Lessons from a CIA Manager (U)

OK…..I know…this is a cheap, manipulative title, because in fact my lessons from almost 25 years as a federal manager, almost ten of them as a member of the senior executive service, really have very little in particular to do with the CIA, even though that’s where I was for the duration. So I’ll be curious if putting that word in the Blog Title will drive up  visits. The (U) is an homage to my CIA past; it stands for unclassified. We would have to place such little classification markings after every paragraph we wrote.

So over the years I collected many aphorisms and other concise insights about being a manager and a leader in the government.  Some I’m sure I read somewhere, but can no longer identify the source. Others just came to me, usually in the context of a conversation with others. Again, many if not most of them probably aren’t that unique to government either; I think they have broad application to a wide range of organizations. Because I want to keep my blog postings on the short side, what I will do in this post is list them with a short description when necessary, with the plan to return to most of them individually as subjects of individual posts.

In no particular order:

  1. Executives are individuals who are held accountable for things they cannot control in detail.
  2. Remember, your decisions are going to have much less staying power than you’re expecting them to have. Decisions are not committed relationships; they are more like one-night stands.
  3. Consensus decision-making is an oxymoron. By definition, processes that drive to consensus are actually ways to avoid decisions, except in those very rare cases where everyone in the room is in violent agreement. So really you have two dynamics–you can have a consensus, or, much more likely, you will have to make a decision, i.e. a choice.
  4. Conflict-free meetings should NEVER be your goal, particularly if the issue is at all important. Organize your meetings so  they are argumentative and crunchy–those will always be more productive.
  5. Perfection is never the goal. Progress is the goal.
  6. Leadership is an optimistic activity. Optimism is always the greatest act of rebellion.
  7. Leadership is an emotional activity.
  8. Leadership is, at times, a corny activity.
  9. Leaders must be willing to change their minds, which is another way of saying that leaders must be eager to learn. If you have never changed your mind about some fundamental aspects of your business, then you have not learned.
  10. Your calendar reflects your priorities. You can talk about x or y issue being important to you, but if it never makes your calendar you’re lying to yourself and, worse, lying to others.
  11. Listen to yourself when you’re arguing a  point. Are you arguing to achieve clarity or are you arguing to win? Do the former, not the latter.
  12. Successful leaders are able to disappoint their followers at a rate they can tolerate. This is probably my most important learning and I know where I learned this one, from Ronald Heifetz, who is at the JFK School at Harvard.  Check this link to hear him talk about the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges.
  13. Heroism is not a leadership strategy.
  14. Breaking through bureaucratic resistance requires the skills of an all-pro running back in American Football. If a hole opens, you have to hit it as quickly and as hard as you can. If you dawdle or hesitate, the hole will close.
  15. A great process is the manager’s best and, I would argue, only true friend.
  16. All excellence in groups derives from individuals providing the group mission with their discretionary energy. But the difficult truth is that managers/leaders can never demand an employee’s discretionary energy. It can only be freely given. At best, the manager/leader can co-create the environment, along with the other group members, that encourages the commitment of discretionary energy.
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5 responses to “Lessons from a CIA Manager (U)

  1. Pingback: We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules–or Lesson 17 « RecoveringFed

  2. This is a tremendously rich post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. Good luck in the next phase of your life; somehow I think it will not be boring!

  3. Pingback: Why Decisions are Like One-Night Stands, or Lesson 2 « RecoveringFed

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