A former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, secretary of defense, and deputy national security advisor, Robert Gates is one of the most respected public policy officials in the United States. In “A Passion for Leadership,” Gates offers his leadership lessons to the American people. And although the book is short, it is packed with ideas, anecdotes and spirit.

Gates focuses on his leadership experiences in three key areas: his tenure as president of Texas A&M, his time at the Pentagon, and his years at the CIA. Throughout, we see Gates’s determination to make his leadership ideas accessible. Put simply, this is not a book solely for those in senior management positions, but a book for everyone.

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Gates points out that a leader must set a clear and unwavering example. A leader must embrace internal challenges, new ideas from those under his or her authority, a relentless work schedule, and respect. A leader must also show courage and decisiveness alongside humility and introspection. Gates gives examples of ways in which a leader can advance this interest. These include the simple act of visiting junior employees and addressing their personal interests/concerns, avoiding unnecessary public criticism of personnel in public, expressing gratitude for personal successes, and unifying an organization in common cause (as effectively applied by U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal against al-Qaeda in Iraq).

gates passion for leadership

Gates also reminds us that a leader’s central responsibility rests in confronting serious challenges or opportunities, and holding personnel to account. A leader cannot drift through his tenure simply managing events. They must act boldly, and so must their subordinates. As Gates puts it, “I think the toughest personnel decision a leader faces… is when he realizes that someone who has given years, often decades of faithful and competent service does not have the requisite skills to help take the organization to the next level of excellence or just does not have the right background to take on the tasks ahead.”

For Gates, leadership involves setting early key priorities, ensuring the organization’s facility to implement those priorities and then pursuing them relentlessly. And we’re warned how big bureaucracies respond to efforts to shake up their cozy systems! Gates shows how, while at the Pentagon, he was faced with efforts to bury his schedule in meetings so that he could not advance his agenda.

To navigate bureaucracies, Gates asserts that a leader must retain a small but exceptionally capable leadership team. These individuals can then help implement a vision against those who would challenge it. Gates also outlines the importance of establishing deadlines for implementation of proposals. This allows a leader to hold personnel — especially management — to account for their failure to meet desired objectives. Yet Gates also notes the other side of the coin — that setting deadlines allows a leader to praise and boost the morale of personnel. Still, we’re reminded that time is finite for any leader. Correspondingly, a leader must establish his or her imprint on the bureaucracy so as to sustain impact over the long term. Gates explains how as defense secretary he made sure that the U.S. Army’s promotion board for prospective brigadier generals was led by officers who supported his reforms.

Leadership takes personal skill. Using different examples of how he forged a consensus to achieve his reforms, Gates proves unusual alliances are possible. Here, Gates explains that whether a stakeholder is liberal or conservative, fostering reliability, trust and good humor can help a leader advance his agenda. He is also keen to point out that while an open ear is often an elixir to a problem, an unwelcome ego is catastrophic.

Ultimately, Gates leaves the reader with two lasting impressions. First, that leadership is not a unique characteristic of a certain chosen few. Instead, it is hard but possible, and can accomplish great things. Second, that Gates himself is the best exemplifier of his lessons. After all, while this book certainly is not a biography of self-aggrandizement, Gates has proved his reliability and patriotism to countless officials. Don’t believe me? Ask someone in Washington D.C. what they think of Gates. Because in this city — too-often home to cynicism and narrow interest — Gates is respected immensely. Moreover, that Gates holds this respect after so many years and after so many uncomfortable reforms, says much about his leadership. This is a must-own book worth annotating and sharing widely.