5 Leadership tips from a four-star general

By Anne-Lindsay Beall, SAS Insights Editor

Massive global change, heightened security risks and growing cyberattacks. That was the world retired four-star General Michael Hayden faced as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

He knows a thing or two about managing organizations in times of stress, risk and complexity.

“I’ve seen the world more dangerous than it is today,” Hayden told attendees at the SAS Government Leadership Forum, “but I have never seen it more complicated or more immediate.

I’ve seen the world more dangerous than it is today, but I have never seen it more complicated or more immediate.

U.S. General Michael Hayden (ret.)

“Now we’re not as afraid of malevolent nation states as we are worried about substate groups, gangs and even individual threats from fanatics and cyberattacks,” said Hayden. “We’re seeing the meltdown of things we thought were constant … even things like the meaning of state, citizenship, power and religion.”

As a result, the need for leadership has never been greater. So what do great leaders need to do? Five things, according to Hayden:

1. Show humility, real humility.

What if someone banged on your door at 3 a.m., handed you a phone and asked you to make a life-or-death decision? That exact scenario happened to General Hayden more than once during his tenures at the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA).

“There’s nothing that prepares you for that,” said Hayden. “There’s no A, B, C to get you there, and prepare you for decisions of that magnitude. But you are there, and when you’re the one who has to make the decision, it’s vital at that point to recognize your inadequacies.”

2. Do only what leaders can do.

As all leaders know, there’s not enough time in the day to do everything that needs to be done. And the higher you get, the more true that is.

Hayden’s rule of thumb as he rose through the ranks was: “I only do the things I could do. If someone else can do it, don’t do it.

“There were other people in the agency who could explain to George Bush or Dick Cheney something about al-Qaida in Iraq,” said Hayden. “But only I, as director, could grab a slice of pizza and sit down with employees in the cafeteria at Langley and ask them what they did for the agency.”

You’ve got a lot of talent in your workforce who can do the more technical things, advised Hayden. Focus your efforts on what only you can do.

3. Truly love your people.

“When I got selected to be the director of CIA,” said Hayden, “there was a fair amount of fear in the agency that this was a hostile takeover.”

The prior 18 months had been tough for the agency: weapons of mass destruction; 9/11; Pulitzer Prize-winning stories about detention, retention and interrogations. It was a dark time for the US intelligence community.

And Hayden was coming in from a rival agency (the Office of the Director of National Intelligence); as such, it was vital that he allay fears and establish a relationship with the workforce.

“I got sworn in by the vice president and went straight to the CIA for my first town hall. It was packed; there were people everywhere. They all wanted to figure out who I was and what I was about,” said Hayden.

“I began by saying, ‘No one sent me here to blow anything up. You’re good at what you do. I have faith in what you do. I’m going to run interference for you outside the fence line. Inside the fence line, go back to work.’ I wanted to embrace and reassure the workforce.”

About two-thirds of the way through the Q&A, a young man way in the back of the room raised his hand.

“I’m at the front, in my dress blues,” said Hayden. “I’ve got four stars here, four stars here, I’ve got ribbons, name tag, badge and this young man asks, ‘What do we call you?’

“I’m not usually at a loss for words, but I didn’t know what to say.

“After a long pause, my answer was, ‘Whatever makes you feel comfortable, son.’ ”

Hayden found out more than a year later, that those 30 seconds were the most important 30 seconds of his arrival at the agency. “That was crossing the Jordan,” said Hayden. “They knew I’d be their director and that we were all on the same team.”

Hayden went on to explain: “Loving your people doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not going to discipline them. We did impose the death penalty, so to speak, for dishonesty, but there is a relationship with the workforce that goes both ways.”

4. Be true to yourself.

“They hired you for the big important job because of who you are,” said Hayden. “I’ve seen people fail because they get to the big important job and then try to be someone different. And that’s disaster.”

Hayden’s personal style is to take care of the outside stuff and let the workforce take care of the inside stuff. “They’re better at it,” Hayden said. “I try to be liberating and remove impediments to the workforce so that the workforce can be everything they can be.”

Every Thursday morning, Hayden briefed President George Bush on CIA sensitive collection and covert actions. “So you can imagine what Langley looked like on Wednesday afternoons,” said Hayden.

After several rounds of revisions (final run-through at 5:30 a.m. Thursday), Hayden was driven to the White House and escorted into the Oval Office to meet with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to brief them on CIA activities.

“More than 50 percent of what I told the president and vice president about on Thursday morning, I had heard about for the first time on Wednesday afternoon,” said Hayden.

“I was the director, I set right- and left-hand boundaries on policy, I handed down objectives, but within that – back to ‘be true to yourself’ – my approach was to trust my staff and department heads and let them do what they know how to do best.”

5. Keep doing more of the right things.

“The more senior you get,” said Hayden, “the less it becomes about doing things right, and more about doing the right things.

“As I got promoted to positions I never thought I would reach, I was less reliant on my technical expertise and more and more on the values I learned growing up,” said Hayden.

But how do you know what the right things are, in a world as complicated as the one we’re in today?

“We’ve gone from a world where our data was too little, too hard to get, to a world in which it is too much. Too hard to understand,” says Hayden.

Whether you’re in business or government, we’re all experiencing an incredibly data-rich environment. The question we’re all facing is: How do you master data?

“How do you take the richness of everything that’s available, manage it, control it, aggregate it, present it in a way that enables the carbon-based machine, the human being at the end of the process to arrive at something that you and I would call wisdom?” says Hayden.

His answer: You master the marriage of the data and the human being.

“You strive to put your arms around the information, bring it into human consciousness and allow the best of our natures to draw some conclusions about it that makes this a better place to live in than it otherwise would be,” Hayden concludes.


Retired four-star General Michael Hayden served as Director of the CIA from 2006-2009.
Retired four-star General Michael Hayden served as Director of the CIA from 2006-2009.

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