It’s too late for Christmas and in any case the public release is not until next month, but in the spirit of public service maybe Robert M. Gates could provide a copy of his new book for a man whom people believe has everything, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards.
The book would be good reading, if only because it provides a dose of humility for the governor who is probably, within his state, the most powerful chief executive in the nation.
“A Passion for Leadership” (Knopf, 2016) is a short memoir of how Bob Gates got things done in 50 years of public service, heading the Central Intelligence Agency, Texas A&M University and finally the Defense Department under two presidents.
It’s almost a handbook for a new chief executive. And it’s written from the perspective of a career worker-bee, not the legislator’s experience that Edwards has after two terms in the state House.
And that’s where some of the force-fed humility comes in: Gates is often witheringly contemptuous of the legislative, indeed political breeds. He battled with them (see his earlier memoir, “Duty,” from 2014) when the lawmakers wanted contracts and jobs for their constituents building useless or outdated jets or other equipment. So his advice is very much from within the sphere of the government manager rather than the political leader.
Also, Gates quotes Jacques Barzun and others that the political and managerial tasks of leadership are different and rarely are even gifted people likely to be good at both. “To administer is to keep order in a situation that continually tends to disorder,” Barzun wrote. “In running any organization, both people and things have to be kept straight from day to day.”
If Edwards thinks he’s tired now, in the inevitable chaos of a transition to a new administration, wait until he is the responsible official of the government. That will be really drinking from the fire hose. There’s much wisdom in Gates’ book about how to organize a staff, and how policy is different from politics, although always closely entwined.
Gates shows how institutional arrangements in departments in Washington — not that much different in Baton Rouge — are not eradicated by the appointment of new people in the top jobs. Gates offers good advice on how to listen to the career folks and empower them to carry out the chief’s policies, but also the pitfalls when departments’ agendas conflict and they compete for funding and, most precious, the governor’s facetime.
“Only a committed leader can keep an organization — a bureaucracy — on its toes, continuously adapting, innovating, improving,” Gates writes. Henry Kissinger “only half-jokingly commented that every policy paper had three options: Option A was essentially to do nothing; Option C was so radical as to be automatically rejected; and thus Option B, a middling and therefore modest course of action, was the only sensible approach — the bureaucracy’s preference.”
The loyalty inspired by the example of President George H.W. Bush and his unfailing consideration of those working for him — from White House groundskeepers to cabinet officers — is one lesson of leadership. It’s easily lost sight of in the Governor’s Mansion; indeed, when a governor starts treating the mansion and its baronial atmosphere as His Eminence’s office instead of working at the State Capitol, it’s not a good sign.
There are many stories of wooing the prickly senators or bringing order to chaotic situations in Gates’ book. Just about every lesson is applicable to John Bel Edwards. Happy holidays, sir.
Losses: In different spheres of government, Louisiana lost two good men near Christmas. Law professor Cheney Joseph was not only a teacher but a participant in the administration of Louisiana law and Gov. Mike Foster’s executive counsel. Bob Munson was a gifted political consultant with clients across the political spectrum, truly one of the nicest guys ever in politics. They will be missed.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.