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2017-01-22 08:05:10
Corner Office: Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter on Leading Through Clarity and Conduct

This interview with Ashton B. Carter, the outgoing United States secretary of defense, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. What were your early years like?

A. I grew up in Philadelphia. I was a hard-working kid. When I was 11 years old, I got my working papers — you could do that in Pennsylvania back then — and walked down to the Sparkle Kwik carwash and got a job. I was working hard, but I got fired from it.

The men who worked there made me do the final wiping outside in the winter, and everybody else was on the steamy inside. That was O.K. with me. But next to me outside was a big red steel box with a padlock on it, which was the tip box.

And they would open the tip box at the end of the day and distribute it among themselves and not give me anything. I saw that happening for a few days and went to the boss and complained. I was probably a little mouthy, and he fired me. So I walked down the street to a Gulf gas station and got a job there, and I worked there for five years, evenings and weekends.

I also worked as an orderly in a hospital in my teens, and saw things and was allowed to do things that no orderly would ever be allowed to do now, like take dead people to the morgue by myself in an elevator. Then I worked on a fishing boat in New Jersey.

Tell me about your parents.

My mother had been a schoolteacher early in her life, but she was quite ill when I was a child. During that time, my father and I did the cooking, particularly when my brother and sisters grew up and moved out.

My father ran the largest mental health center in the Philadelphia area at that time. That was an interesting window into the world. He told enough stories about things that he had seen, and I saw enough myself working in the gas station and as an orderly, that I certainly saw the darker and sadder side of human beings.

How did that shape you?

I got this from my father: He was open to, and accepting of, a great variety of people and people’s attitudes. The only thing he was intolerant of was intolerance and people who didn’t treat other people well.

Any other influences from your father?

My father was a curious person and always wanted to know why something was the case, and that is why I studied physics and history. Physics helps you understand how things work, and history helps you understand why things are the way they are. It’s important to feel like you have that mastery, so you know and can understand everything in your circumstance.

When I deal with a foreign country or a wartime situation, I make sure I know enough of how it came to be the way it is. I was also the chief technologist and acquisition officer a couple of jobs ago in the Department of Defense, and I know how everything works in that area.

It means that nothing is a mystery to me, and that’s an important strength I have in dealing with complicated circumstances, particularly foreign policy ones.

You’ve studied history, you’ve interacted with leaders around the world, and worked with and for many presidents. What do you think are the most important qualities of effective leaders?

No. 1, and particularly in the national security area, is order and discipline at the top. People want a sense of direction. You need to be clear, and in the military, clarity of direction is especially important. You have to be absolutely consistent, and relentlessly repeat it.

The other is how you conduct yourself. As secretary of defense, our three million uniformed and civilian employees are looking at me. If they don’t see an example in my commitment to the mission and the way I conduct myself, it will be hard for them to follow me as a leader.

Clarity is important, but if you have clarity without example, you’re just the boss barking at the top and people are reluctantly doing what they’re doing or not doing it at all.

If you are very likable and they know your heart is in it but you’re not decisive and crystal clear about what you expect them to do, you won’t succeed either. So it’s clarity and it’s example, every day.

How do you hire?

Integrity is extremely important to me. So in the interview, I’m watching for evasiveness, for not answering the question. It’s important that someone be straight with you, and if they’re not being straight, you can’t really gauge them, and that tells you a great deal.

Somebody who is evading you in the interview is also someone who probably evades issues, evades other circumstances, and will not be straight with the people you put him or her in charge of.

And how do you find that out?

You ask them questions that are difficult ones of judgment in the area in which you expect to give them responsibility. I don’t expect them to always have a good or fully informed answer, but I expect a straight answer, and you can tell that right away.

In the profession of arms, when you’re dealing with life and death and with our national security, integrity is extremely important and straightforwardness is extremely important.

What else do you ask?

The other one is, “Why are you doing this?” They need to have a sense of mission, and that’s important, because what we do is not a game. It’s a deadly serious business, and I need someone who understands why they have chosen to do this, and that they’re not just trying to be successful, get ahead or get in the newspapers.

It doesn’t have to be a catchy answer. It doesn’t have to be a complicated answer. It can even be a banal answer. But if it is straightforward and it suggests self-awareness and a real dedication to our mission, that’s a good answer.