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A Passion for Leadership by Robert Gates

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    In A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, by Robert Gates, the author uses past experiences as the former Secretary of Defense and other leadership roles to create the universal idea that leaders who focus on the ‘develops’ component of the Army Core Competencies, will be better fit to motivate others and change large organizations for the better.

    When it comes to the “develops” core competency, it has everything to do with being able to leave an organization better than how you found out, which starts with being able to create a positive work environment. Being able to influence your organizations climate starts with having a positive attitude, and letting your subordinates know that you care about them. As a leader, it is important to be able to reach out to the people within your organization with these ideas in mind, in order to create this positive work environment.

    Robert Gates explains that as a leader, it is important to understand the big picture when implementing change within a specific environment. This big picture has everything to do with the fact that you as a leader are the one to instigate this change, not the systems you have access to. Many leaders in today’s society get caught up with the advancement of technology and forget to personally reach out to their subordinates to effectively communicate. Gates explains the importance of ‘winning over’ subordinates support and loyalty, which stems from the ability to effectively directly communicate with them. Gates encourages leaders to essentially go out of the todays standard agenda which is consumed by power point and electronic media and empower subordinates through a more direct relationship in order to show how much you care about them. It is important for a leader to know when to these social media platforms and once again understand the importance of establishing this direct relationship. By doing so, leaders will be able to provide subordinates with esteem, motivation, respect, and other necessary core values that lead to success and change in a positive direction.

    One of the main aspects of being a successful leader according to Gates is to remind your subordinates from the lowest rank, to the highest rank, that their work is considered important for overall mission success. A good leader will make it a priority at every opportunity he/she can to remind their subordinates how their work is contributing to the success of the specific organization. This is extremely important from a military standpoint as well, due to the fact that not only is everyone’s work important in contributing towards the big picture, but it will also instill confidence and motivation within each soldier to complete day to day tasks. “Belief in the importance of what one does is of course vital in any job. Bureaucrats, wherever they work, want to believe that what they do every day has real value for their company, community or country. It is up to leaders—at every level—to explain why their work is important. Even if the organization is a little one tucked away in an obscure part of the enterprise, part of a leader’s responsibility is to ensure that employees know how their work fits into the bigger picture, how it makes a contribution, a difference” (Gates). One of the key components of the core competency develops is to be able to encourage initiative within a group of people, and if they feel as if their work is important they will be more likely to work diligently.

    Holding people accountable is very important from a leader’s standpoint, and needs to come from the basic principles that you instilled in your subordinates from day one. Gates explains how it is very important for a leader to be able to recognize who can get the job done, empower them, let them do their work, and then leave them alone. Leaving your subordinates alone was one of the more important aspects that Gates had described. You as a leader need to be able to have the confidence in your subordinates to get the job done, resist temptation to get involved, leave them alone, but still hold them accountable to an extent. Holding your subordinates accountable goes back to these principles and expectations that you have set at the very beginning. Gates explains from a political standpoint how he thinks that a few years ago there was so much power centralized within the White House, that the subordinates were not trusted or empowered, which ultimately led to many problems within our country. It is important for a leader to understand the process of how tasks need to be accomplished and rely on their subordinates to hold up their end of the deal and get the job done. Establishing this trust within your subordinates will promote a positive work environment, something that is very important for the overall mission.

    Much of this book is discussing how a leader is able to effectively promote change in government bureaucracies and large organizations. Being a leader in some of these large organizations can be difficult at times, because of the fact that if mistakes were made, a lot of negative attention is drawn to that specific area. Gates uses former examples when he was the Secretary of Defense, to stress the importance of being able to direct this negative attention away from the individual or division who made this mistake and talk to them offline about what exactly went wrong.

    Being a leader in these larger organizations can come with a lot of attention from the press and media, and it’s important for a leader to understand this and understand that it comes with the position. “I think a lot of people who have the skills to be effective leaders refrain from doing so, or don’t sign up because of the publicity that, and the attacks that often follow from elected officials and various others” (Gates). Much of his experience has come from him seeing low-level subordinates being blamed for larger failures, many of who had little to no involvement in that specific instance. By managing this negative attention or pressure, it shows your subordinates that you care about both them and the overall picture, as well as keep the pressure off of their shoulders. This can only be effective if you are able to communicate with your subordinates about what exactly you want to be done differently or kept the same. Gates says “praise in public and criticize in private…but keep the bullshit quotient to a minimum.”

    The term “passion” is in the title of Gates’ book, and it is one of the most important leadership traits he believes a leader can have. In his experiences, he has seen many leaders who are not passionate about what they do, which later has an almost cancerous effect on the subordinates below him. You have to be able to truly invest yourself as a leader into your work and show others that you care about your purpose within the organization. Having a positive attitude day in and day out will encourage others to do the same, which also goes back to promoting a positive work environment that people want to be in. Being passionate goes hand in hand with another important aspect of being a leader, which is having vision as to what exactly your end goal is. By understanding your end goal, and being passionate about it, your subordinates will be able to clearly understand the difference and invest their time by feeding off your energy. “To be successful agents of change- of reform- leaders not only must be able to envision a new way forward but also must be practical, with the skill to build broad rapport for and implement their vision.”

    Lastly, Gates discusses that leaders need to have their mind in the right direction and must be motivated to promote change for the good of the people. Gates tells a story in which before he was officially named the President of Texas A&M, he received many letters from a former governor who essentially asked him to withdraw his candidacy. This governor believed that Gates would not be a good fit for the position because of his outspoken political views regarding some subjects. Gates firmly believed he could make a change and be a positive leader for the students at this University, so he ultimately opted to stand his ground until he was elected. “After the search committee had settled on me, I received a call from Perry, who pressured me to withdraw my candidacy. He said he did not want me at A&M, neither did many Aggies, and he would be appointing all the members of the board of regents in the future—hinting I would face very rough going as President. The last thing I wanted was to get mixed up in Texas politics, but I also wasn’t about to let the governor intimidate me into pulling out…” Although there was outside pressure that could potentially influence him to withdraw his candidacy, he believed he could make a change and stood his ground.

    Robert gates is a proven leader who provides the link to developing your subordinates by implementing different principles of the Army core competency “develops” and leading a successful organization. There are many pressures that come with being a successful leader and these pressures can be alleviated by understanding how important taking care of your subordinates is for mission success.

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    A Passion for Leadership by Robert Gates. (2022, May 14). Retrieved from

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