Leadership Lessons from Bob Gates

blog_duty_robert_gatesFormer Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke about his book, “Duty”, to a sold-out crowd at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago this week.

Much of what he said he has said on television and other forums about how toxic Washington is today and the difficulty of working and accomplishing anything in the “partisan abyss”.

 Contrasting the sacrifice of our dedicated men and women in uniform with the selfishness of our elected officials, he was asked what advice did he have for the public-minded crowd assembled by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs?

His talk is available on YouTube in its entirety but his answer begins at 38:20 

 “Our politics have always been rough and tumble. As a historian and someone who has read a lot of history, I don’t think our Founding Fathers anticipated that people would make politics their life’s work.  I think they thought that farmers, lawyers, doctors would have their own life and as a matter of public service go to Washington to serve in Congress and then go home.

 “For members of Congress today being a member of Congress is all they are.  They’ve wrapped their psyche around being a member of Congress.  And being defeated is intolerable.”

 When they leave Congress, most of them stay in Washington.  “It’s as though they’ve forgotten where they came from. People come and stay for 30, 40, 50, 60 years.  That becomes their life.

 “The most empowering thing for me in Washington as Secretary of Defense was that everyone knew I wanted to go home.  I was begging to be fired. The more I wanted to go home; the more they wanted me to stay.”

 He said that if these people ever  “realized how empowering it could be to vote their conscience on issues and do what’s in the best interest of the country–first, it might be the best politics–but also, they might find it liberating.

 “I used to say, if I could be elected to one term in Congress and play a vital role in putting the country on a strong fiscal track and I got defeated at the next election, I would be proud to tell my grandchildren what I did during my one term in Congress.

 In summary, he said: “I think we have too many careerists in Congress and not enough people who go to give brief periods of public service.”

 He was reminded of a favorite quote of Teddy Roosevelt:  “I represent the public, not public opinion.”

 His answer was met with vigorous applause.