With skilled, humble leadership, even the most nightmarish of bureaucracies can be reformed into an efficient and productive endeavor.
That was among the core messages Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 shared with a packed audience in Phi Beta Kappa Hall Thursday afternoon during a talk and question-and-answer session about his new book, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service. Invested as William & Mary’s 24th Chancellor in 2012, Gates wrote the book based on his public service career culminating with his service as U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, the only person to hold that office under presidents from different political parties.
“My new book, A Passion for Leadership, is about how you actually can fix these institutions, how you can change and reform government and other institutions that govern our day-to-day lives and make them work better, be more cost-effective, more responsive to citizens and customers,” Gates said. “Because the truth is, if we don’t fix our institutions and do so urgently, it can have catastrophic consequences for our way of life.”
Gates’s talk focused on two key themes his book explores in more depth: the personal characteristics necessary for a leader who would lead reform and successfully bring change, and the relationship between such a leader and those who work in his or her organization.
On the topic of a leader’s personal characteristics, Gates noted five key traits of change-bringing leaders: (1) carefully managed egos, (2) integrity, (3) self-discipline, (4) courage and (5) a sense of humor – a leader should be able to take their work, but not themselves, seriously.
“Formal education can make someone a good manager, but it cannot make a good leader because leadership is more about the heart than the head,” Gates said. “The core of leadership is the ability to relate to people: to empathize, understand, inspire, motivate.”
In keeping with the calling to serve that has shaped so much of his life, Gates devoted the final portion of his remarks to public servants.
“If you scratch deeply enough, you will find that most of those in public service, no matter how outwardly tough or jaded, are in their heart of hearts romantics, idealists and optimists,” Gates said. “They actually believe it is possible to make the lives of their fellow citizens better and the world a safer place.”
To bring these ideals into fruition, Gates believes a future generation of public servants must take up the mantle of reform.
“My fervent hope is that this book will encourage the wise and honest among us, especially young people, to consider serving our fellow Americans with confidence that public institutions can be reformed and shaped to succeed and to serve,” Gates concluded.
Gates then took a seat with Student Assembly President Yohance Whitaker ’16, who moderated a series of questions before opening the discussion for audience participation. Whitaker commented that William & Mary is known for producing service-minded students and asked Gates for his advice for the university’s aspiring public servants.
“I don’t think that volunteerism on American campuses has ever been as robust and as all-encompassing as it is today,” Gates said. “But a lot of that disappears on graduation day.”
“The thing that I would just tell everybody is that you don’t have to make public service a career to render public service,” he continued. “Even if you only do it for five to 10 years, you will have made a significant contribution and enriched your life.”
Lines for the microphones immediately formed when Whitaker opened the discussion to audience questions. One attendee asked Gates what he believes are the most important traits a president should have.
“The best description of the quality necessary in a successful president was one that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. used to describe President Franklin D. Roosevelt; he said of Roosevelt, ‘He has a second-rate intellect and a first-rate temperament,’” Gates recounted, noting that America’s greatest presidents all fit this description.
Gates paid particular attention to the current William & Mary students in the audience throughout the discussion, continuing a special focus on the student body he has maintained throughout his time as Chancellor.
One international relations major asked Gates whether his advice about leaders carefully restraining their egos should be applied to the United States’ posture in the foreign relations context.
“Let me draw a parallel from my position as Secretary of Defense,” Gates began. “I never had to worry about being excluded from a meeting. I never had to ask, never had to use my elbows. The Secretary of Defense had all the resources: I had all the guns, all the money and most of the people.
“I feel that way about the United States,” he continued. “The United States is so overwhelmingly powerful in so many different ways that I don’t think we need to keep telling the rest of the world that we’re indispensable. Everyone knows it.”
After nearly an hour of conversation with the eager crowd, Gates left the auditorium to thunderous applause. Soon, a substantial line had formed of those waiting to have their copies of A Passion for Leadership signed.
“It’s good to hear someone with Secretary Gates’s perspective talk about how to exercise leadership even if you’re not at the top of an organization,” said Lindy Gunderson, a third-year law student at William & Mary who has previously worked in the Department of Defense.
“Gates mentioned a quote from George H.W. Bush about how your life is not necessarily fulfilled without public service, and I think that in every career – public service or not – you can engage your community and society to make things better for everyone across the board,” she said. “Hopefully I can take risks in my own career and make sure that change is happening for the better.”