Leadership Styles of the CIA
As I sit here sipping my mug of Cuban coffee—yes mug, those little cups are for the weak—I am recalling all the different managers I worked for. I realize the title for this post is boring if accurate. Frankly, the various leadership styles I experienced at the CIA can be found in any career, people are people no matter their profession or title. Since I am in a reflective mood I will continue.
I have worked for some really extraordinary people. They were leaders, not just managers. They placed mission, agents, and our people above all else, including themselves. These were courageous men and women who exemplified what a leader should be. Many were less concerned with their own careers than with what was right. There is a story about Jack Downing when he was a division chief. He was attending the weekly Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) meeting with all Directorate of Operations (DO) senior managers. The discussion turned to various HR problems within the DO, what to do about them, and as people tend to do, who was to blame. There was the inevitable concern about generational differences and how this generation wasn't as committed as past generations, etc. Jack spoke up and said the problem lies with us in this room. We are in charge and have been in charge for some time. If we have problems the fault rests squarely with us. That did not go over well and Jack retired sometime later, only to be brought back out of retirement as DDO. His superior leadership was recognized.
Throughout my career, I was grateful to come across selfless leaders, men, and women who were professional, competent, inspiring, and a joy to work with. There were other leaders who while not being Leonidas in the pass of Thermopylae, they did their job as managers well. At this point I should drag out that quote, "Managers do things right and leaders do the right thing." That is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind.
Unfortunately, for each one of these splendid examples of leadership there is at least one example, sometimes two, that failed to reach the mark. One of the problems with the DO is that to reach senior ranks, to be deemed a success, one has to move into management. There is a sense that if you don't become a manager you have not had a successful career. The first problem is that many individuals with no hope of being successful managers, let alone a leader, work hard to become one. This is further exacerbated by the need to reward people who have had some success. If you make a significant recruitment you can be promoted or get a bonus, but the ultimate reward is a management position. Many senior officers give management jobs to those who have been loyal or worked hard or helped the senior manager shine. Now, once that individual, terrible that he or she might be at management, is in a management position it becomes difficult to remove them from that track. To do so would seriously damage their career and usually only happens when some extremely serious event occurs.
I learned as much from watching bad managers perform their duties as I did from good leaders. One manager I worked with was a great example. Embassies have what are called Country Team Meetings, where the Ambassador meets with all section heads to discuss ongoing events. One day this manager, we will call him RK, walked into my office after the Country Team Meeting, carrying his briefcase. He announced that a large demonstration against the embassy was headed towards the embassy and the Ambassador feared it might become violent. The Ambassador was closing the embassy and sending everyone home just to be safe. RK said he was heading home as instructed by the Ambassador and that I should make sure everyone closed up and left for home. With that, he headed out the door. Was that good leadership? Should I have followed his lead and have the word passed down from person to person as I headed for home? Thoughts?
Some leaders are nurturing and believe one of their responsibilities is to teach officers the ins and outs of the job. One man I knew explained it this way, "In the old days, we had room to allow junior officers to make mistakes. The countries we operated in were focused on the USSR and communists so they paid little attention to the CIA and were fairly forgiving if someone was caught committing espionage. Junior officers were allowed to step on their dicks now and then. They learned from these mistakes. The problems arose when these junior officers kept making mistakes, they weren't learning. The more they stepped on their dicks it soon became your dick they were stepping on and action had to be taken." Good leaders used an officer's mistakes as teaching points, levying criticism as needed, but more importantly, using positive criticism.
Many CIA managers did not agree with this viewpoint. These are the screamers. They believe yelling and humiliating their officers works best to bring them in line. Part of this is a result of insecurity. They believe if they are not forceful their subordinates will not respect them or do exactly as they are told. Some screamers are very concerned with their careers and how senior CIA management views them. They believe by controlling all decision making, all actions by their officers, they can manage and control senior management's perception of them. For others, it is more of a sadistic pleasure in having the power to scream at their subordinates.
The Red Panda, when it feels threatened, stands and spreads its arms in order to make itself appear larger. Like the Red Panda, the screamer manager uses yelling and screaming to intimidate those around them.
I knew of one Chief of Station (COS), we will call him Rex, who was a notorious screamer. Station personnel were afraid of him or at least hated to deal with his unpleasant manner. Needless to say, this resulted in people not wanting to pass on bad news or to admit to mistakes, a very bad state of affairs, but a result of this style of management. On this particular day, one junior officer realized he had made an operational mistake and needed to advise the COS. As he was explaining what had happened to Rex, the latter became more and more agitated. Rex stood to his full height, an imposing 6 feet 5 inches tall, and started to berate the young officer. He yelled more and more, at the top of his voice. Veins stood out along his neck and forehead. His complexion turned red, extremely noticeable in a man whose normal pigment was vampire white. Spittal flew out of his mouth. He was so angry that he was becoming almost incoherent. Then, all of a sudden, he passed out, falling to the ground with a thud. The young officer stood there in shock staring at his fallen COS. He called for help. Station personnel gathered in the office and looked down on the called leader. They wondered out loud whether he was dead, and if he was who should tell Headquarters. After a minute Rex revived himself, sat on his couch, and composed himself. Crisis averted. What was instructional is that no one in the station made a move to check on Rex and try to revive him. It was almost as if they were waiting in the hopes he was dead and no one would take it upon themself to help him.
I will leave it here. I wrote this in order to entertain as well as educate. All organizations have good and bad leaders, the CIA is not unique in that. Good, bad, and mediocre rise to positions of responsibility for a variety of reasons. The CIA, and other national security organizations, are somewhat unique in that a disgruntled employee who is cut loose under less than amicable circumstances can do significant damage. Edward Howard is a great example, maybe worthy of a future post. However, key to a well-functioning organization is for that organization to have the ability to admit when they have made a mistake, giving an individual leadership responsibility and having an off-ramp to move that person out of leadership without creating animosity.