Despite the fact that so many books and so many articles have been written about leadership, I still find this a hard topic to discuss. Even though I rose to the senior ranks of the CIA and led stations and groups within the Agency, I keep asking myself whether I am qualified to discuss the issue. What I learned, I learned by trial and error, studying people I considered good leaders and those I thought were poor leaders. The CIA has historically done a poor job of training its leaders. There have been many attempts to develop a leadership training program, mostly initiated by Agency officers who were former military, but these efforts have never been truly successful.
Part of the problem is how the CIA functions. The military, which I believe does an excellent job of training its leaders, has clear paths for leadership: non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and Officers. They are distinct from the enlisted personnel whose main job is combat or supporting combat. By the nature of their jobs, they are designated as leaders and receive leadership training, and are evaluated for their leadership skills all along their careers. Throughout their service, these leaders are sent to various courses and schools to hone their skills. The military considers it important enough that they pull them from their duties to send them to training and schools for extended periods of time.
The CIA’s leadership structure is different. There is no separate leadership cadre. Its officers also function as its enlisted personnel. Case officers do the equivalent of combat, recruiting and handling spies, and conducting covert action. There is no separate leadership track. In addition, its smaller size makes it extremely difficult to send a useful number of its personnel to extended leadership training. If we sent the same percentage of case officers to extended leadership training as the military does, we would have to cut back on our operations or hire a lot more case officers. As a result, leadership training at the CIA has languished. When officers are exposed to some semblance of leadership training they receive it late in their careers when they are set in their ways, lessening the positive impact of the training.
With all that in mind, I will take a stab at what I learned at the CIA. First, I want to set a baseline. There is a difference between a leader and a manager. There is the old adage that a manager does things right and a leader does the right thing. It is trite but somewhat true, there is a difference. Here we will discuss leaders. There is also the age-old discussion of whether leaders are born or can be made. I believe in the latter. Natural-born leaders are great, but they can also turn out to be bad leaders if they are not taught how to use their leadership. More on that later. Finally, this is about day-to-day leadership, not heroic leadership. None of us are Alexander the Great or Leonidas at the pass of Thermopylae. That I leave to the military.
The first leadership lesson I learned is that you cannot fool the people under your command. They will determine fairly quickly whether you are a leader they can rely on or a fraud. They know if you are in it for yourself or for the good of the unit. As soon as they ascertain what type of leader you are, they will either follow you or start looking out for themselves instead of the mission. People have a strong sense of survival and few things kick that sense into high gear as a leader who only cares about himself or herself. You might not realize this if you are a poor leader because these very same people will hide their feelings toward you. They don’t trust you so they will be less than honest as to what they feel about you. They will know when you manage up, that is, when you suck up to your bosses and think less of you for it.
That gets to my next point. Leadership is not about you. It is about the people you lead and the mission you are tasked with carrying out. It has been said many times, but leadership is about service. Too many leaders operate under the belief that being in charge is about their greater glory. You need to let go of yourself, stop thinking about how important you are, and focus on how important the people under your leadership are. They are what matter, not you. They will accomplish the task, not you.
Your job is to inspire people to get the job done. You are there to motivate them, to help them when they falter. You are there to run interference for them, to deflect any criticism that might come down. That criticism is for you to take, not the people you lead. There are few worse leaders than those who take the praise and pass on the criticism. It should be the opposite for a leader. The people you lead should get the praise and you take the blame. I also hope that you notice that I never refer to “your people.” They don’t belong to you. I have noticed throughout my career officers who always referred to “my people” or “my group.” Most people disliked these leaders because the use of “my” has usually been an indicator of a leader who will reap all the glory and pass on the blame.
If you believe leadership is principally about promotion and advancement, please spare the people who will work for you from your leadership. They will be miserable. And if you don’t care whether they are miserable or not, then don’t be a leader. I can already hear people saying “tough on them, we are not here to make people happy, mission first,” etc. I agree it is not a popularity contest. If you try to please everyone and make them all happy, you will fail as a leader. However, if you don’t care about your people and treat them as a disposable commodity, what makes you think they won’t do the same to you, to the organization, and to the mission? People will shut down very quickly when they believe they are being used for your glorification. If you don’t care about them, they will not care about you or what you are trying to accomplish.
One of the flaws I observed in the CIA system is that, normally, to rise to the higher ranks one needs to move into management. That forces people who are good at their core job of recruiting and handling spies to leave that track and take on a leadership role. Sometimes they are not good at management and are not happy about being placed in that position. However, we all like to make more money, pay the mortgage, put kids through college, so they move into management because they know they can make more money. When leadership is tied to promotion, that is, it is the only way to reach certain grades, you run the risk of not getting the right people. You will get some, but you will also get people not temperamentally suitable for leadership or individuals who see leadership as a promotion rather than as a service.
When I led a large program at the CIA, I would tell people who joined the leadership team that they should consider their careers over. In the past, many large covert action programs resulted in various investigations. Leaders made enemies within the CIA because of the issues involved with the programs, and, indeed, many careers ended, with the lucky getting a comfortable pre-retirement assignment. I wanted the group leaders to focus on the job at hand, not their next promotion or next assignment. I was fortunate with good leaders who would have focused on the job, regardless, but it was my lame attempt to curb a degree of careerism.
Above all, leadership must be about character. Without character, a leader cannot lead. People will not follow. Of course, you must know your business, you need to be proficient and skillful, but character counts above all others. For me, character is the mental and moral qualities of an individual that ensures they will do the right thing every time. I am not talking about being a saint. We all have faults and failings. I am talking about doing the right thing even if you end up not looking good. It means admitting you are wrong when you are wrong. It means changing the path you are on when you realize it is the wrong path. It is that hackneyed phrase, speaking truth to power. There are a lot of things that make up character and if you don’t understand character, then there is no hope for you as a leader and a person.
Leaders must also be teachers. It is your responsibility to mentor and train the people who will replace you someday. Your organization should have a system in place to identify potential leaders early on in people’s careers and impart to them the values and expectations of the organization. That should be done formally, officially, otherwise, people will come up with them on their own, and that might not be a pretty picture. At some point at the CIA, individuals learned the lesson that advancement and promotion were the primary focus and they learned the wrong lessons on how to achieve those goals.
Finally, if all else fails, there is one thing that leaders must know – don’t be a dick. Pretty clear. Avoid being a terrible human being. Don’t scream at people. I have seen many managers, I won’t call them leaders, who yell at people. First off, that is a sign of weakness and fear. You are afraid of something having a negative impact on you so you yell at people. The only result of that is that people won’t bring you bad news and won’t be motivated to take risks. They will hide their mistakes from you. Praise people publicly and chastise them in private. People will appreciate that, and you.
Throughout the years I have thought long and hard about my failures as a leader. I still think of what I could have done better, about the times I failed people I was responsible for. As a leader, you need to be introspective. Always critique your performance. Always look at how you can improve, where you could have done better. There is always room for improvement.