Defense Sec. Bob Gates
Secretary of Defense Bob Gates deserves a spot in the winner's circle. He took over the Defense Department at an extremely difficult time: The war was not going well; inter-agency relations were at a standstill; and the command climate at senior levels, particularly between Secretary Rumsfeld and senior flag officers, had become dysfunctional. Secretary Gates did a number of things right.
First, on taking command, he did not make the error many new CEOs and leaders make. Rather than remove key leaders and form a "new team" of former associates, he kept the old team, and, at a time of tremendous effort by the department, spared his organization the distractions of having new bosses.
He also did not become tied up in an effort to "transform" or "reorganize" the Department. He left the management of the department to his extremely competent and experienced deputy, Gordon England. Secretary Gates focused on his major wartime challenges of ensuring support for the effort and turning around the momentum of events in the field. He focused on the critical issues, playing Mr. Outside to Secretary England's Mr. Inside.
His second achievement was reducing the zero-sum aspect of bureaucratic competition between State and Defense that existed under his predecessor. Indeed, Secretary Gates stated publicly that the Department of State needed additional fiscal resources to perform its functions in the field. Not only did this move send an important bureaucratic signal, it made clear that some efforts to counter the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan would be better performed through State than by the military.
Along with gaining inter-agency support, Secretary Gates worked issues on the Hill in a way that garnered support for both the large budgets needed to support the war and for policies we had to sustain or implement. When he disagreed with administration policy -- something he had to do on issues like Guantanamo -- he did so with subtlety and finesse, protecting and increasing his political capital.
Finally, he fixed the command climate in the Defense Department. He made it clear that poor performance in senior positions would not be tolerated, but he did it in a fair way that focused on the errors rather than on individuals. He listened. If you briefed him, you knew he had looked at the materials and would listen, even if the news was not good. He would not dominate the session, and the questions he asked were right on target.
When Washington administrations change, we often hear that senior flag officers game the political character of their new bosses. In fact, they don't. What they really want is to make a case for those things done under the last regime that work. While making clear his priorities, Secretary Gates gave the maneuver room for that kind of open discussion.
Secretary Gates leads the Department of Defense at a time of greater challenge than any secretary since Henry Stimson in World War II. The quality of his leadership has helped to turn things around in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the institutions of the Department back home. He merits our acknowledgment of his achievements.
Posted by: thomaswlott | January 1, 2009 2:09 PM
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