Leading Out Of Duty When It Would Be Easy To Quit

In “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” (New York Times #1 best seller), former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes that even though he often felt like quitting, out of his sense of duty to the troops he continued to serve 4 ½ years under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In the 600-page book he provides candid, personal observations about why and how the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan were made by the White House, Pentagon and Congress and executed on the battlefield by the troops.

Duty, he writes, compelled him to serve despite his misgivings about the wars and his constant struggles with the White House staff, congressional leaders and the Pentagon bureaucracy.

In a surprising revelation he writes: “I didn’t enjoy being Secretary of Defense.”

He agreed to step in when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going badly and was eventually directed to develop plans to bring them to a necessary end regardless of the outcome.

Throughout the book he describes times when he wanted to quit.  He was ready to walk out of White House planning meetings, congressional committee interrogations and Pentagon bureaucratic marathons.   He memorized his exit remarks.   These internal struggles were the wars that really wore him down.

In his closing reflections he reveals why he took the job and stayed with it.

When I was asked in October 2006 if I would be willing to serve as secretary, I said that because all of those kids out there were doing their duty, I had no choice but to do mine.”

He saw hardships and casualties on battlefields, physical and mental wounds in the military hospitals, life-long disabilities and the toll of war on families.    He relates how he took personally his responsibility to send young men and women into harms way.

The troops,” he wrote, “were the reason I took the job, and they became the reason I stayed.”   Throughout the book he draws the stark contrast between “their self-less service with so many self-serving elected and non-elected officials back home.”

And for that he is remembered as the “soldier’s secretary.”

Two questions –

How many leaders from all walks of life serve from a sense of duty to others?

How well do leaders serve when they are tempted to quit a job they don’t like?

2 Responses to “Leading Out Of Duty When It Would Be Easy To Quit”

  1. Hal Chappelear Says:

    Well done,Tom. I had a young man (former Lt. USN)come by on Saturday seeking encouragement for work in “our civilian world.” He was aware of Gates’ “Duty.” He is going for his final interview this morning – hopes to become a staffer for an elected official from Indiana… feels he can continue to comply with his “Duty” to our Country more effectively at the “policy level” at one-half the income than as a young officer in the Navy!

  2. Dave Felter Says:

    Tom, this could be grist for a fascinating discussion. The notion of duty unencumbered by a proper context, is worthy of examination. In reading the NY Times this morning, I see that Karzai had secret contacts with the Taliban. The wars that tore at the heart of Gates, are proving problematic. The ephemeral rationale behind them seems to be vanishing in the distance of history. Which brings me to the concept of duty. Can there be legitimate “duty” without a proper context by which, and in which to define it? Clearly, there can be compassion, empathy, and even solidarity with the voiceless who must execute strategy.

    I dunno, Cap’n! You’ve got me thinking!