Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Leadership lessons from the CIA

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Timothy Kilbourn spent almost 30 years as a military analyst with the CIA. He was the deputy director of two divisions, dean of the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis and served for several years as the daily briefer to President George W. Bush. Kilbourn spoke about his experiences and views on leadership in an interview with Fox.

What led you to public service?

My dad believed in the power of government to do good, and I lived in a household in which the concept of public service was honored. I absorbed that view from a very early age. In school, I met several people who had careers in the military and diplomacy, and they seemed to me to be doing interesting and important work. I decided pretty early on in college that I wanted to be part of that.

Do you remember your first day as a manager at the CIA?

On my first day, I walked in to find several dozen people working for me, and thought, “How do I do this?” I spent the first 25 minutes creating a list of all the bad experiences I had with previous bosses, as well as a list of all the good experiences. Then I just focused my efforts on emulating the good experiences and avoiding the negative ones with the people in my group.

What are some leadership lessons you can share from your work and management experiences?

I spent a considerable portion of my career working on crises, where there’s always far more work to do than people to do it. From that, I learned that some sense of order makes everything easier for everybody.

You need to focus as well on what people can bring to the table. As a manager, you need to make expectations clear and then make it possible for each individual to apply their time and talent to the job. I tried to make a practice of reaching out to the people who worked for me and telling them that I recognized their efforts. The people I had the honor to work with were pretty highly motivated, and all I really had to do was give them a sense of direction and a clear line of sight into the impact of their work.
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What else is important?

Acknowledgment. One of the most important things I did was to write notes to employees. They would say something like, “Good job on the briefing,” or, “Thanks for reaching out to whomever,” and that was worth its weight in gold.

Sympathy in times of trouble is another. Understand when your employees are going through personal trials and be sympathetic. If people feel that you see them as a human being and not just as a number, they’ll break their backs for you. Celebrating events and celebrating achievements is key, as well as rewards and encouragement. At the end of the day, I tried to use my authority to serve the people around me. When you do that, people really respond to it.

How did you lead in times of high pressure or crisis?

In really high-stress situations, you need to give people a sense of order. You have to let them know that there will be a lot of moving parts, but that everything is directed to a shared goal and that the work is organized to get it done. It’s a sense of communicating everyone’s role in the larger endeavor.

The CIA is filled with highly motivated people who have a real sense of their role in serving their country. In crises, there’s a tendency for them to burn themselves out. You have to let them get some down time. You have to be judicious in how you balance the workload and what you take on. You have to be able to say, "It’s worth doing, but not right now."

Communication and transparency are two essential tools for leaders. How did you deal with these challenges?

If I made a call that was controversial, I would explain my reasoning. I actively sought out people’s input on decisions and issues that effected the organization. I also tried to draw folks out by asking, “What am I overlooking here?” to make sure I was getting the full range of thinking from the group.

How do leaders create an environment where people can learn from their mistakes?

You acknowledge where errors take place without humiliating anybody. You look back at what you did wrong. We all make mistakes. But it’s about learning from those mistakes and changing the way you do your work.

Do you have any other leadership advice?

It doesn’t matter if you’re really smart at the CIA, because everyone else is too. So how do you distinguish yourself? You distinguish yourself by becoming effective, giving credit where it’s due, treating people with respect and figuring out how your effort can advance the larger objective.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Apr 27, 2015 at 6:37 AM

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