Category Archives: Leadership

The Trump Civil Servant

Two controversies this inaugural weekend led me to reflect on the challenges for federal employees during the incoming administration of President Trump: the retweets by the official twitter account of the National Park Service and the content of President Trump’s speech at the CIA. Both were wrong for largely the same reason: they injected partisanship where it does not belong: in the execution of the duties of federal government employees.

The issue of political activity by federal employees is the subject of rather important legislation–the Hatch Act of 1939, which prohibits almost all federal employees from engaging in most forms of political, partisan activity. Of course, when a new administration takes office, the directions and policies of cabinet departments will change, and civil servants are expected to carry out these new policies whatever their previous and/or personal views.

In the case of the National Park Service, its twitter account retweeted comments that had partisan implications, one comparing the size of inaugural crowds, and the other criticizing changes in the content of the White House web site. Although defenders of the Park Service would say the comments are innocuous, they really weren’t. They were not-so-subtle digs at the incoming Trump administration and as such just plain inappropriate. In fact,  the Park Service has been prohibited by law since 1995 from estimating crowd sizes at events on the National Mall, in part because these estimates can become politically controversial.

The same general principles–federal civil employees should not engage in partisan political activity during work hours–can help us think about President Trump’s visit to the CIA on Saturday,. The fact of the visit is not a problem–but the content of the speech was a disaster. The President had no business suggesting that CIA employees overwhelming voted for him. A CIA officer’s personal views should have no bearing on the performance of her duties. I know this is a high bar and, in reality, impossible to reach. Cognitive science has shown that no human can be a perfectly objective being. But the future of intelligence activities in democratic societies depends upon every employee striving for this goal.

US law stipulates the federal employee oath of office:

An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” This section does not affect other oaths required by law.

(Pub. L. 89–554, Sept. 6, 1966, 80 Stat. 424.)
The first commandment for federal civil servants it to uphold the US constitution, but there’s a lot of squishy room for interpretation in the phrase “faithfully discharge the duties of the office…” I think most Americans would think that it means execute the law regardless of your personal preferences and follow the policy wishes of the US President and members of Congress, as long as they are legal and constitutional. All new administrations are challenging for civil servants. But I expect this transition to be particularly tumultuous given that President Trump intends to depart radically from the practices of previous US governments across a broad range of issues. To avoid government crises, both the incoming administration and the civil service will need to exercise good judgment and benefit from a lot of luck. Seriously…a lot of luck.
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Why the CIA Struggles with Diversity

I recently wrote on this topic for Overtaction. org. You can find the complete post here.  Highlights below. (or at least I think so!)

The Central Intelligence Agency has a problem recruiting minorities and advancing them into senior leadership positions, CIA Director John Brennan admitted last month. “There have been impediments,” Brennan told reporters, “to minority officers being able to rise in the organization.”

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

Read the rest of the post here.

When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

Five Nouns, Five Verbs for Leaders

When you haven’t posted on your blog in a while, and I haven’t posted since Christmas, it gets harder and harder to return to it, like when you haven’t called a friend in ages. It’s not like I haven’t been writing. I’ve been posting pretty regularly on RebelsatWork.com. You can check out my most recent post here. And if you know me, you know I always have opinions. I always think too much

A favorite topic for me to think about is management and leadership. Actually the more I think about both topics, the less sense they make to me. About a month ago I was at an event, which I will not specify, at which there was a presentation by a rather prominent thinker on leadership, whom I will not name. The ideas were so tired: great men (and all his examples were men) set great visions for their teams who then can singlehandedly conquer the world, or at least next year’s profit and loss statement.

I’ve long suspected the world really doesn’t work that way. Sure some individuals appear to have significant, short-term success, but usually if you wait long enough reality comes whistling along and bites them in the butt. David Petraeus comes to mind. Or an individual, such as Harry S Truman, whom his contemporaries viewed as a poor leader gets reclaimed by history. Will Marissa Mayer be Yahoo’s Savior? Does Elizabeth Warren have gravitas? In the end, how much will their individual contributions matter?

And then there’s the rather inconvenient fact that leadership is a value-free concept. You can exhibit strong leadership traits–i.e. you can influence people and you can point the arrow in a particular direction, and you make decisions quickly, and you rarely change your mind (and I have a few nits to pick with these attributes too)–but none of that necessarily means you will have a net positive impact on your group or society–however we might measure that. Vladimir Putin comes to mind. He’s a strong man on the world stage, say the pundits a little bit too admiringly.

But despite my misgivings, I sometimes get asked to serve on a panel or give a talk about leadership. Grumpy Carmen of course wants to say something along the lines of what I just wrote, but that would be bad and, most important, rather rude to the people who asked me.

The last time this happened I came up with the following list. Ten words. Five Verbs. And Five Nouns. And the more I think about them the more they say all I want to say about being a manager, a leader, an employee, a citizen, and a person.

Conversation sustains.
Empathy connects.
Authenticity reassures.
Optimism lifts.
Purpose commands.

They do not need explanation, but just a few words on the last one. So many significant things are outside of a manager’s or leader’s ability to command. You can’t command people to trust you. You can’t command them to believe in your goals. And you cannot order them to give you their discretionary energy.

But a common purpose can.

 

 

Reality is the Land of Unintended Consequences

I was struck the other day by reports that President Obama last fall opposed the near unanimous recommendation of his advisors that the US arm Syrian rebels. (The USG has now decided, according to press reports, to provide some rebel groups with direct, non-lethal aid.) Although history may yet judge Obama’s reticence harshly, I couldn’t help but feel good that at least one senior US official–in this case the President–expressed concerns about the efficacy and unintended consequences of the traditional foreign policy “toolkit.” Certainly during my time in government and really just as a private citizen I’ve noticed that the actions of government don’t often seem to achieve their ends neatly, if at all.

As far as the world is concerned, we only have one “N”–there is only one earth and one history. We have no way of really judging the absolute efficacy of the grand schemes and decisions of government. We don’t really know how things would have turned out, for example, if we had never had the War in Vietnam. There is no John Madden-like sports simulation for foreign policy that would let us replay 100 times the US Government’s Asia policy in the 1950s and 1960s to determine statistically which gameplan would have fared better.

I think actually it may be in part due to this “unknowingness” that decisionmakers not just in government but in many industries stress the importance of making confident and fast decisions–why being a “J” on the Myers-Briggs is such a highly valued executive characteristic. The individuals who want to think through the decision a little bit longer–let’s call them the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters–are almost always argued down.

No doubt this chart –inspired by the Cynefin framework–is a bit unfair to strong decision-makers, but it nevertheless captures how I, a charter member of the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters, see the dynamic.Decisionmaking spectrum

As I hope the chart makes clear, even the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters miscalculate the reality algorithm.

At some point, months, perhaps years later, the decisionmakers begin to experience the miscalculation of their earlier solutions.  (I use the verb “experience” here purposefully. It’s hard to change a decision you’re invested in until you FEEL the mistake you’ve made.) The levers they pulled didn’t deliver the causal punch they expected and–usually worse–produced different consequences that appear to be just making things worse. That’s when the decisionmaking dynamic begins to look like this.Newdecisionmaking

It’s at this point that a different, more nuanced, and more flexible set of decisions becomes possible. The bold decisionmakers and Let’s-think-about-it Firsters are closer in their appreciation of the dynamic they are trying to “solve.” (Even at this point, only the most bold would dare suggest that no solution might be immediately forthcoming.)

As is usually the case, I don’t have a “solution” for this predicament. There probably isn’t one. Perhaps the best approach is for everyone to be a bit more humble about their recommended courses of action. And always be ready to revisit decisions you made, even if you were positive they were the right thing to do.

The Fallacy of Worst Case Scenarios

Hurricane Sandy has led to some pretty foolish thinking. Just the other night some high school classmates were involved in some dreary silliness on Facebook about what might have caused Noah’s flood. One, a proud climate change denier and I’m sure strong Christian, opined that perhaps global warming back then was caused by dinosaur farts. (I told you it was dreary.)

Hard to take that conversation seriously but there are other statements in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that strike me almost as inane. Several times I’ve heard officials say some version of “no one thought something like this could happen.” What a strange excuse that! First, of course, the Discovery and National Geographic channels have made some decent money the past decade entertaining disaster groupies with exactly how something like this could happen. Second, anticipatory thinking is an essential element of managing and leading. If you can’t generate vision well at least you might be able to anticipate.

So I think what people really mean  by that statement is that no one wanted to think about the scenario that just happened. No doubt they put it in the category of Worst Case scenario. Once you assign a possible event to the category of worst case scenario you are at risk of succumbing to a dangerous fallacy, one I saw with some regularity in government. To wit: the assumption that “worst case scenario” and “unlikely” are synonyms.

Think back on some of the meetings you’ve attended. Some Cassandra in the room starts warning of a frightful worst case scenario. Some other person, determined to avoid excess ruffling, says: “Oh you’re overreacting. That’s just a worst case scenario!” What they are also saying, of course, is “that’s very unlikely.”

(I am reminded here of something I once heard former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say. Because he was a notorious “worst case” thinker he was often accused of being a Cassandra–the prophet who predicted the fall of Troy. At which point he would remind us that “Cassandra was right!”)

Severity of impact and likelihood are independent variables. It is entirely possible for a worst case scenario to be quite feasible, if not even probable. But the conflation of worst case with unlikely is quite common and potentially catastrophic. Unfortunately, things that we find unimaginable have a nasty way of becoming inevitable.

I imagine another factor was at play here, one for which I find more sympathy. When they say that they didn’t think something like Hurricane Sandy could happen, what they also might mean is that they didn’t believe the threat was likely enough to justify taking expensive preventative actions given other budget priorities. This strikes me as a much more honest statement and reflects a judgment that public officials must make on a regular basis. Nevertheless, consideration of “likelihood” must still be made independently of any other variable. We humans have a tendency to think we are bulletproof and to assume that bad things are unlikely to happen to us. When in fact the art of living, of government, of leadership in any sector is best captured by how well we deal with calamities.
For those who can, I am linking here to the donation form for AmeriCares, a charity I myself support.

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What is your Toothpick? (and what do you do when you get screwed?)

So today I was assembling some Ikea outdoor furniture. I’ve probably assembled close to 50 Ikea pieces in my lifetime. This one was a little more complicated than I was used to. It was called Applaro, as Ikea is wont to do, but with Swedish double dots above the first A and the O. It had 14 total steps involving an adjustable back and the ability to fold and store it away.

ImageSo of course I was sweating it. I’ve had experiences when I’ve been assembling, let’s say a futon, when I’ve got to the like very delicate point where it’s supposed to do the futon thing and fold away, and realized that I’d put everything together exactly backwards. And I had the flu that time as I recall. (To be fair that was not an Ikea piece.)

Nothing that bad happened this time. My first problem though was when one of the screws wouldn’t tighten nicely into it’s groove. Luckily, a very good friend of mine who is very handy has told me that many such problems can be solved with the strategic insertion of a toothpick. And so I did. And so it did.Image

And this got me to thinking about management. Yup, just sitting there on my deck on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the mid-Atlantic. I suddenly, in a flash of revelation, saw the toothpick as a metaphor. So as a manager, what’s your TOOTHPICK? What’s that thing you always do when things don’t go right? We all have toothpicks. I suspect we all revert to our primeval management instinct. Mine is always to have a conversation. I know, it’s not very commanding and certainly not very sexy. But I find it very effective. It fits my style. It builds on what I’m good at. During my career I fretted once or twice or more that my management style was not “strong” enough for the CIA. But no matter how hard I try, I do “mean and nasty” rather poorly. And I would like to think most people who’ve worked for me would say I’m not controlling. But you would have to check. In the end, however, I decided I could only be the very best version of myself. That was truly my only path to excellence. So my question to you is do you know your toothpick? You have one, I’m sure, and if you don’t know what it is, you need to figure that out.

ImageThe silly screw problem got me to thinking even further. Now in this case the screw just wouldn’t tighten from the get go. I never got a chance to overtighten it. But I’ve had that experience too. When you twist just once too often and the whole dynamic falls apart. Now that’s clearly a metaphor for management. The manager is always trying to influence matters she can’t fully control. And when he tries too hard, when he responds to uncertainty by becoming more controlling, almost always nothing good happens. In fact, he and his team gets screwed.

In the end the AAPLARO was assembled more or less as IKEA intended. I did lose a piece when it fell through one of the cracks in the deck and into the crawl space full of ivy. Luckily, I have a drawer full of leftover IKEA parts from previous assemblies. I can always find what I need there.

You can Act Like a Hero, Just Don’t Be One

The other day I posted an observation on Twitter, which I’ve posted once or twice before, that yet again I had been reminded that Heroism is not a viable Leadership Strategy.

Someone asked me to say more.

I included the same statement a couple of years ago in my Lessons from a CIA Manager, but didn’t expound there either.

So what do I mean?

Leaders sometimes have to take heroic actions. The occasion calls for it. Nobody else can do what the leader must do. It my be as “simple” as telling a higher up that their preferred course of action is not advisable. Or it may require real physical courage, as can be the case on the field of battle.

But it strikes me that heroism, almost by definition, does not work as a longterm strategy. Even for military generals, leading from the front has been replaced by a more complex blend of leadership styles. This is the subject of military historian John Keegan’s excellent book, The Mask of Leadership, where he observes how the brave and really reckless heroism of Alexander the Great and even the Duke of  Wellington has over the centuries been replaced by more measured leadership strategies.

Leaders in more quotidian situations, such as corporations, perhaps don’t see how they could ever be accused of heroic leadership. But I wold argue that they can fall into the trap rather easily.

What are some examples of heroic leadership behavior that can occur in any workplace?

  • Making all difficult decisions yourself.
  • Reviewing all important papers and data streams for accuracy.
  • Hiring the executive team that most resembles you.
  • Pursuing a failing strategy just because you don’t want to look weak by revisiting your decision.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Finally, the real problem with heroic leadership as a strategy is that it weakens the rest of the organization. Those who are led by heroism often fail to develop their own bravery. While a heroic leader on a winning streak can compensate for organizational weakness for a while, at some point he or she will falter and the organization will be worse off for it.

Check out my other website, rebelsatwork.com, for my latest post there where I discuss how heroism is also not an effective strategy for corporate and organizational rebels.

Sentiment and Leadership are a Necessary Partnership, Like Water and Flour

A couple of Sunday morning metaphors, one illuminates why change is hard.  The second is Lessons from a CIA Manager #23: Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough.

I actually just posted some quick words over at RebelsatWork.com on why rebels need to stop advertising themselves as destroyers of the status quo. By making that your focus, you risk confusing the means with the ends. But you can read more about that here.

In that piece I used some garden metaphors to describe the more subtle relationship between forward change and the status quo. And I was reminded of what people say about home remodeling. Builders always say it is easier and cheaper to build a new home from scratch than it is to remodel extensively an existing structure. And they’re right. Making structural changes while retaining that which is good or necessary of what already exists has got to be just about the hardest of organizational activities. But sometimes that’s the only path that’s available to you as a rebel.

  • To build a new business from scratch you have to stop doing the work and providing the services that presumably people still need. A non-starter.
  • To gain enough backing to start making at least some of the necessary changes, you have to take into consideration the views of those who love the organization and its culture in a Billy Joel kind of way or Bruno Mars. Unless you can figure out how to fire them all, or transport them to a parallel universe, you have to make change happen with the talent you already have.

Second Metaphor. Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough. Here I was inspired by a tweet this morning in the regular Sunday morning tweetchat #spiritchat .

Too much compassion w/o healthy detachment from another’s processes leads to compassion fatigue #spiritchat

 It’s from Debra Reble. (now that’s a cool last name.) And it reminded me of the difficulty I had in senior positions trying to reconcile the desire to be compassionate with the larger responsibilities of leadership. The last ten years or so of my Agency career I actually had an articulated goal of being MEANER, although a coach I worked with convinced me to think of it as becoming more powerful. (That was helpful.) I thought of it as being less sentimental, not having less compassion. But it’s the same thing. I recognized that my responsibilities to a broader group of people meant I sometimes had to take actions or make decisions that were harmful to an individual, perhaps even someone who was a good friend. (You can justify your actions by saying that you are promoting a greater good, but really, are we that confident of the causality between our actions and desirable outcomes? I’m not.)
But the answer I learned was that you can’t abandon compassion/sentiment. You have to balance them constantly against the demands of management like you need to balance water and flour in a dough. Water makes the dough stickier; flour makes it less so. And anyone who has made any pastry or pizza crust from scratch knows that its’s a process of constant adjustment. There is no school solution. It’s all in knowing the feel of the dough in your hands. And only experience will enable you to translate that tactile feel into knowledge for making better decisions and interventions.
Too much compassion without detachment from your personal attachments leads to decision mistakes.
Too much leadership without compassion for human realities leads to group misery.

Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers

Another redirect to Rebelsatwork.com but I’m hopeful I’ll have some new RecoveringFed content up soon. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered why being a rebel is just like being an NFL running back, then read here.