A Passion for Leadership - Robert Gates

Leadership has been endlessly dissected. There are in-numerous books on this topic. There is a standard checklist for what leadership is. Most of them include vision, integrity, character, courage, passion and many more. So it was with a little bit of skepticism that I read the latest book “A Passion for Leadership” by Robert Gates. However I actually found it to be engrossing and very well written. I like his definition of leadership which is show the way and guide the way. This is the key as once we know the way anyone can execute. It is defining the way that differentiates the leaders from others.
When Gates took over the Texas A&M he told them that if they want someone to maintain the status quo then he is not the guy. He is a change agent. When challenging the status quo it doesn’t matter if there is no consensus. The very act of leadership is to go where no one else is going.
Leadership vs management has also been endlessly dissected. I have always felt that we have overemphasized leadership and not given management the place it deserves. Of course we all prefer to be called a leader and no one has been called a world manager ever.  There are some good definitions like leadership is doing the right things and management is doing things right. I don't think these definitions do justice. Leadership sets the vision but you need management to execute it flawlessly. Leadership helps you determine if you are in the right jungle. However I also firmly believe managers can lead and once they do the whole organization benefits.
The thing I like about what Gates has written is he has mentioned that both are important. Managers are always needed but we are in a desperate need for leaders at all levels. When you think of a leader who comes to your mind? For me the best leaders are Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Only after them do we think of business leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. This is because leadership is about contribution to humanity as a whole. That's why someone like Gandhi didn't need a title to have an impact. The aim of becoming a leader should be to have a positive impact. If we can improve the lives of others in any way then we can become true leaders. The more impact we have the better we feel.
The other thing I liked about this memoir is Gates mentions that he always took 2 or 3 weeks off every year. Even President Obama takes vacations so we can all do ourselves a favor and take some time off whenever possible to recharge your batteries. We all do better at work after a break. This has been well established and we will be more creative after taking vacations.
He also mentions that he always tried to return home to be with his family in the night though he does take a stack of work home. I think life is meant to be balanced and it is not meant to be a race against time. We need our families to be strong and we are building future leaders through our families. Of course hard work is still the only way to stand out and become a great leader but it has to be married with pragmatism. Of course in our interconnected world we need to put in extra effort whenever it is needed. As Gandhi said “One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department. Life is one indivisible whole.”  Benjamin Disraeli said “No success in public life can compensate for failure in the home.”
Another key Gates says for a leader is listening skills. He is known to not add value to a meeting until nearing the end. He says this is because he first wants to hear everyone’s point of view and change his own when needed. Also if he doesn’t have a view point he waits to hear from everyone with which he can come up with a good alternative. This is a wise choice. To be a great leader we need to become great listeners. Some ways that I have found helpful to develop listening skills are to listen attentively, focus completely on the other person, remove all digital distractions, maintain eye contact, paraphrase the speaker, ask probing questions and finally smile. Never forget smiling even when you are in disagreement. This is obviously easier said than done.
He also talks about dealing with friends and foes. He had a fractured relationship with Rick Perry while being considered for the president of Texas A&M but he was always nice to him in public and they never had a fall out. The key is we will all encounter foes from all angles especially when we grow to a big leadership position but we shouldn’t get overawed and still keep our cool in public. As Martin Luther King said "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
He also mentions that when he was Secretary of Defense he always kept a good relationship with all the congress members even though he didn't agree with everything being done. Leadership requires deft navigation against troubled waters and that's the best way we can all become leaders. Only a true leader can navigate successfully through any storm.
Finally leaders need to take responsibility to both success and failure. When we succeed we should give credit to the team and when we fail we should take the blame. If we can do this we could reach unparalleled heights on our leadership journey.
These are some of the lessons I learnt of course. We need to think what leadership means to us. To me it boils down to only three things 1. Dream Big 2. Inspire others 3.Be action oriented. If we have these attributes we can become great leaders.
Finally I want to finish the 5 qualities that made Churchill great. This was mentioned in the book Churchill by Paul Johnson.
The 5 Qualities are
  1. Always aim high.
  2. There is no substitute for hard work.
  3. Churchill never allowed criticism, setbacks to derail him. As he famously said “Success is going from loss to loss without losing any enthusiasm.”
  4. He spent very little time on the meanness of life. He didn’t wallow in self-pity.
  5. Finally an absence of hatred created lot of room for joy. 
Thanks for reading this post. 
The views expressed here are my own and do not represent my organization.

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