On Defense: Decisions, Debates, and Duty

Six Minutes

Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is a certified Man of Action. Where his predecessor famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have”, Gates’ response was, “You damn well should move as fast as you can to get the army you need.”

Duty is Gates’ dense –yet engagingly readable – account of his attempts to transform the Defense Department to be more effective, efficient, lower-case-a-agile, and less provincial and political. While taking operational control of two unfocused and unpopular wars. And serving two very different (in temperament, risk tolerance, political affiliation) presidents.

Gates vividly describes battles (literal and otherwise) in our nation’s capital and throughout the world, and their direct impact on troops’ ability to succeed. His journey provides striking lessons that apply to more peaceful (but no less political) office environs.

Process Excellence in the Defense Department

One of his earliest initiatives, in 2007, sought to reduce casualties in Iraq from roadside explosions. Questionable (i.e., ass-covering) decisions made prior to his arrival stalled the development and deployment of life-saving Mine-Resistant/Ambush-Protected vehicles. His response is a textbook case in Getting Shit Done – stepping outside bureaucracies to crash schedules, force budget decisions, and create a visible sense of urgency. He used similar tactics to quash Pentagon porkbarrel projects, and again when the MRAPs needed a redesign for Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.

Any good executive has the power to sidestep normal channels. Secretary Gates’ Man of Action status derives from his recognition that process-circumventing task forces are one-time fixes. He relentlessly challenged his staff to institute sustainable solutions to overcome the bureaucracy and allow the entire organization – in the field and in DC – to be flexible and in fighting shape.

Decision Making

Know Who Is Deciding – And When They Will Be Ready to Make a Decision

Gates was appointed Secretary of Defense in 2006 by President George W. Bush, and invited to remain in the role by President Barack Obama. The two presidents’ decision-making styles could not have been more different.

President Bush – whose self-imposed nickname was “The Decider” – famously trusted his gut. A keen listener, he allowed all parties to have their say before making up his mind. President Obama was a deliberator, which, according to Gates’ book, posed challenges for a military accustomed to quick answers.

There are flaws to either approach. Taking too long, postponing until the perfect option presents itself, can lead to analysis paralysis and even “decision creep”; on the flip side, a grip-it-and-rip-it mentality has too much potential for unintended consequences.

A Man of Action believes a well-thought-out plan implemented now generally beats waiting for the ideal solution. What makes it well-thought-out? Consideration of what’s important and the desired results; a vetting of operational risks; and a team willing to revise as clearer information is made available.

To support a Bush-style Decider, be prepared to articulate the high points of your preferred option – and its risks. (According to Gates, President Bush specifically acknowledges his own blind spot on assessing risk).

For someone whose pace is more like “No Drama” Obama, plan to provide a different type of counsel:

Focus on Objectives

President Obama wanted to reset the strategy of the Afghanistan campaign. His principal advisors argued in circles for months, debating the merits of Counterinsurgency versus something called “Counterterrorism-Plus” versus who knows what… Gates’ descriptions of these debates can be called “alternatives in search of objectives” – one person zealously advocates his preference, using his own (often unclear) criteria; others take pot shots at it until the carousel of options spins anew.

Better to first align around what’s important – getting agreement on desired benefits and the definition of success. Only then should options (e.g., COIN, CT-Plus) be researched and deliberated.

A common archetype in any Washington memoir is the Smart Person Not Doing the Right Thing for Political Gain, and Duty is chock full of them. Gates does not hold back when writing of the tension between the military and Congress, and also the military and President Obama’s staff.

Naturally, details of different Afghanistan strategies leaked –torquing up one constituency or the other, all sides fueled by press and pundits. Something similar happens in every office across America – rumors of upcoming projects, restructurings, benefits, etc. make the rounds and mouths starts frothing.

How can a Man of Action address this?

Presuming people are going to talk, control the content of their conversation by controlling the process and its tempo. When the only news (fake or not) is about solutions – without clarified requirements – mass panic is expected (alternatives-in-search-of-objectives writ large).

Build that foundation of needs, benefits, desired results, and how success will be measured. If any of those ideas make it to the general population, there won’t be frenzied alarm, but rather the opposite. People respond two ways: They begin to rally around the cause, and they actually offer input into the solutions. Better process isn’t just easier, it also invites better outcomes.

Focusing on objectives and results trains a spotlight on those who shift the discussion for personal or partisan motives – their selfishness quickly become clear. In Gates’ opinion, President Obama’s decisions were ultimately made without fear of the political consequences – another advantage of having clear objectives.


Gates writes that many in the Obama White House held the armed forces in disdain; the president, and others, felt the reciprocal. Gates’ theory traced this tension to how few at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue ever served in the military. As such, rejected understanding the cultural norms and protocols.

Bad consultants walk into a room and presume greater knowledge than native experts. A Man of Action, though, brings empathy. Getting shit done happens by tapping into others’ motivations and by erasing whatever risks they perceive. Attempting to look at the world from their perspective improves guidance and develops a camaraderie on the team.

The lack of esprit de corps was further personified by the number of advisors who had never set foot in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Anyone who’s studied Lean understands the concept of Gemba – “the real place”. Gemba walks take leaders to visit the work itself – to see first-hand workers’ challenges and frustrations (in this case, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines), and to understand the impacts and consequences of their decisions. (As Tom Peters fiercely advocates, “Management by Walking Around.”)

This lack of intellectual curiosity and empathy led to broken trust, protracted arguments, implementation delays and subpar results. In Secretary Gates’ world, those are serious consequences.

Change Management

War is always a divisive subject; “Bush’s Wars” more than most. Gates became secretary after Iraq and Afghanistan had been raging for years, with dubious results and flagging support. The justness of either will be debated for years; but once battles begin, they need to be well-executed. Both suffered from early implementation missteps that should have been avoided. The secretary understood this, learned from it, and later in his tenure drafted a nearly flawless change plan when he embarked on a culture-shaking mission. More on that soon.

Business is often compared to war. This is silly. Work is serious, yes, but the stress of how to properly account for referral bonuses pales in comparison to IEDs blowing holes under 19-year-old’s jeeps. Many of our greatest innovations came from implementing military technology in the homefront; learning from the successes and mistakes described in Bob Gates’ memoirs can similarly help with breakthroughs in how we approach our thinking.

One thought on “On Defense: Decisions, Debates, and Duty

Comments are closed.