Lessons from a CIA Manager (23)

As I explained in this early post, I retired on 28 Feb 2010 from a 32-year career at the CIA, most of them as a manager, and the first organizing principle of the blog is to detail the lessons I learned in that career. (Over time, other organizing principles will emerge; otherwise I would get quite bored.) Originally, I listed 16 lessons, but I’ve already remembered another two, here and here. Also, I plan to elaborate on many of the lessons below, so there will be links to other posts as I do so. Also in the title to this page, I’ll refresh the number whenever I add a new lesson.

Lessons to date, the only heirarchy being one determined by memory:

  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.
  17. Management by rule-making is almost always a mistake, so play the odds. Don’t do it!!
  18. Particularly in a bureaucracy, even bad decisions are preferred to no decisions.
  19. When leaders have to execute something difficult, unpopular, they inevitably draw down on the bank account of employee trust. The bank account builds up slowly, so leaders need to be judicious in their withdrawals lest they end up at an important decision point with nothing left to draw upon.
  20. Checklists are really good things and have mistakenly been discarded by many subject matter experts as somehow demeaning and insulting. I think even the most sophisticated writing and thinking can benefit from a checklist, particularly given the complex nature of our problems.
  21. In meetings, ask “stupid” questions early and often. As a manager you actually have the standing to get away with it, and they often surface real issues.
  22. Don’t be a Don Quixote! Some problems are beyond your skill level. Difficult people for example with serious personality problems. If their parents couldn’t “fix” them, there’s little chance you as a manager will affect any real improvement.
  23. Sentiment and Leadership are like Water and Flour. 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.
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8 responses to “Lessons from a CIA Manager (23)

  1. Pingback: Leadership Lessons from the Passage of Health Care Reform « RecoveringFed

  2. Pingback: Leadership and Disappointment « RecoveringFed

  3. Pingback: There is Nothing So Weak as an Idea whose Time Has Not Yet Come « RecoveringFed

  4. Have been a “fan” of yours for years now… what about a book on leading change in intelligence? MAybe its time now for the revolution..this evolution is still taking too slow… or what!

  5. Pingback: Starts and Evens (Lesson 21) « RecoveringFed

  6. I believe I just found my “Virtual Mentor!” Thanks for sharing your wisdom and tacit knowledge.

  7. Pingback: Sentiment and Leadership are a Necessary Partnership, Like Water and Flour | RecoveringFed

  8. Pingback: You can Act Like a Hero, But Don’t Be One | RecoveringFed

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