America's Eagle Scout
By Alvin Townley
Robert Gates never sought the Pentagon's top office. He had been quite content as President of Texas A&M University. In 2004, he declined President Bush's request that he serve as Director of National Intelligence. But when Bush called again, Gates reluctantly answered, citing a virtue sometimes lacking on the national stage: "duty."
In today's era of political scrapping and self-interested posturing, the ascendency of Secretary Gates seemed unlikely. His more-ambitious peers were astounded that the president gave the post to someone who didn't even want it. But that's precisely why Gates was the right choice.
During his 2006 farewell dinner in College Station, he joked, "Less than a month ago, I was more concerned about beating Nebraska than I was about beating al Qaeda." Then with a noticeable break in his voice, he added: "And the whole world now knows I'd rather be President of Texas A&M than Secretary of Defense."
Yet he did his best in a challenging post and when America elected a new president Gates remained in office. He became the first defense secretary to serve presidents of both parties, proving that when their motives and character are clear, individuals can rise above partisanship and effectively lead.
Gates began learning the art of leadership decades ago as an Eagle Scout in Wichita, Kansas. He still speaks surprisingly often about his experiences as a Scout, crediting them for making him the first entry-level CIA employee to become Director of Central Intelligence. Those same lessons on leadership, perseverance, integrity, and teamwork ultimately enabled his success in the Pentagon.
Reflecting on his arrival in Washington, DC, at age twenty-two, he said, "The only thing I had done in my life to that point that led me to think that I could make a difference, that I could be a leader, was to earn my Eagle Scout badge."
"As I have said in retrospect - only half in jest - [Scouting] was the only management course I've ever had, and in some ways I never felt like I needed another one...;.I learned so much about leading others. They gave you experience doing it...;[and it] taught me an awful lot about leading others - and particularly about leading others who don't have to follow you, but follow because they want to."
As Secretary of Defense, Gates had authority to issue unilateral directives, but he knew that approach would fail when dealing with the generals and admirals on the Pentagon's Joint Staff and the highly-vested individuals, contractors, and organizations related to the military. There were few easy decisions.
As Gates told the U.S. Naval Academy's 2011 graduates, "The time will inevitably come when you must stand alone. When alone you must say, 'This is wrong' or 'I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.' Don't kid yourself - that takes real courage."
Within his first months at the Pentagon, he removed the Secretary of the Army. Soon thereafter he advised against re-nominating the sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and forced the resignation of the Secretary of the Air Force. He discontinued the F-22 fighter program despite howls from the Air Force and congressional delegations from forty-six states involved in the production network. He submitted budgets that reduced defense spending for the first time in a decade. None of those decisions were simple or necessarily popular, but Gates could make them because he had the courage, long-term vision, and selflessness required for true public service.
He explained his roots to 50,000 future leaders at the Boy Scouts' national jamboree, saying "The Scouting movement shows dramatically that service - public service - still beckons the best among us...;[and] that Americans are still prepared to devote themselves to their communities and to their fellow citizens. And this caring beyond self is fundamental to Scouting; it is fundamental to democracy; it is fundamental to civilization itself."
Through his example, Dr. Robert Gates - truly, America's Eagle Scout - reminded us how to look past ourselves and our politics and work together toward a higher vision. And as he leaves the national stage, we can only hope that others of like character might emerge, with that same selflessness, to serve our United States.
Alvin Townley is a national speaker and expert on leadership and Scouting, and the author of Fly Navy as well as Legacy of Honor: The Values and Influence of America's Eagle Scouts, which features Robert Gates.