How I Lead: Bringing Openness to Clandestine Service
A Q&A with a senior National Intelligence Service executive.
David A. Bray is executive director of the National Commission for Review of Research and Development Programs of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
What is the best leadership lesson you've learned?
To distinguish between when you are managing versus when you are leading. Management occurs within the expectations of your organization, your direct reports, peers and supervisors. You are doing what they expect of you. In contrast, leadership occurs when you step outside of those existing expectations and strive for some vision, idea or objective not expected by others in your organization or in the public. You chose to lead because you believe it is where collectively you all need to go.
Each of us needs to choose intentionally when to lead versus when to manage. You cannot lead all the time or else you also are not meeting the expectations of your reports, peers or supervisors. You have to be selective about when to extend expectations. When leading, since you are stepping outside of those expectations, you will need to have strategies to address any potential friction which might occur.
What leadership lessons do you try to convey to your team?
In either leading or managing, make sure to listen, reflect upon and incorporate the ideas of your teammates. Encourage open dialogue and discussion and embrace bottom-up solutions. Be open to alternative ideas and different perspectives that inform the team. There will be times when external or top-down direction may delineate some constraints on the efforts at hand. However, if you hire great people, identify the desired outputs and empower them, you'll get great results without the need to overly manage their work toward that output. Embrace creativity and recognize individuals who translate ideas into results.
Describe your average day in 10 words or less.
People. Plans. Technology. National. Challenges.
Unexpected. Assured. Disruptions. Respond. Advance.
What is the most important thing you have learned in your career?
Regardless of age, we all underestimate how much we will shift and grow. The January 2013 issue of Science included an article entitled "The End of History Illusion," documenting this growth phenomenon. The article explains how scientists measured the personalities, values and preferences of more than 19,000 people ranging from 18 to 68 in age and asked them to report how much they had changed in the past decade as well as predict how much they would change in the next decade.
The scientists found that regardless of age of the participants, they all “believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future" and all regarded “the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” Yet for each of us, in any part of our life, we continue to grow. Be open to and embrace change.
How did you get to where you are today?
By seeking a call to be of service -- wherever that might be. I started working at a Department of Energy facility where they accelerated electron beams up to four gigaelectron volts. Later, I worked for the Department of Defense and the Institute for Defense Analyses, obtaining a security clearance before I was 17. Then I joined a Microsoft southeastern partner firm consulting with Fortune 500 companies and nonprofit efforts with Yahoo! before signing up for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program in 2000.
After responding to the events of 9/11, anthrax in 2001, SARS, ricin and other emergencies, I obtained a Ph.D. focused on bottoms-up organizations and disruptive events. Following post-docs, I volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan, served as [a science and technology] policy researcher, and became a senior National Intelligence Service executive at age 32 to help address the challenges of information sharing and information safeguarding following the events of WikiLeaks. Most recently came the call to serve with the National Commission for the Review of the [Research and Development] Programs of the U.S. Intelligence Community, which is where I find myself today.
What do you look for in potential employees when making hiring decisions?
Drive. What motivates them to work? Results. Where have they achieved great results based on hard work? Creativity. Can I count on this individual to raise new ideas and new options to help us all adapt to changing situations?
What is a good book you've read recently?
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon. One of the co-authors was a classmate of a friend. The book raises several questions worth revisiting at any stage in your family, work and personal life.
Tell me something your co-workers don't know about you.
Putting aside my logical side at work, in my personal life I’m a big science fiction fan and recently enjoyed Charles Stross' The Laundry Files series that juxtaposes an accurate, yet fictional, portrayal of government service against the hilariousness of a one-time IT consultant working for a British spy agency dealing with supernatural threats.
How do you involve your employees to ensure everyone is on board with a new idea?
Encourage an always open-door policy. Ask for feedback and alternative opinions. Have regular team "syncs" in which everyone can raise a question, concern, new idea or insight. Lead by embracing bottom-up solutions and encourage open, creative dialogue. Encourage others to share different perspectives and possible alternatives you may have missed. Explain when an external constraint or top-down direction must be incorporated into the organization's larger efforts.
What would you do if you were president of the United States for a day?
Have a dialogue with the U.S. public about the inner workings of our government. Explain that the Founders intentionally designed features that we now perceive as government “problems.” The Founders did not plan for our government to collaborate, demonstrate agility or coordinate quickly. Having recently fought against the British, they instead wanted to reward behaviors that would prevent anyone more from having too much influence in government and becoming king-like. If you go back to The Federalist Papers No. 51, there are two wonderful quotes by James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” and “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Yet 21st century challenges require us think about how we can augment our government's original design to incorporate elements of collaboration, responsiveness and agility -- with the recognition that the original design incentives the Founders put in place will discourage such activities. Anyone choosing to perform public service in these times faces a difficult, uphill battle. Combine these internal challenges of transformation with the impact of 24/7 news and Internet media that reduces mainstream messages into to short sound bites and Twitter feeds that lack the nuance of large national challenges, and you have one challenging career.
I would ask the U.S. public to imagine what would happen if in 2008, instead of 1908, a young Ensign [Chester] Nimitz ran his destroyer, USS Decatur, into a sand bar in the Philippines. Had this event happened today, all the major news outlets would have had helicopter footage of the breaking news around the clock, including Twitter hashtags such as #FireNimitz. Pundits would press for a review of U.S. Navy procedures at all levels, including mass resignations or court martials. In contrast to our current day, back in 1908 Ensign Nimitz was found guilty of neglect of duty, issued a letter of reprimand and then returned to duty -- later to become Fleet Adm. Nimitz of the United States Navy during World War II.
What motivates you?
An important mission and a call to service, similar to the one that Rudyard Kipling made in his poem If, in which he talks of the ability “to fill the unforgiving minute, with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run.”
What is your latest goal or ambition, and how do you plan to go about achieving it?
Encourage the U.S. public to search for deeper, positive discussions beyond five minutes or 140 characters about the challenges internal to our shared government. Our rapidly changing world necessitates a redesign of what gets rewarded in government, and thus, what gets done to address the 21st century challenges facing our nation. This will require dedicated, though collective, commitment and focused action.
As for my plan, right now I'm serving in government as we can help transform a system more from within than from the outside. Better outreach and external conversations about our nation's 21st century challenges both need to occur as well. In my personal time, I encourage informal, unofficial, open-invitation brainstorm sessions on this topic with folks from all kinds of perspectives. I hope that by combining a diversity of viewpoints with recognition that this is our collectively shared nation -- instead of the unfortunate us-versus-them debate at the present -- ultimately will help advance productive discussions forward. I’d like to work with others to redesign what gets rewarded in government to address 21st century challenges facing our nation and world.
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