Recently I read Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary by War by Robert Gates who, from 2006 to 2011 was U.S. Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush and then under President Obama. The book is primarily about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and insights from someone at such a high level in the U.S. government as Mr. Gates was fascinating. However, his insights on leadership and managing conflict are what I found most interesting and what this blog is about.

In his book, Mr. Gates states how when he started his job as Secretary of Defense he was struck by the military leaderships apparent detachment from the wars America was currently fighting and their focus on future contingencies. In business I have also been struck by some business leaders who demonstrate a similar detachment from current business operations. They enjoy being in a position of power and authority over others but they are detached from the reality of the wants and needs of internal staff, external clients and stakeholders.

Another aspect of Mr. Gates experience I can relate to is his challenges managing the internal relationships within various U.S. government agencies, in addition to the external challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan. He describes how self-interest in developing specific defense department projects (i.e. planes, ships, etc…) often made it difficult for him to make the necessary changes to develop new projects that would give the troops on the ground what they needed to succeed. I have seen this many times in business where self-interest is the motivation for a particular business activity which is not aligned with getting local staff on the ground what they need to grow the business. This is amplified when staff are overseas and there is a language and/or cultural barrier. I have learned that managing internal organizational politics is just as important, if not more important, than external business factors such as competitors or suppliers.

In America the Secretary of Defense signs the orders sending the men and women of the military to war. Mr. Gates described his pain when visiting wounded troops in hospital or attending funerals for those who had fallen, knowing that he was the guy who sent those troops into harm’s way in the first place. He also described the uplifting and positive energy he felt when meeting with troops in the field. While business is usually not a matter of life and death, nonetheless I believe truly effective business leaders have a duty to their staff, customers and stakeholders beyond their own self-interest. I also believe that it is important to be out in the field meeting with staff, clients and stakeholders when things go wrong, as well as when things go right.

Robert Gates knew he was responsible for the lives of all the men and women of the military and reading his book I can tell it affected him greatly. Being truly responsible for others can at times be a tremendous burden to bear, but I believe that if people know their leader truly feels responsible for the well-being, then teamwork and ultimately success are possible. As a leader this is my challenge and my duty.