Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Leading From Ignorance or Everything is Everything

During the past week Leon Panetta, former Congressman from California, Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and former Chief of Staff to President Clinton, was named by President Elect Obama’s to be the next Director of the CIA.

So far, there has been a bit of concern raised by those familiar with the Intelligence Community in general, and the CIA in particular, that this is a bad choice, that Mr. Panetta is ignorant of the workings of intelligence, and that the Director of the CIA needs to be an intelligence professional, or at least someone with a good deal of experience in intelligence.

Conversely, there are those who point to Mr. Panetta’s experience at both OMB and as Chief Of Staff to President Clinton and say that he has more than enough experience to lead CIA. The premise here is that one type of experience easily translates into another type of organization and that specific experience in this or that field is irrelevant.

Which leads to the question: can you effectively lead an organization without being experienced in the field of operations of the organization?

The obvious answer is yes, but it is a qualified yes. There are more than enough examples of an individual being placed in charge of this or that company or agency, having never led such an organization, and performing superbly. One obvious set of examples is the hospitals around this country that are run not by doctors and nurses but by businessmen. The same is true of any number of research labs, run not by scientists but by businessmen. But, at the same time there are many hospitals, and labs and other organizations that have experienced many difficulties when the helm has been given to an individual with no experience in their field.

In every case where there has been success, the success was a result not simply of the new leader, but also of a clear vision, communicated to the ‘rank and file,’ and supported and promoted by the rank and file. Simply put, if a novice in a given field can voice a vision that is consistent with the skills of the work force of the organization, and which they can, within the ethos of the organization, fully support, then his or her management skills will be more than sufficient to bring success to that organization.

At the same time, if the new leader arrives but has, or is perceived to have, little regard for the ethos of the organization, no matter what the vision, no matter how aggressive the communication effort, there is little likelihood of success.

What does this mean with regard to the CIA? Mr. Panetta certainly has the experience to lead a large government agency or a department. In a very real sense, no individual has the requisite experience to lead any one of these organizations until he or she has already done so, and in that sense all agency and department heads arrive with a handicap. Mr. Panetta, having extensive experience inside the White House of President Clinton has a great deal of experience that might be of benefit to any government organization.

Is there a material difference between CIA and other government agencies, such as the FAA or AID, etc? One might argue that there isn’t. Except that the CIA, as with several other offices of the US government, has a responsibility to provide warning to this country, to protect it from its enemies, known and unknown, a problem for which the consequences of poor performance are more grave then for other agencies. Has it always done so successfully? No. But, that is a reason to call for greater understanding of the problems facing CIA and the IC, not less.

Arguably, Mr. Panetta could be a good, even a great Director, if he were to arrive at CIA with both a respect for the ethos of the case officers and analysts and technicians who have worked and do work at CIA, and a plan to address their failings while building on their strengths. The new Director, whether Mr. Panetta or anyone else, who arrived at CIA and insisted that, together, they were going to make the CIA better then it has ever been, that new Director would, I suspect, receive the sport of the ‘rank and file’ at CIA irrespective of his experience.

The new CEO who takes over a hospital with the intention of holding down costs, patients be damned, will not be well received by the staff no matter how much he knows about medicine. But, in the end, that intention is not going to be set by Mr. Panetta. Just as with any new CEO, the key is what the ‘board of directors’ hired him to do. In this case the ‘board of directors’ equates to President Obama. Mr. Panetta is more than capable of performing the tasks assigned to him by the new President. The question we should be asking is what are those tasks?


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