A Case for More Compassionate Leadership at CIA

Just prior to my retirement from CIA in July of 2019, I wrote a personal message to colleagues in the Directorate of Operations (DO). It was often the practice to do so, just before officers handed in their badge and walked out the doors for the last time. These messages never contained classified material discussing operations from the past; instead, they were our form of a simple goodbye to the organization that was far more than a 9-5 job and to people with whom we had pretty amazing experiences across the globe. I was humbled to note that the response to my note was overwhelming, which told me that I struck a nerve. To this day, I am honored when friends and former colleagues raise this note, as I was trying to provide some constructive advice regarding a trend that I saw damaging our workforce. To paraphrase my note, as I can’t recall it precisely, it went something like this:

Upon retirement, I simply leave you all with a message from the heart. My plea is straightforward — it is quite simply to be good citizens to those standing to the right and left of you. This is the greatest espionage agency on the planet, with a unique mission and filled with fascinating and talented people who were my brothers and sisters in arms for decades. Yet sometimes we have a tendency to somehow see that we must practice a zero-sum game towards one another. Let me assure you. It is not right. So instead, be good to your employees, your peers, and those above you as well. Just live by these five simple words: BE GOOD TO EACH OTHER. If you do that, generally all else works out. You sleep well at night, and when you are in need of something important or trivial, there always will be a long list of folks who will help you out, as that is in our hearts, the CIA way. I love this place, the people here, and so you all will be in my heart forever. This is not just a job, but a way of life. I feel very fortunate to have lived it for 26 years. Marc

Why did I feel the need to make these points, then and now? In my 26 years, I had slowly watched a rot gain foothold at CIA, continuing to spread year after year. Not endemic, not all encompassing, it nonetheless had seeped enough into our day-to-day work lives that it warranted my sending out a warning flare both at retirement and again now.

What was I seeing that troubled me? It was simply that a zero-sum mentality had taken hold of our employees, where personal or professional failures were mocked and then held against officers, where a knife in the back was more common than a simple face-to-face disagreement, and where one officer’s personal failing was seen as a gain for others who were at the same level. What made this especially painful was the inherent difficulty of our fundamental mission in the DO. We were always being tasked to do the impossible. Conducting espionage activities against our most implacable enemies from the back alleys of the Middle East to the frozen steppe of Central Asia was hard enough. This was what we signed up for, and we eagerly embraced this challenge. Yet, such endeavors could only succeed if we worked together as a single unit, putting service before self and seeing our fellow employees as brothers or sisters in arms and not as competitors to our own ambitions. But, what I saw as I was walking out the door is that this selfless mantra — which did exist and was celebrated by many — was often being violated, and, in particular, abused by some of our most senior officers. And, now heading into late 2020 and beyond, that must change if we wish to attract and retain the best and brightest.

Before I left in 2019, I had a beer with a long-time colleague, who was one of America’s true heroes of the counterterrorism wars. He spoke to me emotionally about how after some legitimate personal hiccups that arose during his career, he saw officers who he thought were once friends turn on him. I felt a sense of shame, as I was complicit in, at the very least, not defending him at the time of his troubles. Even a decade later, and despite his personal heroics in the CT fight, he has not advanced nearly as high in the organization as he should have. “Why do we eat our own?” he asked me. What a terrible question, I thought, and one in which I have a hard time answering. It is a refrain that is heard too often at CIA.

I remember another officer who was facing disciplinary issues, who I then helped rehabilitate slowly over time, in an attempt to regain his stature in the organization given both his genuine remorse and also the critical skills sets he possessed that would be hard to replace. His issue was also one of a personal nature, yet, somehow, many in the organization found out what had occurred, which was humiliating and demoralizing for this young man. He would describe to me walking the hall, and literally seeing other officers whisper behind his back. Did that really have to occur, not just official sanction, but deliberate and never-ending embarrassment? He is now thankfully a more senior manager, who starts his leadership chats with young officers when he arrives at a station by directly addressing what he did wrong. He owns what happened. In my view, there is no better way to teach than to give lessons learned based on one’s own experience. I know that many junior officers revere this now-senior manager, and I look back and am thankful that I and several others fought for him.

I recall a female officer who expressed concern about her children’s safety as she was heading to an overseas posting where information suggested a threat at the local school. Several officers retaliated against her after she dropped out of the position by placing her in a low-level headquarters job, which ultimately led to her resignation out of disgust. At a time in which we struggle for diversity and inclusion in the workforce, how could we have let a promising female manager walk right out the door simply because we could not sympathize with her legitimate security concerns for her children? Is that who we really want to be as an organization trying to recruit and retain a diverse workforce?

Finally, I note a rising star who had just been promoted, and was heading up hard target operations at our headquarters after running a small station, and was destined for future advancement into the senior ranks. Yet while providing a briefing to agency seniors, he was unjustly berated and accused of lying by our leadership. This officer was so horrified and insulted, particularly as no one in his chain of command came to his defense, that he resigned to take a private sector position. Was there a need for such nastiness toward this officer? Who in his chain of command could have doubled down on courage to speak up on his behalf — both to protect him and to correct the record because he was, in fact, right — so that we did not have to witness such talent walk out the door?

These vignettes, though heavily sanitized and obfuscated for security and privacy reasons, are to me, nonetheless, quite jarring, and there are many more that I could list. I would bet that for anyone with experience at CIA lately they will ring true and feel quite familiar.

That said, it is not enough for me to merely point out that we need to change. It is incumbent on me to offer a roadmap to do so. The following are two key prescriptions that the agency must adopt, seamlessly and immediately, regardless of who wins the presidential election, to ensure that this rot does not cause additional harm. This is not rocket science. This is no advanced business school leadership philosophy. It is instead a relatively simple and quick blueprint on how to treat one’s fellow officers as the humans that they are.

First, we must understand that accountability means one accepts that we must always and consistently sanction officers for unacceptable behavior, but save formal termination for truly egregious offenses. An officer must be able to get a second chance. We invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to train a single case officer, for example, so effort needs to be made to retain talent. My point: What one did as a 32-year-old second-tour operations officer cannot be held against you if you accepted your sanction, and then later, worked tirelessly and successfully in tough jobs. You should not, at age 45, still be held back from a senior leadership position because of a mistake or misstep you may have made at the beginning of your career. I would argue, in fact, that one’s previous failures, and how one has responded to them, how and if you course corrected, are actually much more of a reflection of future leadership potential and should be examined closely. I speak and write often on leadership, and one of my key principles is: “Adversity is the Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) to success.” It is quite simple: If you don’t fail, you don’t learn. I’ll take someone anytime who has been through the ringer, learned, adapted, and come out of it a better officer, over someone squeaky clean who has never faced tough times.

And let me be clear—I am not defending the old boys’ network that at one time encouraged and practiced blatant sexism and intolerance, and that often excused or looked the other way when true transgressions took place. The CIA has done a great deal over the past several years to root this out, while naturally far more progress must occur. There must be full accountability and zero-tolerance for such behavior. Engaging in such activity must lead to immediate termination.

Second, our officers, and particularly our seniors, must take a graduate level course on compassionate behavior, which can be loosely defined as nurturing others to help reach their fullest potential. It means never denigrating or shutting down others for failure or bad ideas. It also means never punishing others for failing to conform to a culture that many acknowledge must change if we want to remain an employer of choice. It’s not enough for veteran CIA officers to say that this back-stabbing culture is the way it’s always been, as the new generation of officers are demanding an equitable work environment. I note that compassion and empathy are skills of strength and maturity that in fact help grow and spur innovation. Practicing humility must also be valued at every level of the organization. There is nothing more toxic and dangerous than when one believes their own hype. This happened to me early on in my career, when after a string of operational successes that led to frequent and early promotions, I was involved in a disastrous operation that led to the loss of life of some of my colleagues. From that point onward, my arrogance disappeared and I was humbled to my core. What does this mean in practice? It means listening more. It means accepting others’ points of view. And it means managing with your heart, and not your hammer.

I look back on my career and in no way am I clean when it comes to participating in some under-handed and, frankly, poor personal behavior in how I treated others who failed. This missive must not be seen as hypocritical, as many who know me probably recall that I have been as guilty as some of my other colleagues in not treating others as I would have liked to be treated, and engaging in zero-sum practices. But, I learned, and so, I am here today to plea for a change.

A close associate once told me after we left a funeral service for one of my CIA heroes, who had been forced out of the agency too early in their career, “You know Marc, the only time one is highly lauded and celebrated at CIA is at their damn funeral.”

How sad, but perhaps true, that you are finally applauded as you are being put in the ground and no longer pose a competitive threat to others. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can and must change. And change must come particularly from the top, with leaders who address this toxic work environment, and then practice what they preach. For the overall health of our workforce, the CIA would do well to simply treat one other with honor, dignity, respect, and yes, compassion, as we continue to do the most difficult job in government.

Image: The CIA symbol is shown on the floor of CIA Headquarters, July 9, 2004 at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Photo by Charles Ommanney/Getty Images


About the Author(s)

Marc Polymeropoulos

Retired in June 2019 from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks at the CIA after a 26 year career in operational headquarters and field management assignments covering the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia, and Counter Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @Mpolymer.