Lessons On Transparent Leadership From A Former U.S. Defense Secretary

Robert M. Gates knows a thing or two about how organizational secrecy can go wrong.

Lessons On Transparent Leadership From A Former U.S. Defense Secretary
[Photo: Flickr user LBJ Foundation]

I spent nearly all of my professional life in a secret world—a world of secret documents, secret operations, secret procedures, secret budgets, secret identities, and secret congressional hearings. Often, even my personal calendar was secret. At the CIA, National Security Council, and Defense Department, virtually everything was secret—including information that could easily be obtained online or in the newspaper.


To make things worse, layered on top of all this secrecy were countless “compartmented” programs requiring special security clearances—intelligence collection programs, covert operations, military plans, new weapons, and more. I had clearances I couldn’t remember for programs I had forgotten existed. And people were always showing up in my office or at home—usually at odd hours—with colored canvas bags with strange locks and seals that could only be opened in front of me.

What troubled me more and more with each passing year was the realization that too much was being kept secret because of habit, culture, internal power politics, and a fear of embarrassment or accountability, rather than any risk to national security. Similar fears plague the private sector, too, and I’ve come to realize that they’re in no one’s best interests.

A Top-Secret Education In Transparency

Over the course of my career in government, I’ve seen issues from budgets to bureaucratic turf wars unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy. In most of those cases, the public could—and should—have been told more about how and why we did what we did without compromising sensitive information and operations.

I became convinced that excessive secrecy was an obstacle to needed changes inside government organizations. Equally important, at least at the CIA, I felt that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Agency had to be more open about what it did and why, or risk losing the public and political support that had been taken for granted during the Cold War.


And so, despite a professional lifetime spent in an ocean of secrecy, I became an ardent advocate of far greater transparency, both internally and externally, in the organizations I ran.

Especially in bureaucracies, people are suspicious of change and always suspect hidden agendas. For too many leaders, a monopoly on information is deemed a source of power: “If you only knew what I know.” But it amounts to little more than an ego trip to dole out little bits of information to subordinates and career professionals, thereby keeping them in the dark. This is, I believe, the sign of either a weak, insecure leader or an arrogant know-it-all.

Whichever it may be, it’s fatal to successfully implementing lasting reform. Transparency has some costs (in terms of premature disclosures of options or leaks intended to influence outcomes), but overall, the benefits of being open far outweigh the downsides for the reformer.

CEOs Aren’t Special Agents

This applies equally to business. Too often, leaders don’t trouble to share—routinely—with their employees the reasons for various changes, the direction of the company, or its goals. They seldom even talk about the company culture.


This isn’t about handing everyone a small laminated card imprinted with the company’s mission and values. I’ve seen those, and employees mainly ignore or discard them. Instead, it’s about a leader’s effort to reach out in an authentic voice—not just releasing a statement prepared by HR or by the VP for communications—to offer a personal perspective on the company’s strategy and future. And also to talk about the company’s culture.

The goal isn’t to make a onetime rah-rah speech, but rather to create a regular and personal style of outreach to the entire workforce, updating them on company performance, changes under way, and other developments affecting the business. By serving on 10 corporate boards and through many encounters with business leaders, I’ve met a number of superb and successful CEOs. Some have regular conversations with executives and rank-and-file employees alike, to discuss company culture, share information, and simply generate enthusiasm for the work everyone’s doing together.

Decide To Declassify

As director of Central Intelligence from 1991 to 1993, I made it a priority to increase transparency, appointing a task force on openness, with a view to giving the public a greater window into what intelligence agencies did and the contribution they made to national security. I made significantly more senior CIA officials available to talk to the press routinely, created a new historical declassification staff, gave scholars clearances allowing them access (with restrictions) to classified files, and opened our decades-old archive of satellite photos of the Arctic region of the Soviet Union to scientists studying global warming.

In addition, we declassified the 40-year file of analytical assessments of the Soviet Union, and I pledged to declassify our files on selected covert actions from the 1950s. I agreed to allow representatives from the CIA to testify before Congress in hearings open to the public and media whenever possible. I was convinced we could do all this—and more—without compromising intelligence sources and methods or national security.


More than 20 years later, and after serving as defense secretary in two administrations, I’m still convinced those were the right things to do. Transparency builds confidence, empowers people with information, and helps organizations run more smoothly. Secrets have their place, but they’re often still found in far too many places.

This article is adapted from A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service by Robert M. Gates (2016, Penguin Random House). It is reprinted with permission.