:  Symbols matter. Mr. Gates is a Kremlinologist by training, Studying the Soviet Union convinced him that people watch what leaders do, and getting the symbolism right can help win people over. At the Pentagon, rather than calling the combatant commanders to him all the time, Mr. Gates made a point of visiting them.

What Gates really means: symbols do indeed matter.  That’s why we have wiring diagrams and organizational charts, why the military wears uniforms (it adds authority and rank makes it easy to discern who the leader-by-position is) and why other perks like office space, parking, drivers, aides, and execs are always a part of the mix. 

But the most significant symbols are your position and authority, your budget, and the size of your entourage.  It isn’t the symbolism of whether you go to the theater or whether the commanders come to Washington. Visiting the commanders (and the troops) falls along the line between obligation/right thing to do and good idea. But consider that Robert McNamara no doubt went to Vietnam any number of times and to what beneficial effect?  Maybe McNamara didn’t really listen…

Guideline No. 2: Listen to the professionals. Mr. Rumsfeld was criticized for running roughshod over the opinion of the Pentagon’s admirals and generals.

What Gates really means: listening is good but professional debate and disagreement are often necessary.  However, if all you do is agree with what the professionals are saying, someone is redundant.  Rumsfeld’s bigger problem was that once the novelty wore off, he was perceived as an arrogant, uncaring, holy terror (is that the same as “roughshod”?).

Guideline No. 3: Hold the professionals accountable. In the wake of the 2007 scandal over poor care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Mr. Gates earned a reputation for quickly firing people. But he notes he never fired people for not knowing about a problem. He forced people out after they failed to fix problems once they came to light.

What Gates really means: because the DoD and the military services tend to do things by exception (and normally a big exception is required, like flying live nuclear weapons from Minot to Barksdale instead of the inert ones), small mistakes pile up until big ones are finally made.  It’s too often because leadership doesn’t know what’s going on writ large (which includes the mission as well as not knowing about problems) and because the institutions themselves seldom provides timely feedback or correct things on the spot.  Why?  Often it has to do with a lack of access to leadership (regarding decisions) or a lack of resources.  Success: all it takes is time and money…

Guideline No. 4: Come alone, work with the existing team. Mr. Gates fell in on Mr. Rumsfeld’s team. And save for a few core people from the Bush administration that Mr. Gates asked to keep, he allowed the Obama administration to choose its own Pentagon political appointments.

What Gates really means: yes, you must play the hand you’ve been dealt, which might include standing pat.  After all, people prefer to deal with the devil they know versus the devils they don’t know.  Because Gates held great credibility, he was able to keep those who he valued most or could do much good.  The current Secretary of the Air Force, for example, was allowed to remain in place in order to try and achieve a level of organizational stability following a USAF leadership decapitation.

Guideline No. 5: Lay out the vision, let the experts execute. Mr. Gates relished making decisions, taking in all the information he could about a problem then deciding where the Department should go. But he was not a micro-manager, and he left the details of how a decision should be executed to the military.

What Gates really means: the military services are generally not very good at things like ‘establishing a vision.’  Why?  Because the military seldom deals in the political realm; because the military doesn’t particularly value that type of thinking or behavior; and, because they don’t have the networks, education, or experiences that are likely to make them successful in the ‘vision’ arena which is largely politically driven.  Many (most? almost all?) military issues are action, resource, and compliance oriented.

Guideline No. 6: Speak to all the layers of organization. Mr. Gates spread his ideas, like increasing the Air Force’s emphasis on drones, not just by ordering changes at the top, but also by speaking to young officers at the service academies and the war colleges, seeding his ideas in a new generation of leaders.

What Gates really means: you may be obliged to speak to all layers of the organization, but you have to order the changes at the top.  And if you have to ‘fire’ a Chief of Staff of the Air Force and a Secretary of the Air Force, then so be it.  You can’t fire a team but you can fire a coach.  And then you can address the team at an off-site, town hall, speech, or some other such forum.

Guideline No. 7: Leave behind strong leaders. Mr. Gates said he worked hard to remake the Army, change its focus from major combat operations, to a broader array of missions including low intensity conflicts and training of local security forces. And he said thanks to the leaders he has promoted, like Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. Martin Dempsey, there is little chance the Army will go back to its old ways.

What Gates really means: leave behind smart leaders because the institutional culture is much more profound than the strength of the leaders.  In fact, I’d offer if every four-star in the military was felled by a heart attack today, the American public wouldn’t notice any difference.  Allies?  A teeny bit, but not too much.

The national security bet has been made that the threat of major state-on-state war has and will continue to diminish.  Is that a ‘smart’ bet or not?  If and when conditions the bet was made under change (which might happen with little warning), the nation had better be able to first count on the traditional core competencies of its military.

Because it’s difficult or impossible to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of those who lead massive organizations (like the Pentagon) that lack clear measures of success (for example, is the nation more secure than it was when the Secretary took over, and if so, how much so and why?), I will choose to salute Secretary Gates as a highly capable, popular, and long-serving SecDef.  Those are perhaps the most significant measures—at this point in history—of a Secretary’s legacy.

Barnes also has a longer, unlisted piece here.


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