For an organization focused on building stronger leaders for Texas public schools, The Holdsworth Center couldn’t ask for a better leadership role model than its board chair, Dr. Robert M. Gates.
Gates is the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, director of Central Intelligence and president of Texas A&M University. He is the author of four books (one specifically on leadership) and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
He is also the only secretary of defense in U.S. history to be asked to remain in office by an incoming president and has served under eight presidents in total.
Gates has a broad and diverse record of leadership. Through it all, he puts people first by treating everyone with respect and dignity.
From interviews, we’ve culled Gates’ best leadership advice into seven key tenets.
Be honest, yet optimistic
Gates grew up in Wichita, Kansas in the early 1950s, the son of an automotive parts salesman. In those days, there were three TV channels, mostly black and white. During the summer, kids were kicked out the house after breakfast and came back before dark. His parents set broad limits, but if he and his brother crossed the line, the consequences were dire.
“If you lied about it, it was 100 times worse,” Gates said. “I learned very early the importance of honesty and character.”
The lesson served him well in times of war and peace, and through countless crises.
When the Washington Post released a scathing article on mistreatment of wounded warriors at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, Gates acted immediately. After verifying the reports were true, he accepted the Department of Defense’s culpability. He fired the Surgeon General and Secretary of the Army because they had known about the issues and had not taken them seriously.
Gates then put together a task force to identify short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions to fix the issues, giving hope to those who had suffered.
“I took dramatic action to show we were not going to let this drag out. We were going to act immediately to remedy the situation,” Gates said.
He added: “It’s a matter of transparency and optimism. You have to be honest with people, even when it’s hard. But then you have to say, ‘We will come through this on the other side.’”
Don’t burn yourself out
From 2006 to 2011, Gates led the U.S. Secretary of Defense, one of the largest organizations on the planet. Despite the size of the role, he left the office virtually every night at 6:00 or 6:30 pm, and never once came in on a Saturday.
On weekends, he made time to do something completely different than whatever crisis he was facing at work – reading novels, catching a movie or going to ethnic restaurants around the city with his family.
“In Washington, D.C., they brag about their 18-hour days. I think that’s nonsense,” Gates said. “That tells me they are inept or so insecure that if they go home someone will take their desk away. I (kept reasonable work hours) for myself, but also for those who worked for me. If I was in (the office), there would be hundreds of other people who felt compelled to be there too. Weekends allowed me to restore and rest, but also the people who worked for me.”
Cultivate sustaining relationships
Staying engaged in communities outside of work – family and friends, hobby or exercise groups, church congregations and more – can help leaders de-stress and remind them their identity is more than the role they are playing.
Another important relationship is the confidant— someone who cares more about you as a person than about your work. With confidants, leaders can be honest and vulnerable, vent if necessary, and trust they will get honest feedback. Sometimes confidants are trusted work colleagues, but more often spouses, friends or mentors who bring an outside perspective.
Gates maintained a small circle of colleagues he felt safe unloading with, but who would push back when he asked them to be frank.
“Among the three, I got a lot of good advice,” he said. “You have to be careful because you don’t want somebody who is going to be a gossip or violate the confidentiality of the relationship. But you need someone who can say, ‘That is the dumbest idea ever.’”
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Texas A&M University took in evacuees fleeing the city for safety. Gates was president at the time, but out of town when the storm hit.
He empowered the Corps of Cadets to set up a temporary shelter for the evacuees and tap various campus organizations for help.
Within 24 hours, they had set up 1,000 cots in the basketball arena, a makeshift childcare center and had mobilized the community to donate a trove of toiletries and other essential items.
“The key was empowering people not only to get the job done, but to come up with the ways to get the job done. No one told them how to set up a childcare center, they just figured it out,” Gates said.
“When I was leading the Department of Defense, I left the commanders alone. They knew best what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. My job was to make their jobs easier by giving them whatever they needed to get it done.”
Whenever there was a crisis or a problem to be solved, Gates would often assemble a short-term task force with a clear mission and timeframe for coming up with solutions.
He always discouraged the task force from seeking consensus among the group. He expected a majority report and a minority report with divergent viewpoints.
“Consensus is the fatal enemy of new ideas,” Gates said. “To get to consensus you end up taking all the sharp edges off ideas. I want to hear from those who disagree or have a different approach before I make a decision.”
Treat people with respect and dignity
Throughout Gates’ time as a leader, he made inclusivity a cornerstone of the way he led. It was one of the pillars of his leadership at the Department of Defense.
“You can be the most demanding boss on the planet and still treat everybody with respect and dignity,” he said.
One way to do that is by asking for people’s opinions and expertise and listening to their ideas.
“The more you involve the people who work for you in the decision-making process, the more buy-in you get for whatever decisions you end up making, because at least people know they were respected and heard.”
Lead with moral authority, not force
According to Gates, the best leadership training he’s ever had was as a 14-year-old in the Philmont Scout Ranch training program.
“When you’re 14 years old and you’re responsible for a dozen 11 and 12-year-old boys and you’re trying to get them to do what they don’t want to do, and you can’t make them do it – now that’s a test of leadership,” Gates said. “It’s basically the same with politicians, university regents and school superintendents and principals.”
It’s a lesson that stayed with Gates throughout his career and influenced the way he led – not by bending people to his will but by inspiring them toward action.
“I call it moral authority. By virtue of character, integrity, honesty and inclusiveness, you make everybody feel respected. You make everybody feel like they’re a part of the decision-making process, so that when you decide, they will follow you even if they disagree. That’s moral authority. That’s what, in my view, true leaders have. And it comes down to character and the way you treat other people.”