In Praise of Senior U.S. Officials Taking the Weekend Off

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's absences call into question management practices and a culture of workaholism

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's absences call into question management practices and a culture of workaholism

foust sep 2 p.jpg
Leon Panetta at a conference in Washington D.C. / Reuters

The LA Times ran an anonymously sourced piece today on new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta:

Aides say that unless he is required to stay in Washington or travel elsewhere, Panetta will spend most weekends and days off at his 12-acre walnut farm in scenic Carmel Valley, where he and his wife, Sylvia, make their home...

But his absences at the Pentagon have raised eyebrows in workaholic Washington. Even some of Panetta's friends wonder how he can get away so regularly while his department, by far the largest in the U.S. government, faces multiple wars and daily crises.

This is, in a way, a perfect encapsulation of why DC is such a terrible, and addictive place to work. At the Pentagon in particular, work performance is often judged by time served, not mission accomplished -- that is, if you are at your desk, busily writing or signing things or attending marathon six-hour coordination meetings that don't actually do anything or making powerpoint presentations and drafting snowflake memos... then you are, obviously, a strong worker and good leader.

The thing is, that's just workaholism, and workaholism is actually bad. Despite the requirement of a secure environment to handle any immediate crises, Panetta has a secure Blackberry he can access at his home in California, and considering how much he spent there as CIA director I'm almost certain he has his own Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) in the basement (and if not, they can take as little as six months to build and certify). In other words, there is no reason why spending the weekend at home has to prevent Panetta from doing his job, or even being available to do his job should the need arise.

Then again, consider this:

The CIA director's usual plane had mechanical problems, and aides discovered they did not have the phone number of the replacement aircraft. The snafu became a mini-crisis when an urgent request came for Panetta to approve an operation against a suspected terrorist, a senior Pentagon aide said.

Without exaggeration, that is inexcusable. As a principle -- the senior leader of a major government agency -- Panetta's aides have his phone number. If they do not, then his aides are to blame for not doing their jobs. Not Panetta. Frankly, senior executive assistants in the DOD would never let their principle go anywhere, even on a last-minute emergency replacement charter plane, without a secure fax and a phone to get in touch.

Recent research suggests that overworking can have serious effects on one's ability to do one's job. Taking time off, and allowing your brain to do something other than work, actually makes you work better. During my unhappy years working for the DOD's intelligence organizations, I lost track of how many senior government people I either worked for or interacted with who were so busy they could never read or think about anything -- they had to make decisions, not think about them!

The problem is, everyone is so busy making decisions at the top, and examining the micro-details of probably irrelevant data at the bottom, that there is no room with the organization to take several steps back and ask some basic strategic questions about how the Defense Department is being run. Is it responding to threats in a responsible and proportional way? Are its efforts actually addressing risks and responding to crises, or are they just creating a lot of briefings and wasting money?

The demands for senior leadership to be, in essence, micromanagers is a major reason why there is no strategic vision withing the national security complex (it's also because there's no public awareness that they lack strategic vision, and no demand to develop it by the President). Effective leadership doesn't demand constant, obsessive, 24-hour observation. It requires... well, leadership, which doesn't have to be neck-deep in the minutiae of an organization's operations -- even an organization as big, as important, and as violent as the Department of Defense.

If the demands of the job of Secretary of Defense require Leon Panetta to be up to his eyeballs in the minute details of operations at all hours of the day and night, then his agency is not actually being led; it is being managed, barely. One of the most cogent criticisms levied at former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' tenure is his failure to think and act in a position of strategic leadership. The job involves management and long hours, like any large organization, but it does not require constant, day-in and day-out micromanagement.

Maybe we can let Secretary Panetta take weekends off for a change. It just might make the whole thing run a bit more smoothly.