What did you consider the most challenging aspect of your job when you were secretary of defense?
I was asked more than once after I left the Pentagon after two years as secretary of defense what was it like to run the largest institution in the world. And I would give the same answer. I would chuckle and say, “Oh, I didn’t run anything.” I was the secretary of defense. I had responsibility for everything within the Department of Defense. But you’ve got to understand that the Department of Defense is a mammoth empire that consists of smaller empires within it. Each of the services is an empire. Your civilian workforce is an empire. Your political leadership is an empire. The media is an empire. The military industrial complex is an empire. The Congress that has oversight over you is a huge dimension of this. The White House, because we report to the commander in chief, is the ultimate empire. So, my point is as secretary of defense you’ve got to be dealing with all of these different factures and factions and assuring that everyone is moving in the right direction. That means you listen to everybody. That means you include everybody. That means you’ve got to have absolute transparency – I mean, where you can – in decision-making, but most importantly, everyone has to have a voice at the table before the decision is made.
So, it’s a huge management job. Now, I know each secretary of defense comes at it a little differently. I know some delegate all that to their deputy secretary of defense. Well, you can do, I think, a certain amount of that up to a point. But in the end, it’s the secretary of defense who has to sign everything and who is ultimately responsible for everything. So I always found that as one of the most challenging parts of the job, but I liked it. I welcomed it. I just am built that way. I like knowing what’s going on. And I think the big challenge is always for a secretary of defense to know as much of what’s going on as you possibly can, because you’ve got to be informed enough to make some really good decisions and recommendations to the president on policy and other things. And the way I’ve described it is, you have to have real peripheral vision. Yes, you have to stay concentrated and focused on the big issues and what’s ahead of you and what you’ve got coming, but you’ve got to really have an understanding of what’s going on around you and be aware of that. And the last point I would make is always recognize that there will be new developments, new events, new challenges and unknowns coming every 24 hours. So always leave a little time in your capacity, in your capability, because you’ve only got so many hours. You’ve only got so much energy. As you manage that, keep a little margin for what you don’t know is coming but is going to come. And many times, those require emergency kind of focuses. So, I think all those things were the challenges. It wasn’t one thing. It was everything. But I liked the challenge. I thought that was all the good part of the job that I liked.
I think today, cyber probably represents the most significant overall threat to the United States in every way [more] than any one thing. Yes, a nuclear exchange is a threat, of course, biochemical weapons, pandemic health, so on – all threats, absolutely, of course. But it’s cyber that can paralyze a nation, paralyze power grids, paralyze computers, paralyze energy sources, paralyze banking services, financial services.
And the last part of that and always the biggest part is working with the other people, the team building – building a really good team and having an opportunity to work with really good people to meet those big challenges. You don’t do it on your own. That’s my whole point – is saying the secretary of defense doesn’t run anything by himself; you do it with your teams, with the service chiefs, and with the chairman of joint chiefs, and you do it with everybody. That is the way you can lead. It’s a leadership position which must include some management. It must include all the other dimensions of leadership. But listening is a primary part of that.
Was there anything that kept you up at night while you were serving as secretary?
Well, if I took that attitude, I’d never get to sleep. I mean, I knew parts of the world were coming apart. And you also know there is a lot you don’t know. And that’s a big part of the job too – recognizing that you’ll never know enough. You will never know it all. But you try to know enough about enough things so that you don’t really stumble on the big things. So, I tried to find some time to kind of block a lot of the specifics out, so I could think about it in a more free way, and sleep, because you can take that to bed with you or anywhere with you and it will consume you. And you cannot let that job consume you. Like any big job, it can consume you. So, you’ve got to really balance yourself so that you aren’t kept up at night. Now, if you’ve got an emergency or something that is going to keep you up – which we had those, everybody does – yeah, I mean that keeps you up at night, on what are we going to do and how and so on and so on. But you try to balance your capabilities and your time and your energy so that these things don’t keep you up at night.
How much do you think the security environment has changed since you were secretary of defense versus today?
Well, I think you’ve got to realize that the security environment is constantly changing. It literally is changing every 24 hours. Cyber has changed the rules. I mean, cyber has changed everything. And I think today, cyber probably represents the most significant overall threat to the United States in every way [more] than any one thing. Yes, a nuclear exchange is a threat, of course, biochemical weapons, pandemic health, so on – all threats, absolutely, of course. But it’s cyber that can paralyze a nation, paralyze power grids, paralyze computers, paralyze energy sources, paralyze banking services, financial services. You don’t know when it’s coming. Many times you’re not sure exactly where it’s coming from, and how you are going to respond to it. Technology always changes everything – when the tank was first produced, and then the first fighter plane was produced, and so on, and so on. So, you’ve got to try to anticipate and stay ahead as much as you can of the unknown, of what you think is coming. And you know new things are coming. Every time you’ve got some dynamic figured out, something comes along that will shift it, will change it. The world is far more competitive, more interconnected today, which has changed everything. We no longer are just protected by two vast oceans on the east and west coast and two pretty secure borders. Historically that’s been the case. We lost that a long, long time ago. So, you’ve got to rely on alliances, intelligent sharing, economics, trade. All of these things become factors now in our security, because all are connected to our security. Whether it is financial security or whether it is stability or whether it is trade, it doesn’t make any difference. Now the world is so much more interconnected and complicated that it affects our security systems and the integration of those systems. So yes, it’s changed. It will continue to change. And it will evolve and then change and change more. Essentially that’s the history of man, and security and stability are bedrocks or foundations for the success of mankind.