Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling –
Robert Gates, former secretary of defense and CIA director, joined the DIA workforce for a virtual MasterMinds session July 13. Following introductory remarks from Deputy Director Suzanne White, Gates led a discussion on the complicated nature of public service, leadership and matters of national security.
“There are a lot of challenges to public service … what people don’t see is the satisfaction of working with extraordinarily talented, dedicated and smart people doing the best that they can to protect the country that they love,” said Gates in his opening remarks. “I wouldn’t trade the experiences that I had as a public servant for anything.”
Gates, a former secretary of defense and CIA director, is the epitome of a public servant. His extraordinary career began at the CIA, leading him to serve in the Air Force and later return to rise through the ranks at Langley, in northern Virginia.
Throughout his career, Gates worked directly with presidents and leaders from across the political spectrum, embodying what it means to serve in a nonpartisan manner. He is the only secretary of defense in U.S. history asked to continue his service into a new presidential administration. Gates served under President George W. Bush and was asked to remain in the role by President Barack Obama, ultimately serving from 2006 to 2011.
Reflecting on why he was asked to stay, Gates said, “I think the main reason was because I brought continuity in managing leading the Department of Defense, so that (President Obama) wouldn’t have to worry about the defense side of things while he was preoccupied with putting the Nation back on its feet economically.”
In addition to a commendable public service career, Gates has also worked in the private and education sectors. Gates served as the interim dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University at the personal request of former President George H. W. Bush, before assuming the role of university president. Currently, Gates serves as chancellor of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
These varied experiences informed his discussion with the DIA workforce.
“Leadership is really about the future and that means determining how we need to change to be successful and to accomplish our objectives and our mission,” he said.
Gates’ prescient thoughts come as the DIA workforce is adapting to reconstitution efforts following the COVID-19 pandemic and shifting focus strategically to great power competition and global integration.
Regarding this strategic shift, Gates advised, “If you don’t change, you will fail. If you can’t adapt, adjust, be nimble — then you will fail. This is very tough in large bureaucracies and organizations.”
Gates also counseled the DIA workforce on the importance of maintaining a good work-life balance, even when moving into increasingly demanding roles.
“When I became secretary … I felt a responsibility to those working in the Pentagon,” Gates said. “I tried almost every night to get out of the Pentagon by 6 or 6:30, so people could go home and have dinner with their children and their spouses and have a life.”
Gates elaborated that self-care and keeping family commitments are crucial to maintaining effectiveness at work. “I know there’s a premium in a lot of places in the government to say, ‘I worked 18 hours a day,’ or ‘I worked 7 days a week,’ — I think that’s all baloney.”
Gates went on to discuss which presidents he enjoyed working with most, naming Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as his top choices. Gates selected Reagan because of the former president’s clear vision for the country, and Bush because he surrounded himself with a strong team that was unafraid to voice opinions but able to maintain respect and friendship after disagreements.
Gates also valued both presidents’ sense of humor, noting that this was a characteristic also shared by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“The great thing about a sense of humor is that it suggests that you have a sense of perspective and, particularly, the ability to laugh at yourself,” said Gates. “You take the work seriously, but not yourself.”
Following the discussion on leadership, Gates spoke on matters of national security. He emphasized the dangers of a rising China and noted the unique multidimensional threat it poses.
“From a foreign threat perspective, China is certainly the biggest challenge that we face,” Gates said. “One of the challenges for our government, and particularly the Intelligence Community, is to provide unclassified coverage and assessments of the involvement that China has in countries around the world … just to show the magnitude of China’s reach.”
Gates then reflected on lessons learned from the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When the military is given a military mission, they can do it, they can do it speedily, and they can do it better than everyone else in the world. But there’s no military in the world that can change the culture of a country.”
Gates ended the MasterMinds discussion by echoing one of his favorite presidents, George H.W. Bush.
“President Bush said, ‘the definition of a full life must include some sort of public service.’ Looking back, I realized that I led a life worth living because I have had the career that I’ve had and served the people of this country.”