CIA spymaster Glenn Carle says leadership relies on collegiality, integrity, bearing

CIA spymaster Glenn Carle says leadership relies on collegiality, integrity, bearing

Posted on 07/27/2018

Early in his career, Glenn Carle had a stint as a Wall Street banker. It seemed staid. He looked around and landed a job at the CIA, where he spent 23 years until retiring in 2007.

Most of his time was spent as a spy on four continents. He became adept at persuading citizens of other nations to commit treason on behalf of the United States.

After the Sept. 11 attack, he was the overseas interrogator of an al-Qaida suspect. He wrote about the experience in his book "The Interrogator."

Earlier, when a congressional committee criticized the CIA for poor leadership, Carle was assigned to help develop a leadership training program for the Agency's vast bureaucracy.

Now, Carle, who lives near Boston, writes a regular column for the Japanese edition of Newsweek, and he's a commentator on a television network in India. He's paid to speak about leadership lessons he learned.

"Leadership is not the 'man on horseback' or the steely-eyed CEO," Carle says in his speaker's bio.

Instead, says Carle: "Leadership is, at heart, a collegial enterprise in which being a peer and teammate is more important than taking the point, or knowing more, or being more decisive and hard-charging than anyone else."

This summer, he gave the keynote speech, "Leadership Lessons from a Spymaster," for the NY Tech Summit in a packed auditorium at Turning Stone Resort Casino. 

Tell me about attributes of leadership.  

If you're a great car salesman, that's good, but that doesn't make you a good manager of the dealership. And if you're a good spy, it doesn't have a whole lot to do with being a good manager or leader.

Skills are important to know, and I think one needs to have knowledge of the profession that one is leading, but that's secondary to being a good leader.

I'll tell you about leadership by telling a story about pizza and a brush pass with an asset, a clandestine act in a fraction of a second in the public space.

I was overseas, and I was meeting an asset, which is what we call a spy. I was handling this case. Were it known that he were meeting with me and if it were suspected that he were a spy, he probably would have been killed. So it had to be clandestine.

I had documents to give him and he to me. We couldn't sit down and say, here it is. We had to arrange at, say, 8:34 p.m. and 30 seconds that I would be turning right on the southwest corner of Fifth and Main. And as I came around the corner, he would be turning left. And as we walked past each other, we would quickly exchange something in the jostle of the public place. An unnoticeable act, because it happens dozens of times a day to all of us in day-to-day life.

This was a sexy, high-profile case. It had attention at the seventh floor, which is our leadership in the CIA. So, your name would be in the spotlight if things went well, or if things didn't.

The day before the meeting, my superior called me into his office. He said: Glenn, you arranged the meeting. That's great. I'm going to do the meeting, the brush pass. You can stand down, and I'll take your place.

I argued that it was my case. I had the relationship. I was, so far as we could tell, unknown to the other relevant countries' services. My boss was prominent and had people following him all the time. So, it would be life threatening to this fellow if he took my place.

I was appalled. It was an egregious breach of security, an assertion of ego at the expense of professionalism. It was dangerous, insulting, and unprofessional. He wanted some glory.

But he's ordered me to stand down. We are a quasi-military institution, hierarchical. The chain of command is powerful.

I was so concerned I decided to go around the chain of command. I spoke to this man's deputy. I took him aside and said: This is quite delicate and I'm taking a risk in talking to you, but here is what just happened. So and so is replacing me for the meeting, and I think this is an awful idea.

What happened?  

He listened and said: The conversation didn't occur Glenn. I'll take care of this.

He spoke to the individual and said: You know, I've been thinking about this operation. It's quite sensitive. It would be a disaster if somehow it were to go wrong. Glenn's operational plan is sound. We wouldn't want anyone with a higher operational presence to be anywhere near this. I would understand if you were interested in being involved in it on a personal level. I'm sure you are not considering that.

In the end, I had the brush-pass meeting. 

And the leadership story about pizza?  

I was in the secretary's office, just outside of the director's office, waiting to speak to him. There was a young intern doing something, nothing particularly consequential.

The director, George Tenet, stepped out, and he said to the secretary: I'm going to get a sandwich. I'm hungry. I'll be back in a few minutes.

He made a general solicitation as he steps toward the door: Does anyone want anything?

This intern said: Oh! You're going to the cafeteria? Sure. Bring me some pizza.

This young woman had no idea she had just told the director of the CIA to get her a pizza.

So everyone sort of stopped, frozen, with a half smile for a heartbeat and then Tenet said: OK, sure. What kind of pizza do you want?

She wanted pepperoni or something.

Ten minutes later he came back, handed her the pizza, and she said: Great. Thank you very much.

The first story about the brush-pass was catastrophically bad judgment, but also bad leadership. The second, although inconsequential in a professional sense, was a characteristic example of how, I think, George Tenet was an outstanding leader.

The CIA, although our job is espionage, is no different than the small companies I have worked for a couple times in my life or the large bank early in my career.

The issue comes down not to skills, but attributes and behaviors. The skills of espionage are precise, the skills of the bank where I worked are precise. And they're all relevant but I think secondary in leadership. What counts are the attributes that one has, who one is as a person. 

What are the qualities of a good leader and good leadership?  

I don't like people who are imperious. So they should be collegial.

Let me put it positively: Collegiality. Openness. Empathy. And ability to thrive in ambiguity, where there is no clear answer, and yet to make clear decisions because they must be made. Which is an impossible task, but that's the job.  

You were assigned to teach leadership at the CIA?  

The assignment was to start developing a leadership program with H.R. At that time, an officer like me would do the job correctly, rise through the ranks and then, if you succeed, up you go and you're put into a position of authority and responsibility. And you will have had no training. Zero.

I admired the leadership qualities of military officers who had served in one of the services and then migrated into the CIA. They were qualitatively and noticeably superior to the organically grown CIA officers - as I was. I wanted to see how these former officers became what they were and why. So I visited West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Marine Corps Leadership Program.

The whole point of being an officer is to be a leader. It teaches you secondarily how to drive a ship or organize a platoon, but primarily how to lead men and women in life-threatening circumstances.

The Marine Corps and West Point identified overlapping sets of attributes, which I found relevant to the CIA. They sound touchy-feely and almost like a sermon. You're talking about sort of fuzzy stuff. That's one of the challenges for any leadership development program or person assigned to do it.

It comes down to the basic tools, the characteristics, that are those also of a good operations officer, or, frankly, of a good spouse, or of a good interrogator.

It's profoundly a human endeavor.

To interrogate someone there are no secret tricks, really. Hideously imbalanced as the relationship is, it's still one man or woman with another. I sat there, for sometimes 18 hours a day, and I talkedto the person, and what I tried to do is identify the person's hopes and fears and quirks, tics, mannerisms, what sets the person off, what the person believes. Who this person is.

Similarly, that's how to convince someone to commit treason.

Why would someone commit treason? They trust their lives to you. How do you get someone to trust his or her life to you?

I learned, actually, that all of you know how to do this. How do you get the girl and how do you win the heart of the boy?

I'm not being facetious. You look into the person's eyes, and you try to show: I understand you. I share your hopes and what makes you nervous. I can help you realize your dreams and soothe your pains. And I'm funny.

I came to believe at an institutional level you can use the same approach. Of course, if you're in charge of 300 people you can't look all 300 in the eye every day. But the approach can be the same. There is no other secret trick.

The things I cribbed from the services and tried to put in the CIA leadership development program sound corny. But corny things are based on truth. Because they're so obviously corny, they're dismissed, but they're profound: Integrity and enthusiasm and bearing.

You don't want to be haughty, but you have to convey confidence. You probably know that if you make yourself smile, even pretend to smile, physiologically your body changes and chemically it changes. And you will be more optimistic and happier. Happiness and confidence are infectious. They are virtuous and inspire us. It sounds simple, but it is critical.

I think the most important of all is unselfishness.

You define your success as a leader by the success of others. It's all human dynamics. It's true for getting the girl, it's true for recruiting the spy, it's true for being part of an organization, and it's true for leading.

The program that we tried to foster in the CIA didn't become a touchy-feely ashram, but it reduced the rigidity of the hierarchy and increased devotion to ones subordinates.

And then critically, the leader needs to embrace doubt. The single thing I'm most proud of, at the end of every meeting that I held when I was on the National Intelligence Council, the question would be, for example: Where is al-Qaida going to strike next? And the various parts of the government would say: Well, we think it's here, we think it will be this way, and so on.

OK, fine. My job was to coordinate that and bring it together. And then I would always ask at the end: OK, tell me where I'm stupid. What have I overlooked? What am I missing? Do not treat me like the person with the answers or because I have said the following that you have to defer to it. I want you to tell me not where I'm right, but where I am wrong.

A leader embraces doubt. Doubt is a critical component of strength. It means an openness for the leader to be led as well as to lead.

Tennyson said: There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds.

So leadership is to know when to follow, to be part of the group, and to know better than anyone what to do and how to do it, but always as a peer to the extent that one can be in a hierarchy and not as a man on a horse, looking down on subordinates.  

Were you in leadership roles growing up?  

I guess the answer to that would be yes.

In my career, I never held a significant leadership role - well, it depends on how you define it. As the acting national intelligence officer and then Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the last four years of my career, that was at the apex of the entire intelligence community. In that sense, I presided over the estimates, which is the name of the product, the intelligence assessments that we did, for the entire intelligence community. But the national intelligence council has responsibility, but no authority. So, we have to cajole and beseech, we can never order.  

That's the most significant leadership position, almost the only real managerial one I had in the Agency. I was in charge of a desk and so on. I did lead programs - such as the Agency's efforts on a certain topic or geographical area, and those involved leading personnel, definitely.But I wasn't one of the leaders in the senior command hierarchy.

Growing up, I would say yes - and this will sound obnoxious. In high school (Brookline High School near Boston, class of 1974) I played three sports. I was an all-state football player, an all-star hockey player, captain of the football team, captain of the hockey team, chosen as the outstanding biology student, the outstanding student who showed leadership qualities, won the Harvard Prize, blah, blah, blah.

I think I always felt somewhat uncomfortable because I've never liked to tell anyone what to do. I always identified with a close family friend in that regard, with Mike Dukakis.

I thought Dukakis was an outstanding leader, but he's not an imperious sort. That served him poorly in the election, because I think people look for an alpha man on a horse. He is a reflective man, who says this is what's sensible and why I think we should do it.  

Were there other people who were early influences?  

Because I was such an athlete, my coaches of course were. They were the leaders. My brother and I looked to them and my brother became a coach as a result.

My parents (Owen and Lorraine) were, of course. I suppose everyone's father is a larger-than-life figure to any son or daughter. My father was quite unusual.

The way he earned his living was as a CPA, an accountant. He had his own business.

The way he pursued and fulfilled his life was through youth development and education. Education was the center of everything - everything. It was the ultimate value. He was chairman, vice chairman, acting chairman of the town school committee in Brookline.

How did he influence you?  

Education was literally what we talked about at the dinner table and what was simply understood - it framed all of our reference points for what constitutes a life well-lived. Self-promotion is a bad word. And self-denial and devotion are good words. You will do right. And if you don't, you will be a failure.

I've told this story and it's a painful one but also endearing in a way - certainly characteristic. My father attended every game of every sport and every practice of every sport my brother, four years older than I am, and I ever had. Self-employed, he could take that time. That was his love. Watching sports, and seeing his sons compete.

After a hockey game my junior year in high school, I thought I had played the best I could possibly play. We were driving home. And I dared to say: I thought I played pretty well today, Dad.

And my father - I remember this so clearly, it was on Huntington Avenue driving home from the Boston Arena where we played our games - and he said: You made a bad pass at 11:21 of the second period.

I thought: Oh my god.

I'm sure he was right, but I thought: Really?

There was no possible way ever to reach the standards that you had to try to achieve.

You can always be better, and if you're an all-star, then why are you not all-state? And if you're all-state, why are you not all-American? And if you got into Harvard, why don't you have your own patents at age 18?

That shaped everything, and it was an absolutely impossible standard to live up to.  

The way you told that story doesn't sound as though your father was demeaning. He set standards with love and support and encouragement?  

Oh, absolutely. My father was incredibly admirable.

I could not praise myself ever, but he would praise us to the skies while holding us to impossible standards.

Another one of my favorite stories: A different sport, also in high school, and this is absolutely true. My father was one of the prominent citizens in the town. I was the quarterback. It was early in the season. I made a poor play, a bad pass or something. I come to the sideline, and I was talking on the headphones to the coach up in the press box. As I was doing that, I was aware vaguely of a commotion in the crowd. Whatever. I went back to the game.

The game ended. I showered. I came out. I go to the parking lot. My father normally would be waiting for me, and we'd drive home. My father's not there.

I thought, he must have had a business meeting. OK, so I walked the mile and a half home.

Several hours later he came home. He said nothing. He walked upstairs to his office.

The following Monday at school, one of my teammates said: Hey Glenn, what was that all about?

I said: What was what all about?

He said: Well, your father in the stands!  

I said: What are you talking about?

He said: Well your father got arrested.

What!

What had happened, and he wouldn't talk about this for years, was he's watching the game and I made the bad play. I came out, and that's when I'm talking on the headphones. While that was happening, two other spectators who were recent graduates of the high school, so they're 19 years old or something, said: Carle really sucks.

They were sitting right in front of my father.

My father tapped them on the shoulder and said: What was that?

They thought he was just a fan. They turned and said: Yeah, didn't you see Carle? He really sucks.

And my father would say in later years: I stood up. I put my dentures on the seat because I didn't want to destroy $4,500 of dental work.

And then he got into a fistfight.

The police come over. And, of course, the officers were classmates of my father from years before. They said: Owen! What the hell are you doing?

They drag him away to cool off. They said: Settle down. Settle down!

We could never praise ourselves, and we always had to be perfect, but no one could denigrate his kids.  

Great story. In summary, what's your advice for leadership?  

Empathize with your subordinates.

Seek their success. Your job is to make them succeed.

Give a clear direction to the mission. Define the mission and come up with a clear plan.

A plan doesn't mean saying: You will do the following.

It means: Here's our assignment. What do you think we should do? OK, we're going to go to Point X. And how can we get there. And you say, "Well, I think we need a tricycle." And someone else says: "No, we need a wagon."

Once you decide, you say: OK, it's my call. I might be wrong, but we're going with the tricycle. And then you engage the staff, your team, to a shared mission, rather than saying: Do the following.

Then, I think, it becomes acceptable to everyone to take orders, because you're part of a shared enterprise.  

Everybody knows that you have to have a stroke on your crew. (The stroke establishes the speed of a rowing team, often working with the coxswain.)

And then he got into a fistfight.

The police come over. And, of course, the officers were classmates of my father from years before. They said: Owen! What the hell are you doing?

They drag him away to cool off. They said: Settle down. Settle down!

We could never praise ourselves, and we always had to be perfect, but no one could denigrate his kids.  

Great story. In summary, what's your advice for leadership?  

Empathize with your subordinates.

Seek their success. Your job is to make them succeed.

Give a clear direction to the mission. Define the mission and come up with a clear plan.

A plan doesn't mean saying: You will do the following.

It means: Here's our assignment. What do you think we should do? OK, we're going to go to Point X. And how can we get there. And you say, "Well, I think we need a tricycle." And someone else says: "No, we need a wagon."

Once you decide, you say: OK, it's my call. I might be wrong, but we're going with the tricycle. And then you engage the staff, your team, to a shared mission, rather than saying: Do the following.

Then, I think, it becomes acceptable to everyone to take orders, because you're part of a shared enterprise.  

Everybody knows that you have to have a stroke on your crew. (The stroke establishes the speed of a rowing team, often working with the coxswain.)

Without the stroke, we're all incoherent.  

So it's totally fine to be the stroke. I want you to tell me what to do in that circumstance. I think it's the same if you're a branch chief or whatever it is. You have a shared enterprise. The rowers will listen to a stroke who is not simply imperious, but competent and leading a shared enterprise.  

How important is it for the stroke or the leader to understand the team and know how they'll react in various circumstances?  

It's absolutely critical. Which is why I said: it's a profoundly human enterprise. That means you look into the other person's eyes and understand what makes him or her afraid or inspired or all the other attributes.

Most of the time people are seeking good professional environments, where they can succeed as well as be happy.

I can think of one fellow I worked for. He was inspiring, because he was so accessible. He was also good at his job.

He and I both worked for a guy who was very senior, had been quite successful, and was one of the most miserable human beings I've met in my life. Just destructive, professionally.

We worked only 35 feet from each other. He communicated with the entire staff through formal written memorandum. There were not 7,000 of us. There were about 11. He couldn't so much as say: Please remember to replace the sugar bags - they're empty at the coffee dispenser. He'd have to write a memorandum about it. Literally. He was awful - awful.

Yet, his deputy, the fellow I admired a lot, was naturally accessible as a human being. He would say: Gee, that didn't work so well, Glenn. What do you think happened? Or: Let's see if we can figure this out.

It's your job as the leader to assess whatever motivates the individual and to then frankly manipulate. That doesn't mean being duplicitous. It should mean that you're being sensitive to individual personality.

Now, I didn't run an institution of 25,000 people, but I still believe that you'll have a dozen critical colleagues and immediate subordinates and it's not different. It's their job to motivate their divisions. And you hold them accountable for leading properly.

The weekly "CNY Conversation" features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at StanLinhorst@gmail.com. Last week featured Michelle Capozza, co-owner of Babbitt Bearings. She says effective leaders show compassion, respect employees, and listen to them.  

 

 

 

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