By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by George Newbern, Robert M. Gates
Robert Gates’ intuition and experience in the George W. Bush’ and Barrack Obama’ administrations is explained in his book, Duty. Gates is a consummate government administrator.
As Secretary of Defense, Gates explains how he intuitively balanced politics and government policy with compassion. That compassion extends to 1.4 million active military men and women, 718,000 civilian employees, 1.1 million National Guard and Reserve forces, and more than 2 million military retirees and family members.
Gate’s memoir of his Bush’ and Obama’ years shows how intuitive decision-making is a tricky process. Gates’ six hundred plus tome is discomforting because it shows how government can easily spiral out of control. Gates illustrates large organizations can only be managed by human’ intuition; not rational analysis.
Rationality in management of large organizations is a myth. Decision-making in large organization is too complex for executives to grasp. Human inability to grasp all the facts inevitably leads to unintended consequence. The boon and bane of all executives who make decisions for others is information overload. (In the future, information overload may be mitigated by artificial intelligence but risk taking humans will have to be prepared to temper intuitive decision-making based on superior analytic capability offered by A.I.)
Gates deserves credit for writing an insightful memoir of American government in action during the Bush’ and Obama’ administrations. Neither President is unscathed by Gates’ perception of their abilities but both are found to be tough-minded, compassionate leaders. George W. is neither a dolt nor seer; Barrack is neither a radical nor savior. Both Presidents are shown as human beings with unimaginably complex jobs. Both Presidents are compelled to make intuitive decisions.
Gates calls himself a moderate Republican in his book but rarely does one see partisanship in his writing. Gates shows great respect, and admiration for Secretary of State Clinton and disdain for Vice President Biden.
Gates never loses site of the grave consequence of sending troops into Iraq and Afghanistan but intuitively grasps the importance of listening and responding to field commanders’ needs for troops and improved military equipment.
Gates intuitively understands the importance of medical services for veterans in war and peace. Years before the Veterans Affairs debacle, Gates argues for better medical treatment for veterans.
Gates abhors the political partisanship that perpetuates manufacture of outdated or useless military equipment and revises the procurement policy of the Defense Department to mitigate waste. He devises a budget approval process that reduces partisan bickering and military/industrial influence.
Gates experience reminds one of George Kennan’s service to the State Department in the sense that he, like Kennan, spent his life in a specialized field to serve the American’ government and people. Gates career as an Air Force Lieutenant, CIA analyst, Deputy CIA Director, and Texas A&M President perfectly suited his transition to Secretary of Defense.
Gates learned how to manage large organizations by doing. He appreciated the sacrifice of youth to military combat because of his close association with A&M’ students. Gates learned from mistakes of command decisions from the top down and appreciated the importance of building momentum for decisions from the bottom up.
Duty is a paean to the importance of intuition based on experience when managing large organizations that are responsible for actions that affect many people. Rational decision-making is limited by the nature of human beings. Only intuition remains and that remainder, though flawed, serves humanity best when it is tempered by real-life experience.
The sense drawn from Duty is that mistakes were made; some by George W.; some by Obama; and some, largely unacknowledged, by Gates. However, Gates most damning criticism is for Congress–its petty bickering, failure to compromise, and failure to legislate. In concert with his assessment of Congress, Gates decries elected officials publicly expressed disrespect for people of different opinion. Gates deplores political ridicule of public servants and the lack of Congressional civility.
Gates shows himself to be the right person in the right place when the intuitive mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan are made. American governments (not to mention corporations) need more managers like Gates to make big organization’ decisions that limit unintended consequences, and hold direct-reports responsible for performance.