A Life of Service: An Interview with Secretary Panetta
The GRI sat down with Secretary Leon E. Panetta, former director of the CIA and U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Obama, to discuss his illustrious career in public service and the advice he has for the next generation of leaders.
Secretary Panetta is the co-founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which he started with his wife Sylvia in 1997.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GRI: What motivated you to enter the 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 dad why he came so far to the United States and I never forgot his answer that he and my mom believed they could give their children a better life in this country. . And I think that’s the dream we all have for our children and for their children – to give them a better life. My parents believed that because of the opportunity this country gave them, it was important for my brother and I to give back to the country. And it is for this reason that I joined the public service. I served in the military and then dedicated myself to public life because I felt it was one of the best ways to give back to our country.
Do you believe that it is necessary to choose between the public sector and the private sector to decide on the best way to make a difference?
Secretary Panetta: We have a political institute, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, whose purpose is to try to inspire young people to pursue a life of public service. And I believe that whether you choose a private or public career, because you are citizens of a democracy, you always have a duty to give back to your country, in whatever capacity. I don’t think you really have to choose between the private sector or the public sector. The important thing is that they understand that no matter what they decide to do, they have a responsibility to give back to their democracy.
How has the variety of your experiences in public life helped you succeed?
Secretary Panetta: I think it’s important for students and young people to understand that whatever career choices you make, you’re doing everything you can to give your best, whatever your job. . What I say to young people is ‘don’t always aim for the moon, it’s better to aim to do the best job you can in everything you do and the opportunities will present themselves’. It’s the story of my life. I served in the military and then returned as a legislative aide 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 laws he was working on, particularly on civil rights. And as a result of that, I had the opportunity to go into administration and work on civil rights – and again, to the best of my ability. Not only should young people do their best in whatever job they do, but they should also do what is right and have a sense of conscience as to right and wrong. They may well have to make decisions that could impact their careers if they decide that doing the right thing is more important than doing what someone tells them to do.
A combination of hard work, having an awareness of right and wrong, and doing what you believe is right is absolutely vital. Once a US senator I worked for told me something that I have never forgotten and I pass it on to others. He met with his legislative assistants and he said, “Look, you’re 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 more importantly, the people of the country. And let me remind you of one thing in the morning, you have to get up and look in the mirror. And the point of that was to say that ultimately you have to protect your integrity. You must do what is right. I have never forgotten this advice. And I think young people who are interested in public service have to understand that at the end of the day, they have to do what is right and what they think is right for themselves and for the country they work for. .
Could you respond to the concerns of some young people who may be hesitant to enter the civil service because they feel that the bureaucracy may be too overwhelming?
Secretary Panetta: I understand these anxieties. And the thing is, when you’re involved in public service, you can be involved in bureaucracies of one type or another, and they can be very time-consuming. But the bottom line is that when you find yourself in a job, if you do your best in that job, others will notice. In bureaucracy, people tend to just move papers from inbox to outbox and survive day to day. But if you make sure you’re trying your best to be successful in this job and to help improve the lives of the people you serve, then I think in the end you’ll get noticed, people will pay attention, and most importantly, you’ll can make a difference and that is the greatest reward in public service. It’s not that you’re 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 it, that’s the greatest reward.
How did you experience the transition from legislative (as a member of the House of Representatives) to executive (as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff)?
Secretary Panetta: Well, the experience really boils down to this – when you’re in Congress or parliament, or when you’re in a legislative body, you have a view of all the issues that are involved in government. You can influence those decisions, but you do so from the perspective of the constituents 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 you represent.
When you get into the executive, the reality is, depending on what position you’re in, you have a lot more power. It’s because in the legislature, to get things done, you have to work with several others to get that consensus, to build a majority, to be able to develop the kind of compromise that will allow you to be able to things be done. In the administrative branch, you don’t necessarily need to have that big constituency. You’re basically in charge of an office, you’re in charge of accountability, and you’re the one who can determine whether you’re doing a good job or not. I have found that the difference between legislative and executive is that the former tries to influence power, the latter involves the exercise of power.
Did you draw inspiration from your experiences serving in the US military when you were Chief of Staff at the White House?
Secretary Panetta: Absoutely. I served in the army. 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 you all had to work together to achieve it. I became chief of staff at a time when there was not much order in the president’s cabinet. There were a lot of disruptions. The first thing I had to do was establish discipline and a strong chain of command. This had to be done to make it clear that there would be people who would supervise others, those who would be accountable to others, those who would be empowered to do their jobs, but at the same time supervise the work of others. If you develop this type of chain of command, you can have a much more efficient staff operation that can serve the President of the United States or whoever you are trying to help in the performance of their duties.
Did you feel that putting in place this structure and this chain of command could stifle the creativity and spontaneity on which decision-making sometimes relies?
Secretary Panetta: I think it’s important to have those kinds of abilities. There should be a spontaneous part of it where people can be creative. The way I did that was to have a number of staff meetings, whatever job I had. These staff meetings gave people a chance to speak up, come up with ideas and innovate, but that was the discipline of a staff meeting. In this environment, you could then guide these types of decisions in a way that would help them get implemented if they were good ideas or undo them if they were bad ideas. Discipline in organizations must provide the basis for people to then be innovative and creative in what they do. If you lack discipline in this process, I think the problem is that it will undermine your ability to get things done. Ultimately, public service is about getting things done. It’s not just about satisfying your creativity. It’s about getting things done, which will improve the lives of others.
What hope do you have for the next generation of leaders?
Secretary Panetta: I really invite young people to get involved. Listen, there are problems now. I often tell young people that in a democracy you govern either by leadership or by crisis. If the leadership is there and willing to take the leadership risk, you can avoid the crisis. But if the leadership is not there, then crisis will rule through crisis. And that’s not a good way to govern. It undermines people’s trust in the system of government in which you work. It is important that you are prepared to provide this leadership and that means taking risks. I’m not sure things can change that much from the top down again. I think things have to change from the bottom up.
My young son is a congressman – he took my seat in 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 it. But a combination of young, young members, both Republicans and Democrats, came together to form a group that said “we’re going to work together, we’re not just going to do politics.” We will work together and try to get things done.” And that’s why I think it’s 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 talk to us, Mr. 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