A Life of Service: An Interview with Secretary Panetta

A Life of Service: An Interview with Secretary Panetta

A Life of Service: An Interview with Secretary Panetta

GRI sat down with Secretary Leon E. Panetta, former CIA Director and US Defense Secretary under President Obama, to discuss his illustrious career in public service and advice he has for the next generation of leaders.

Secretary Panetta is the co-founder of The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which he launched with his wife Sylvia in 1997.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

GRI: What motivated you to enter into public service? 

Secretary Panetta: I am the son of Italian immigrants and my parents came to this country like millions of other immigrants. I used to ask my father why he came all that distance to the US and I have never forgotten his response, which was that my mother and he believed they could give their children a better life in this country. And I believe that to be the dream that we all have for our children and for their children – to give them a better life. My parents believed because of the opportunity this country gave them, that it was important for my brother and I to give back to the country. And it was for that reason that I got involved in public service. I served in the Army and then dedicated myself to public life, because I felt that was one of the best ways to give back to our country.

Do you believe that one has to choose between the public and private sector when deciding how best to make a difference?

Secretary Panetta: We have a policy institute, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and the purpose of it is to try to inspire young people to pursue lives of public service. And I am a believer that whether you choose a private or a public career, that because you are citizens of a democracy, you still have a duty to give back to your country, in whatever capacity. I do not think one has to really choose between the private or public sector. The important thing is that they understand that no matter what they decide to do, that they have a responsibility to give back to their democracy.

How did the variety of your experiences in public life help you succeed?  

Secretary Panetta: I think it is important for students and young people to understand that whatever choices you make in terms of your career, you do everything you can to do your very best, in whatever job you have. What I tell young people is ‘do not always set your sights on the moon, it is better if you set your sights on doing the best job possible in whatever you do and opportunities will come along.’ That is the story of my life. I served in the Army and then went back as the legislative assistant to a US Senator from California and worked hard at that job. I had the opportunity to make a difference in terms of some of the legislation he was working on, particularly on civil rights. And as a result of that, I got the opportunity to go into the administration and worked on civil rights – and again, to the best of my ability. Not only should young people do the very best in whatever job they have but they also ought to do what is right and to have a sense of conscience about right and wrong. They may well have to make decisions that could impact their career, if they decide that doing what is right is more important than doing what somebody tells them to do.

A combination of working hard, having a conscience about right and wrong and doing what you believe is right is absolutely vital. Once a US Senator that I worked for told me something I have never forgotten and I pass it on to others. He met with his legislative assistants and he said, ‘Look, you are going to be tempted in this job to try to do things to influence me. But I want you to remember one thing; we are here to serve the interests of the people of California, but most importantly, the people of the country. And let me just remind you of one thing in the morning, you would have to get up and look at yourself in the mirror.’ And the point of that was to say, in the end, you have to protect your integrity. You have to do what is right. I never forgot that advice. And I think young people who are interested in public service, have to understand that in the end, they must do what is right, and what they believe is right for themselves and for the country that they are working for.

Could you address the anxieties of some young people who are perhaps hesitant to enter into public service as they feel the bureaucracy might be too overwhelming?

Secretary Panetta: I understand those anxieties. And the fact is that when you are involved in public service, you may be involved in bureaucracies of one kind or another, and they can be very consuming. But the bottom line is that when you are located in a job, if you do the very best that you can in that job, others will take notice. In bureaucracy, the tendency is for people simply to move papers from the inbox to the outbox and just kind of survive from day to day. But if you make sure that you are trying to do everything to succeed in that job and to help improve the lives of the people that you are serving, then I think in the end you will be noticed, people will pay attention, and most importantly, you can make a difference and that is the greatest reward in public service. It is not that you are going to make a lot of money or have a lot of power. The real reward in public service is that you can do something to improve the lives of others to make their lives better. And if you can do that, that is the greatest reward.

How was your experience of moving from the legislative (as member of the House of Representatives) to the executive (as Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton)?

Secretary Panetta: Well, the experience really comes down to this – when you are in the Congress or in the parliament, or when you are in a legislative body, you do have a view of all of the issues that are involved in government. You can impact those decisions, but you do it from the perspective of the constituents that you represent and what is in their interest. You try to do what you can to influence the passage of legislation that will ultimately impact the people that you represent.

When you go into the executive branch, the reality is, depending on what position you have, that you do have a lot more power. This is because in the legislative branch, in order to get things done, you have to work with a number of others to get that consensus, to build a majority, to be able to develop the kind of compromise that will enable you to be able to get things done. In the administrative branch, you do not have to necessarily have that large constituency. You are basically in charge of an office, you are in charge of responsibility, and you are the one that can determine whether or not you do a good job or not. I found that the difference between the legislative and the executive is that the former tries to influence power, the latter involves the exercise of power.

Did you draw on your experiences of serving in the US military during your time as Chief of Staff in the White House?

Secretary Panetta: Absolutely. I served in the military. It was at a time when it was important to have discipline and a strong chain of command. In the military, you understood that the mission was to take the hill and that you all had to work together in order to do that. I became Chief of Staff at a time when there was not a lot of order in the President’s staff. There was a lot of disruption. The first thing I had to do was to establish discipline and a strong chain of command. This had to be done to make clear there were going to be people who would supervise others, those who would be responsible to others, those would be empowered to do their jobs, but at the same time, would oversee the work of others. If you develop that kind of chain of command, then you can have a much more effective staff operation that can serve the President of the United States or whoever that you are trying to help in the implementation of their duties.

Did you feel that setting this structure and chain of command might stifle the creativity and spontaneity that decision making sometimes relies on?

Secretary Panetta: I think it is important to have those kinds of capabilities. There should be a spontaneous part of this where people can be creative. The way I did it was to have a number of staff meetings, whatever job I have had. Having those staff meetings gave the opportunity to people to express themselves, to come up with ideas and be innovative, but it was within the discipline of a staff meeting. In this environment, you could then guide those kinds of decisions in a way that would help them to be implemented if they were good ideas or shut them down if they were bad ideas. Discipline in organisations has to provide the foundation for people to then be innovative and creative in what they are doing. If you lack discipline in that process, I think the problem is it will undermine your ability to get things done. In the end, public service is about getting things done. It is not just about satisfying your creativity. It is about getting things done, which will improve the lives of others.

How much hope do you have for the next generation of leaders?

Secretary Panetta: I would really urge young people to get involved. Look, there are problems now. I often tell young people that in a democracy we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If leadership is there and willing to take the risk of leadership, you can avoid crisis. But if leadership is not there, then crisis will govern by crisis. And that is not a good way to govern. It undermines the trust of the people in whatever system of government you are involved with. It is important that you are willing to provide that leadership and that means taking risks. I am not sure that things can change so much from the top down anymore. I think things have to change from the bottom up.

My young son is a member of Congress – he took my seat in the Congress. He learned from me when I was in Congress and he understands that the purpose of being elected is to govern, to get things done. He found resistance to that. But a combination of young people, young members, both Republicans and Democrats came together to form a group that said ‘we are going to work together, we are not just going to play politics. We are going to work together and try to get things done’. And that is why I think it is important for young people to get involved because they can bring a dedication to governing and serving the public that represents the right kind of leadership in our democracy.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Secretary. We sincerely appreciate it.

Secretary Panetta: With pleasure. You are involved in a good mission. Keep it up.

– Edited by Rachael Rhoades, Editor in Chief

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