There is no single leadership trait that guarantees success in any profession, but there is, based on my experience, one that many of the best leaders share: a fierce commitment to objectivity. And yet I realize it’s often not easy for leaders to remain objective.
In my nearly three-decade career in the intelligence community, I have worked for and with 11 Directors of CIA and all five Directors of National Intelligence. Each has brought their own personality and skill set to the job, and each in their time has faced their own set of challenges, from deeply contentious relationships with the White House and Congress to unforeseen terrorist attacks on the homeland and U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas. I think each would agree that leading in the intelligence community is a daily exercise in crisis management, whether at the helm of CIA with its global analytic and operational responsibilities, or at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence with its oversight responsibilities for the entire intelligence community.
Amid all of this, our best leaders have demonstrated objectivity through their commitment to present only balanced and fact-based analysis in the Oval Office, in the White House Situation Room, in congressional testimony, and in public hearings. They don’t shy away from delivering bad news or color judgments to support a particular policymaker narrative—they call it like they see it. That sometimes means providing brutally honest assessments when White House policies were failing (as was the case during the Vietnam War and, more recently, in Afghanistan), or pointing out when a policy seemed to be based more on hope than a tough-minded assessment of the underlying conditions at play.
Although objectivity is crucial, it’s not always easy for a leader — whether in the intelligence community or elsewhere — to remain objective. Our newspapers are filled with stories of corporate finance departments and managers who have identified creative ways to manage earnings that downplay poor results. Similarly, we have all read accounts across multiple industries in which people facing tough stretch goals have been observed exaggerating their performance.
In intelligence, there is always a strong pull on our leaders to become part of the White House team. Just consider — these leaders are appointed by the president and interact with the senior White House staff regularly, so it’s natural to want to support the president’s foreign policy agenda, and to want to avoid always being the bearer of bad news when a policy is stumbling. After all, how many senior business executives would relish the opportunity to inform — frequently alone — the company’s CEO that his or her strategy is failing?
In being critical of the effectiveness of a policy, intelligence community leaders can also be perceived as criticizing the people charged with implementing it. For example, I recall multiple instances during the Obama administration when, during debates about America’s Afghanistan strategy, the intelligence analysis of deteriorating political and security conditions in the country stood in sharp contrast to more upbeat assessments from U.S. officials in Kabul. At times, this placed intelligence leaders in the awkward position of appearing to criticize the performance of U.S military and diplomatic personnel operating in Afghanistan, even though the analysis itself focused on the shortcomings of Afghanistan’s political leaders and security forces.
Against this backdrop, then, it’s fair to ask why and how the best leaders are so willing and able to take their lumps and to steadfastly remain objective. I’ll answer this based on my experience in the intelligence community, where it’s not an exaggeration to say that objectivity can be a life-or-death issue.
First, these intelligence leaders recognize and embrace the principle that the intelligence community should be a, and not the, voice in the Oval Office or White House Situation Room, and recognize that the best policy decisions are always reached with input from multiple agencies of government. It’s at times easy for intelligence leaders to dominate policy discussions because of the community’s unique access to information and our deep analytic bench strength, but our best leaders work diligently to ensure that multiple voices are aired during policy meetings. They embrace the community’s historic role of informing and not making policy, and offering the president the best possible information with which to make decisions.
Second, the best intelligence leaders remember that the president is not their only “client.” The intelligence community also has a responsibility to provide unbiased intelligence support to the U.S. Congress — a co-equal branch of government — and to periodically provide frank and unvarnished analytic assessments to the American public. In each case, this has to done without regard to the White House’s policy preferences or its existing narrative. Just imagine the confusion, for example, if intelligence community leaders were to tell the president one thing about the direction of a particular global issue, and tell a markedly different story to Congress and the American public.
Third, to maintain a high standard of objectivity, the best leaders I’ve worked with have insisted on the highest possible analytic and information gathering tradecraft, and relied on structured analytic and decision-making processes to filter out actual or unconscious biases. In other words, during periods of great stress, our best leaders rely on sound tradecraft as their safe harbor.
And finally, they work to create an inclusive, collaborative workplace culture in which it’s okay to challenge existing assumptions and in which alternative viewpoints are both encouraged and rewarded. This is what researchers call “psychological safety,” and it has been repeatedly found to be essential in a variety of industries, from hospitals to high tech firms.