Surely everyone’s heard of the Pentagon? To most of us, it is the behemoth which sits just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC – the imposing five-sided headquarters of the US Department of Defense (DoD) and one of the largest office buildings in the world.
To Michèle Flournoy, however, it is practically her home away from home. Her first tour of duty was during the Clinton administration – serving for nearly six years in senior policy roles – and more recently she took up the post of under secretary of defense for policy, serving under two US secretaries of defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. Her detailed knowledge of the organisation, not to mention a deep reservoir of bipartisan respect, meant that she was widely touted as the likely nominee for secretary of defense had Hillary Clinton prevailed last November.
That was not to be, but Flournoy remains a vocal presence in the arena. Having recently declined to be considered to serve in the Trump administration as number two to current secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, she now leads the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think-tank she cofounded in 2007. It’s a role that is keeping her more than busy, and also reflects her lifelong passion for public service and the creation of ideas and approaches that underpin and propel the policy direction for any administration.
“I was always drawn to public policy,” she admits. “I came out of my graduate work at Oxford and went to work in the think-tank world, focusing on nuclear arms control issues, because back in the mid-80s this was the issue of the day and it seemed like if we didn’t address that challenge we wouldn’t be around to address anything else. The opportunity to serve in government came about eight years later when the Clinton administration came into office. I never had the idea of government in mind from the start but, having worked on developing policy ideas, going on to try and implement them was a natural progression.”
Inside the DoD
It’s often said that the DoD is one of the largest and most complicated government organisations in the world, rivalled by the Vatican but little else. It’s certainly the oldest and largest government agency in the US, employing more than 1.3 million men and women on active duty and 742,000 civilian personnel. No wonder it’s the nation’s largest employer.
Of her first experience in its corridors of power (hopefully not all 17.5 miles of them), Flournoy says that it was an incredible period – one to savour and appreciate, especially so early in her career. “My first role was to help recreate a strategy office in the Pentagon,” she recalls.
“Although this prompted the question why the Pentagon didn’t have a strategy office at the time, we were able to create an internal think-tank to do in-depth assessments, develop strategy, and develop new policy initiatives.” That she performed well is beyond doubt – she was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service in 1996, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service in 1998, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 2000. Quite the trio of trophies.
When she returned in 2009, it was under somewhat unusual circumstances in that her boss, Robert Gates, was staying in post from the Bush Administration. This was actually hugely beneficial, she explains. “It was very helpful to the department and to President Obama in the sense that he was already up to speed and in no need of any learning curve,” she says. “He certainly was an experienced leader and a very steady hand.” The respect was mutual – in his 2014 memoir, Duty, Gates was highly complimentary about Flournoy.
The DoD was also facing a hugely different – and challenging – international security environment. “It was really a Pentagon at war in the sense that we were deeply engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as counterterrorism activity around the world,” explains Flournoy. “You just had a different sense of urgency and a more acute sense of supporting troops in the field than there was back in the 1990s, where it was more about peacekeeping operations and was on a different scale.”
The art of getting things done
Moving an idea from blueprint to reality is rarely – if ever – straightforward. But it seems to an outsider that this must be even more challenging at an organisation as complex as the DoD. After all, there are military and civilian ranks, an abundance of programmes and projects, and an ever-shifting landscape of national security priorities to deal with. Flournoy, though, says that it’s really not as bad as one might think.
“The first thing is to get aligned with the leadership,” she says. “You have to make sure what you’re pursuing is aligned with the secretary’s priorities so that, if needed, you get top cover to pursue your agenda. But contrary to the perception of the Pentagon as this very rigid hierarchy with a lot of vertical direction, the truth is to get anything done there you have to work horizontally with stakeholders in a network.”
To illustrate her point, she cites the example of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which initially cut half a trillion dollars and ultimately one trillion dollars out of the defence budget. “President Obama believed that this was such a substantial change in the resources available for defence that rather than have us write a new strategy for him to sign, he preferred to bring all the stakeholders together,” she recalls.
“And so we had a series of multi-hour meetings at the White House, involving all the service chiefs, all the commanders and civilian leadership and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, working through what we prioritise, where we accept and manage risk, and how can we protect the nation with far fewer resources. He didn’t have to do that, but getting all those people involved in the strategy development ensured that by the end they were all willing to own it and implement it, because they had had their say and understood how and why the trade-offs had been made. To me, this is a great example of stakeholder engagement, as that buy-in is how you get strategy-driven execution, especially in a place like the DoD.”
That said, she also admits to some occasional bumps in the road. “I often felt like a translator between the world of the White House and the world of the uniformed military,” she says. “Military folks are educated and trained to expect a very deductive process where they will be given the desired end state with a clear mission and objectives. They can then go off and come back to the civilians with options to choose from, the civilians pick one, and the military is left alone to execute it.
“Well, no administration actually works this way. Presidents generally want a more iterative process – they want options, they want to understand their costs and risks before they decide on an end state or mission objectives, and so it has to be more iterative. This is sometimes a cause for mutual frustration. One of the things we are working on at CNAS is encouraging more civilian-military dialogue.”
Leading by example
Flournoy, a leader herself, has long become accustomed to seeing leadership in action, often in top-secret meetings involving matters of life and death. Performing well in such situations, she says, comes down to a number of different traits.
“I think it is very important for senior leaders to put aside the idea that they have to be the smartest person in the room,” she says. “There needs to be a willingness to take on new facts and change one’s mind if need be. There also needs to be a diversity of views around the table. There needs to be an environment where dissent is not only allowed but is seen as a duty – even if you’re the junior person in the room, that person needs to be empowered to speak up without their head being taken off. Ultimately, that diversity of perspectives will lead to better decision-making.”
She goes on to say that this diversity of perspectives will only occur if there is a balance in the room in terms of gender, experience and ethnicity. But at least this is trending in the right direction. “This was a dramatic difference between the Clinton and Obama administrations,” she points out. “The first time around, we had a women leaders’ lunch and there were about eight of us at the lunch table. The second time around we would have overflowed the executive dining room. I’m not saying we’re there yet, but I do think that the Pentagon has adjusted to having women in senior positions and having an impact on the direction of the department. You really need this and other forms of diversity in order to create solid decision-making.”
Although Flournoy was not destined to be able to push through this type of approach at the DoD this time around, her passion for government, its importance, and its power to do good remains undimmed. That’s why, in addition to incubating new policy ideas, she and her colleagues at CNAS are also focusing on who is coming next. “We want to grow and train the next generation of national security leaders,” she says. “This means attracting a young and diverse cadre of professionals to the field and really preparing them for public service in the future.”
Now that sounds like a noble and productive way to spend the next four years. As for the future, and a potential return to the Pentagon, only time – and election results – will tell.
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