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The Visionary Challenge of Intelligence Leaders

By Erik Kleinsmith, Associate Vice President

Every intelligence and security organization—no matter how large or small, government or commercial—has the same mission or purpose, and that is to support someone else. This support could be for the President, a military commander, a police chief, CEO, or anyone else who needs to understand potential threats to their operations for decision-making purposes.

To ensure the success of their customers, intelligence and security organizations themselves require leaders who have a clear, concise, and executable vision for how they intend to fulfill that mission.

Unfortunately, as almost anyone who has spent some time in this arena can attest, intelligence and security organizations routinely suffer from leaders whose vision is unclear, capricious, or too grandiose to execute. There are several reasons why this happens, but the most common reasons are the environment and culture of intelligence work.

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Usually expressed as a formal vision statement, a leader’s vision is essentially the leader’s idealistic intent about how the organization needs to fulfill its mission. A clear and well-communicated vision helps foster unity, cooperation, proper management of limited resources, and a situationally aware workforce. A poorly articulated or communicated vision breeds infighting, parochialism and can end up wasting valuable resources during operations.

Leadership Challenges in Intelligence

The nature of the business of intelligence presents many unique challenges for leaders compared to the leaders they support. With few exceptions, intelligence folks do not defeat an enemy or seize and hold terrain, they do not kick-in doors and make arrests, and they do not provide a product or service sold on the open market.

Instead, they support the people who do these things without expecting much credit. An intelligence leader’s success, i.e., their ability to fulfill their mission, is therefore dependent on the success and satisfaction of their support customer. This fact makes it much more challenging for intelligence professionals to develop a vision that aligns with this supportive mission versus the advancement of the organization itself.

An indicator that a security organization has lost sight of this supportive mission is when its personnel spend an inordinate amount of time providing intelligence and analysis for their own organization instead of their customers. Commonly referred to as a self-licking ice cream cone, there are numerous examples of this ranging from tasking assets just to provide internal briefings to cranking out redundant analytical products for no specific customer or purpose.

Intelligence and security leaders, unlike their supported customers, also face the unique challenge in that their vision is not as constrained by things such as doctrine, tables of organization and equipment (TOE), personnel caps, or the requirements of a supply chain or market competition.

This may seem to be a boon for leaders allowing them to be known as someone who thinks “outside of the box,” but leaders operating without regard to these parameters can end up creating a vision that is not connected to reality. Thinking outside of the box is the result of an original and imaginative vision, but it is not the goal. Every vision must adhere to the realm of what is achievable.

Finally, intelligence and security leaders are also constrained by the fact that they have very little time available to them to implement their vision for the organization. Like many positions in both government and commercial sectors, leaders are frequently rotated as a requirement for career progression according to the cultural rules of their industry.

A trusted friend of mine within a government agency describes the time constraints this way:

On average, new directors to the organization come and go every two years. For their first 90-days, they are largely in listening mode attempting to gain an understanding the workings and current issues within the organization. For their last 90-days, they are on their way out and attempting to close out programs and initiatives they have been working on.

This gives them 18 months to institute any real or substantive changes. New programs and initiatives that take longer than that time to implement will often die as soon as the leader that introduced them leaves the organization, wasting valuable resources in the process.

Considerations for Creating a Vision for Intelligence Organizations

An easy online search will reveal some basic guidance for leaders in developing their vision statement for their organizations. These include making it clear and concise, inspirational, aligned with the culture and values of the organization, and specifies the direction of the organization without being bogged down with details. Given the culture and environment, leaders of intelligence and security organizations have additional rules to consider:

  • Vision for the sake of the visionary: With the persistent pressure of intelligence folks to stand out among their peers for their career or posterity’s sake, some intelligence leaders fall into the trap of wanting their vision to be a reflection of themselves rather than the organization’s mission. This results in changes to an organization that are so decisive and sweeping, that they require a wholesale change to everything the organization does. Such a paradigm shift may be needed once a generation, but not every two years. As a result, intelligence organizations can end up losing sight of their primary mission of supporting someone else for the sake of the visionary’s posterity.
  • Deputy and middle manager buy-in: While it is good to have some change within an organization, employees who find themselves being constantly moved in a new direction by every new leader’s vision will often ignore, dismiss, and slow-roll the implementation of their vision as a strategy to wait out that leader’s departure. Leaders who spend those first 90-days not only listening to their deputies, but making them active participants in its creation will develop a vision that is grounded in reality and more easily implemented.
  • Re-organization requires disruption: Adjusting to a new leader is a standard event, but having to go through sweeping re-organization every few years as part of a new vision can be devastating to an organization over the long term. Organizations that are in a constant state of flux open the door to both resisters and opportunists who do not have the best interests of the organization in mind. It will also take time and resources away from fulfilling other aspects of the vision. While some re-organization is necessary, it should be done only after considering the other ways a vision can be implemented within the current structure.
  • Attainable and timely: Leaders who have a limited amount of time in a position need to plan out the implementation of their vision and associated programs much in the same way any operation is planned. It is crucial to consider the mission, threat or detractors, environment, time, and available resources. A vision must be tied to concrete resources like manpower and budgets. If programs associated with the vision are not achievable within these constraints, they will waste valuable resources and remain unfulfilled for the next leader to deal with.

Resisting the temptation of being a visionary for posterity sake, good intelligence leaders can develop and implement a vision for their organization that is effective and helps them achieve their primary purpose of supporting decision-makers and other customers of their organization.

Erik Kleinsmith is AVP in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security for AMU. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. He is a subject of the book “The Watchers” about Able Danger. He published a book, “Intelligence Operations: Understanding Data, Tools, People, and Processes.”

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