Reviewing "A Passion for Leadership; Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service"

Following his retirement from public service, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authored two books. The first was a memoir of his time as Secretary of Defense, his second detailed the leadership lessons he learned over a lifetime of public service. In A Passion for Leadership, Gates uses his lessons learned as the Director of the CIA, President of Texas A&M, and Secretary of Defense to write about leading change in large bureaucratic organizations.


Gates focuses on a leader's ability to build teams and break down stovepipes as essential elements of strategic leadership. In building teams, Gates reflects that changing an organization may require a leader sacrifice speed of change with a gain of getting change right. Slowing down the pace allows for greater buy in of a program, as well as better-developed recommendations from all those involved. Leaders attain buy in for a program thorough more than time, they do so by breaking down organizational silos.

In important aspect of leading change, according to Gates, is the ability to break down barriers internal to an organization. In the military, this means members of various J-Codes need to work together to solve problems. Gates advocates for the stand-up of cross cutting task forces to design and implement change. With the stand-up of task forces, Gates highlights that all parts of an organization will become part of the process for proposing and implementing change. Indeed, Gates used this method at Texas A&M, the CIA, and the Department of Defense to ensure every section of each respective bureaucracy had a stake in their institutional change. For example, as head of the CIA, Gates created multiple task forces to redirect the focus of intelligence away from the Cold War mindset.

Gates also reflects on the value of investing in personal relationships to help in gaining support for change proposals. This may mean frequent meetings with academics and state legislatures while serving at a public university, or taking the time to engage with people on the hill while serving in the Pentagon or at Langley.

Most leaders understand the need to elevate high performers, and those who add value to a team. Gates takes the time to reflect on the importance of this aspect of leadership, but follows this up with techniques on removing people who obstruct progress. Gates understands that public servants at high levels operate under different laws and regulations when it comes to removing people from their positions. Further, Gates details the importance of reflecting on the positives of previous public service (some of which last a lifetime) when an individual is removed from a position. Removing or firing people in Gates’s opinion must be done with respect and care. Indeed, offering people the flexibility to resign over a period of months allows the space to find new talent while keeping a semblance of continuity for an organization.

This book is a primer for military officers who look to lead at the operational and strategic levels. Further, it serves as a guide to career and appointed leadership in government on how to lead change in large organizations. It is a fast read, and a worthwhile addition to any leader’s bookshelf.