Ash Carter worked at the Pentagon for more than three and a half decades, most recently as Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense. So he has a reservoir of stories about management and leadership in one of the world’s largest organizations.
He shares many of his insights in his book Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon.
In the first part of this conversation (see “Busting Bureaucracy: The Pentagon Can Offer Some Helpful Tips”), he talked about leadership practices that should be emulated and some that should be avoided.
In this final part of the conversation, Carter offers more insights on what we can learn from the goings-on at the Department of Defense.
Rodger Dean Duncan: A lot of retired military officers enter the business world as leaders. What kind of adjustments are required to transition from a command-and-control military environment to a civilian world that is less responsive to a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership?
Ash Carter: The officers who worked with or for me mostly adjusted easily to the civilian business world. The other proof point that military and business leadership are not that different is the turnaround in business attitudes towards veterans. Ten years ago when I talked to business leaders about hiring veterans, they acted like they were doing me a favor. By the time I left office they were trying to hire away some of our best—both a compliment and a challenge for the Department. That’s because our people, military and civilian, are buttoned-down and disciplined, results-oriented, and used to strategic planning.
Duncan: How can leaders make best use of emerging technologies without getting mesmerized by the “look at my new toy” syndrome?
Carter: AI (artificial intelligence) and big data will have a big impact on the military, but you have to avoid being mesmerized by new tech. For example, I wrote the policy on autonomous weapons, and its key precept is that systems must be designed to ensure enough transparency in how they work that commanders can reasonably predict their actions and be held accountable for the consequences (for example, friendly fire or civilian casualties by mistake “because way back in 2012 the AI said so”). In other words, you need to be able to situate sturdy and lasting operational values within the new tech context.
Duncan: What does the departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton tell you about Donald Trump’s willingness to listen to opinions contrary to his own, and what can business leaders learn from that example?
Carter: A prevailing myth holds that “if the President offers you a job, the only answer is ‘yes.’” This is no more true in the Cabinet than anywhere else. Your first responsibility is to the President; if you don’t see how you can help him either because he won’t listen to you or you know his and your views will immediately clash, you should let him find someone else who will help him. Second, you must be true to your own values and convictions. You can and must implement presidential decisions with which you don’t agree, but if this is too often and the issues are too big, you are just going to be on the road to resignation. In all my jobs, including the top one, I had some discussion along these lines with the boss before I took the job.
Duncan: You’ve had plenty of experience dealing with Congress—which you refer to as “a board of directors with 535 members.” What did that experience teach you about managing relationships and building coalitions?
Carter: Members of Congress are like most people and board members everywhere: about 80% of them are amazingly conscientious and constructive, and the other 20% “need improvement.”
You get a long way with courtesy, calling members when a big procurement decision is made or a serious military operation is conducted. Who knows what they’ll say to their constituents about it, but either way, they will be pleased that they can say you informed them yourself.
I valued John McCain and miss him since, though he could be a hothead, he was always true to his convictions and to the troops, and moreover, those views were traditional and bipartisan ones about America’s role in the world that I shared with John.
Duncan: Who were the two or three most effective leaders you encountered in your Washington service, and which of their behaviors or practices are most worth emulating?
Carter: All my predecessors were very capable, and I knew them all back to McNamara. But Jim Schlesinger (Nixon), Bill Perry (Clinton), and Bob Gates (Bush 2 and Obama) not only mentored me and gave me opportunities, but were in their own different ways excellent models—wise, strategic, and (important to me) decent and civil men to the core.
Duncan: What do you miss or not miss the most?
Carter: What I miss most are the troops. Whenever I’d had enough of Washington, I’d visit a base, ship, or deployment and talk with servicemembers and their families – hundreds, and ones and twos. Then I could go back to Washington with my jaw set for business again.
What I don’t miss are my visits to the hospitals and to Dover. At the hospitals I was always in awe of the resilience of these young people and their spirit of hope, despite all. Dover is different, since hope is gone. I would sit with the family knowing full well that nothing I could say could give them what they wanted most, which was their loved ones back. But I tried to say something that they and their children might someday remember, and maybe glean from it some measure of peace and pride.
Duncan: Any final thought you’d like to share?
Carter: To me, leadership means taking your organization in a direction it needs to go but does not understand or resists. I learned a lot about that in my 37 years of association with the largest leadership challenge in the world. But there’s a whole other side that many leave out—reinforcement of what is already good in your organization. The 240-year-old U.S. military has its challenges and stodginess, to be sure, but overall it is rightly regarded as America’s most admired organization.
A big part of the SecDef’s job is upholding excellence and honor where they exist. A good SecDef or other leader needs to reinforce and reward people who are doing the right thing, back them up, and show them high standards of personal conduct so that they feel good about the organization even as it heads into unfamiliar territory. All but the most broken organizations are doing something right. Find it, and reinforce it.