Four Leadership Takeaways from Ash Carter

Then Defense Secretary James Mattis, left, applauds former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, during the portrait unveiling ceremony for the former secretary at the Pentagon in February 2018.

Then Defense Secretary James Mattis, left, applauds former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, during the portrait unveiling ceremony for the former secretary at the Pentagon in February 2018. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The former Defense secretary has important advice for both political and career executives.

In his sprawling 466-page new book, Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter covers a lot of territory. There is something for everyone. He provides a comprehensive overview of how the Pentagon operates, both on the military side and on the civilian side. He discusses five major strategic challenges facing the United States: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and the threat of terrorism. There is also a detailed discussion of “troops in action,” including understanding of the chain of command, combat readiness, and the importance of clarity of purpose. 

The book also sets out to be a guide for new political executives, as well as career executives throughout government. Carter is eager to pass on what he has learned during his nearly 40-year career in and around the Defense Department. There are four key management takeaways for federal leaders.

1. Experience Matters 

Prior to confirmation to his confirmation to serve as the 25th Defense secretary in February 2015, Carter had served in three key presidentially-appointed positions at the Pentagon. During the Clinton administration, he served as assistant secretary for Defense for global strategic affairs, and During the Obama administration, he served both as under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, and deputy secretary. Even when he wasn't directly working in government, Carter served on the Defense Science Board and Defense Policy Board as well as on numerous other advisory committees. 

Carter represents the honorable tradition of the “in-and-outer,” individuals who held academic or private sector positions in between their government service. They came back to government service with extensive experience in their fields. In Carter’s case, he describes how he had seen Defense “not only from ‘up on the bridge,’ where policy is made, but also ‘down in the engine room,’ where all the gears turn and the money is spent.” To say he was well prepared to lead the Defense Department is an understatement. Today, the pejorative term “revolving door” (often deserved) is used to describe the careers of many political executives. Carter describes what the career of an “in and outer” looks like and makes a strong case for experience serving as the primary criteria for political appointments. 

2. Facts Matter   

Carter was trained as a scientist (as were former Defense Secretaries Harold Brown and William Perry). Carter writes, “I am a scientist by inclination and training—which means that a policy of using hard facts as the basis for action is deeply ingrained in me.” Carter’s first experiences with Defense involved work on the controversial issues of where to base MX missiles, the Star Wars missile defense program, and the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction initiative. “I was exposed early and often to one of the central challenges faced by any government policy-maker: figuring out how to make solidly fact-based decisions in an atmosphere of intense, emotional, often vitriolic political debate—and how to win enough support for those decisions that they can be effectively carried out for the good of the country,” he writes.

Carter’s reflections on the use of facts in decision making is indeed timely. He writes, “In times of extreme partisan polarization, those in leadership roles may feel tempted to skew their judgements according to what is ideologically correct or politically expedient. It may work for a while—but plans made without due regard for fact generally backfire, reflecting the way reality ultimately takes revenge on those who try to ignore it.”  

Carter concludes, “The truth matters—and in most cases, in the long run, the truth wins out. At least, that has generally been the case in my public career until now.”  

3. Preparation Matters  

One cannot read Inside the Five-Sided Box without noting the importance of preparation on two levels—individual and organizational. Both Carter and the Defense Department take preparation seriously.   As an executive, Carter discusses the importance of preparing adequately for congressional hearings, press briefings, and meetings. He writes:

“We’ve all seen how being unprepared for a curveball from an influential representative or senator can get a cabinet officer in trouble, generating a needless controversy that might take weeks to defuse. I preferred to invest my time, thought, and energy beforehand and so prevent such controversies from ever arising . . . While preparing for a press appearance, I generally composed my own material . . . When a major announcement was in the offering, I would often devote most of a weekend to composing a first draft, since it was impossible to fit the job into a busy workweek.”

This same discipline and preparation are also seen within the department and throughout the military services. While it is clearly the department’s “job” to always be prepared, Carter devotes a chapter to the key ingredients of readiness. Many other federal departments and agencies could learn from the department’s approach to preparing for its key mission. 

4. People Matter  

The final section of the book is titled “People Matter Most.” While many memoirs of political executives focus primarily on their policy-making initiatives, Carter’s memoir focuses on people—troops, the department’s public servants, and his personal staff. Throughout the book, he is generous in singly out (naming names) the people with whom he worked closely on Defense initiatives. Many memoirs give the impression that there are just three or four people in addition to the author working on these important issues. For those who know government well, people do indeed matter and the success of any leader is dependent on how well they manage and lead their workforce. 

Memoirs range widely in the quality of the author’s insights. For future political and career executives, Ash Carter’s offers many valuable lessons.  

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is mark.abramson@comcast.net.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.