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Bob Gates, an unsung leader

Sheila Murray Bethel
Sheila Murray Bethel is CEO of the Bethel Leadership Institute and author of the 2009 book A New Breed Of Leaders: Eight Leadership Qualities that Matter Most in the Real World.

John Edwards belated confession yesterday that he is, in fact, the father of his former mistress's daughter, shows how reluctant many leaders -- even those who aspire to our land's highest office -- are to embrace accountability.

Yet while these headlines grab our attention, other leaders labor quietly in the trenches. In my view, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is one such unsung leader. When he is addressing a problem or giving a speech he does not use hyperbole or divisive language or code words to satisfy some special interest group. His calm firm words speak volumes about his steadiness. Speaking plainly is one hallmark of accountable leaders.

In 2007 when Carl Levin, Chairman of the Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee, along with several Republican Senators told Gates that then-Joint Chief of Staff Chair General Peter Pace would face a difficult if not impossible confirmation process, he listened carefully and consulted with the members of the Senate. Gates chose Admiral Michael Mullen., apparently understanding that all politics contain compromise, and that he was accountable to the Senate. He chose to save a battle for another time, and Levin called him a breath of fresh air for his openness and cooperation.

Such a willingness to compromise does not mean Gates is a push-over. He understands the power of seeing all sides of an issue. He values input and seeks to think strategically. His job is to make firm decisions and then stand by them, often in the face of much criticism. His experience in the CIA, surviving many scandals involving his superiors, gives him a distinctly long-term perspective on getting things done.

In one of his first trips to Iraq, for example, Gates visited a junk yard of military vehicles that had been inadequately armed. They were a stark reminder that our young men and women had been inside of those mangled vehicles and had suffered the consequence. An aide accompanying him said he was silent and determined.

As the Secretary of Defense, he took action. He returned home and immediately went to work requiring the Pentagon to break through all the bureaucratic red tape and send properly armed, bomb resistant-life saving, vehicles to our troops.

When he went before Congress recently to answer questions about the troop increase in Afghanistan he did not duck responsibility. He does not use emotional words like victory or a childish phrase like "slam dunk." Nor does he parse words. He said "We expect that this is a several-year process, but it is not an open-ended commitment." He didn't sugar coat it, saying; "this is gong to be a heavy lift." He acknowledged that the Karzai government was a major problem, evading its duty to clean up corruption.

When we compare Gates and the recent scandals of leaders engaged in fraud, disloyalty, and irresponsibility, it is clear how the image of American leaders across sectors has been tarnished. Each new scandal makes it appear our leaders are in a race to the bottom of our moral imperatives of truth and honesty. Left unimpeded, unethical behavior creates havoc.

This current crisis of accountability speak volumes about our personal and national ethics and integrity. When one of us loses credibility because of distrust, we all suffer. But quiet examples of accountable leadership build that trust back up, one act at a time.

By Sheila Murray Bethel

 |  January 21, 2010; 9:29 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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