Ash Carter, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on December 6, 2017 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Making Decisions Under Pressure — A Conversation with Ash Carter

As former Defense Secretary, Ash Carter is no stranger to high-pressure situations. Yet he recalls these intense experiences in a measured tone, describing his reactions and rationales in precise detail. Methodical decision-making, he explains, is a critical skill of someone in his position, saying,

Carter made several major decisions during his 2015–2017 tenure at the Defense Department. He introduced a policy allowing women to serve in all military positions, launched a new cyber strategy, and fostered partnerships with private organizations to improve the Department’s efficiency. Known for his innovative leadership style, Carter created a new culture which encouraged Pentagon staff to think “outside the five-sided box.”

Currently serving as director of the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, Carter joined Richard Serino, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, at the Voices in Leadership studio on December 6, 2017. He enlightened the audience to how he pushed the boundaries while maintaining principle at of one of the country’s most rigid institutions.

Watch Ash Carter’s full talk for the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on December 6, 2017.

Maintain a commitment to global service

While some may question outsized military spending while public health resources are so scarce, Carter reminded the audience of the value of the Defense Department for deterring new threats and responding in times of need. One of its major functions is to support natural and man-made disaster responses. Protecting the United States is the Defense Department’s first priority, but Carter emphasizes that it also responds to global disease and disasters. Carter reasons,

It is a logical role, as biological and nuclear hazards may pose serious security threats to our country. But Carter says that the military’s actions during the nuclear accident in Fukushima and the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa also helped to boost our nation’s image as a friend in need.

Bridge the gap between today and tomorrow

As Defense Secretary, Carter made progressive decisions that stayed true to the core business of the military. He says this approach stemmed from his recognition that he was serving as a steward for today — and tomorrow.

Ash Carter, right, former U.S. Secretary of the Defense, with Richard Serino, left, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on December 6, 2017, as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

Because joining the armed is a voluntary decision, Carter realized that the military needed to modernize to attract the most qualified candidates. He says his decision to allow women to serve in all units of the military was an easy one. It increased the diversity of the armed forces, but it did not change anything about the institution’s commitment to hiring based on merit. For instance, there is no quota for women in artillery units, but the opportunity is now open to any woman who is qualified. He asserts that the same mindset should apply to recruiting other types of candidates,

Prepare your decisions and communicate them carefully

While the decision to allow women in all military positions was easy to make, it was more difficult to announce, pointing out,

Ash Carter, right, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, answered questions from Harvard Chan student Aleesha Shaik, left, on December 6, 2017, as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

To prepare for the policy change, Carter consulted with the secretaries of all military branches. He anticipated the secretaries’ concerns and demanded well-argued rationales for any exceptions to the policy. Carter says that conveying the judgements he made and offering clear instructions for the support he needed from his reports was key to his leadership approach. Leading up to the announcement, Carter prepared defenses for any angles he could expect the press or politicians to challenge:

He also decided that this decision needed to be framed as a professional, not a political, one. He deliberately told President Obama about the decision just moments before announcing it. In the end, the policy received no negative reactions from Congress. Carter thinks that the strong preparation and careful framing of the decision were key to its success.

Recognize that your conduct is as important as your position

Carter laments the loss of propriety in today’s society, and urges young leaders not to forget their sense of decorum. As a former Defense Secretary, he insisted on wearing a full suit when meeting with deployed servicemen in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, viewing it as a small way to honor the servicemen’s enormous sacrifice. He argues,

Carter’s commitment to careful preparation, communication, and honorable conduct are not often matched in today’s society. He demonstrates that leadership is about more than currying political favor. It is about demonstrating professionalism, recognizing and valuing the contributions others make to one’s success, and upholding one’s obligation to service.

For more from the Voices in Leadership (@VoicesHSPH) series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (@HarvardHSPH), visit www.hsph.harvard.edu/voices.

Story by Dana Sievers, a first year student in the Master of Public Health program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, interested in adolescent health, water & sanitation, and health behavior change.

Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a second year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, interested in gender equity, maternal health, and health policy and governance.

Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices