General Michael Hayden on Leadership


General Michael Hayden, former Head of the CIA and NSA during one of the most turbulent periods in US history, gave ogilvydo an exclusive interview on ‘Leadership’.

He talked to Andrew Thomas, Regional Director of Ogilvy PR about radical change, Bush briefings, picking the right team, Terrorism Nights, attracting and retaining the right people, managing data, the New Globality, and creative business thinking.


Andrew Thomas: Welcome to where creativity means business. Now in our challenge to bring you insights and ideas and inspiration, we’ve got a very topical and very special guest with us this evening – the former Head of the NSA, The National Security Agency and the former Head of the CIA. I’m delighted to be joined by General Michael Hayden….thank you very much for joining us here.

General Michael Hayden: Thank you Andrew.

Andrew Thomas: When you joined the NSA it was a time of great trouble in the agency, internal analysis indicated that it suffered a lack of management and the systems were basically broken, the technology was old and you had to go in and bring about a radical change. Now business is always very resistant to change. How did you see two intelligence organisations, two parts of the intelligence machinery? How did your leadership style change from when you were with the National Security Agency and CIA?

General Michael Hayden: Well the first point I’d make is I hope I was true to myself in both places. I actually tell folks to kind of “dance with who you brung”. You are who you are; some things are constant but it’s true as you pointed out, NSA and CIA were at different points in their life cycles when I arrived. Let me begin with NSA and I think most of your viewers know what NSA does. We intercept communications, it is a highly technical agency. It is a very secretive agency as well because it’s hard to do that work publicly. So over the years we have built up very high walls around the National Security Agency. For most part those high walls were virtues because they kept the secrets in and that’s important. But they also kept a whole bunch of good things out. They didn’t allow us to see what was going on around us. In terms of global telecommunications, global computing, other aspects of global technology. And for most of the life of NSA the downsides were forgiven, because for most of the things we really needed it knew how to do better than anyone else. I can make the case of the American computing industry having its roots in the National Security Agency. But by the time I became director in 1999 the external world had far outstripped NSA. So, those high walls, they’re still a good thing for keeping secrets in but we had to pay a really high tariff for those high walls because they were keeping modern technology out. So the last thing you want to do is stride into Fort Meade and say, forty years is long enough……

Andrew Thomas: …….we’re going to do it this way!

General Michael Hayden: So I actually spent a year almost doing nothing, absorbing, appreciating, making sure I actually had a very good site picture. Because as troubled as the agency was it was still a national treasure.

Andrew Thomas: How in today’s world where there is such diversity and everybody’s talking about the strength of organisations embracing all that diversity ……. being fully represented. How do you make sure that organisations don’t continually renew and attract people who only have a single viewpoint of the world?

General Michael Hayden: Yeah that’s a great challenge. One of the things we did at NSA was to actually go to the private sector and bring folks in. To be totally candid with you Andrew, just to shake things up. We brought the new guys in to create a little dust. So I advertised and got my Inspector General from an ad in the Wall Street Journal. I got my Chief Financial Officer from a big firm in downtown Baltimore and that aspect of bringing these folks in, again, with the intentional to stir things up. At CIA it was a bit different. I mentioned being at different points in life cycles. CIA wasn’t suffering from arrogance when I became director, it’s probably unfair to say but the CIA was suffering from battered child syndrome. When I became director it had been accused of a variety of things. Some things that had been made public, some accurately, some very inaccurately it had been blamed for a lot of things in the public domain. So my goal when I got there was not to shake things up, it was to settle things down.

Andrew Thomas: What in your view is the secret ingredient for unlocking creativity. How do organisations do that?

General Michael Hayden: My leadership style is not one of tight control. My style was to set the left and right hand boundaries, perhaps the final objective and then let folks operate within those boundaries. Let me give you a concrete example. Every Thursday morning I would brief President Bush on the agency’s covert actions and clandestine collection or sensitive collection. You can imagine what Wednesday afternoons looked like in my office…… I get briefing books and pamphlets and suggestions or recommendations. Andrew, fully fifty percent, more than fifty percent of what I told the President on Thursday morning, I learned for the first time Wednesday afternoon .

Andrew Thomas: Was that a good thing?

General Michael Hayden: It’s a very good thing as long as, number one, you have clearly set the left and right hand boundaries and number two, you’ve picked the right people.

Andrew Thomas: But what is it like to go in every week and brief the President?

General Michael Hayden: Actually that was the formal presentation, we had an awful lot of other meeting engagements during the week. So it was a fairly routine occurrence. Number one, you’ve got to know your customer, you know understand your client. Not so much in giving him what he wants to hear, that surely isn’t the job of the intelligence officer. But presenting information to him in a way that he thinks about things, that he approaches new ideas.

Andrew Thomas: I imagined before this that you would be a total control freak needing almost to know everything, but it seems that there was a massive amount of systems and process but trust in the people you had around you.

General Michael Hayden: Absolutely, that meant in addition to the left and right hand boundaries and overall objectives, what we in the military call mission type orders. In addition to that we had to spend an awful lot of time picking the right person for the right job and then spending a lot of energy in simply building the relationship of trust with these people. Let me give you another example. Monday and Wednesday nights at the Agency – this is CIA now – those were terrorism nights. I would go through a room of 30 people what’s going on, what do we do. One of those meetings there was a question about some things we were doing in Afghanistan. Was it consistent with the overall guidance, because you know, when you get into the real world applying the abstract to the specific sometimes becomes challenging, not just in government but in business. My staff was going back and forth and I got argument A and argument B and C. Finally I’d lean forward and I made eye contact with the guy who’s ultimately responsible for this activity – now watch carefully. I went like this (Hayden raises his eyebrow). 24 hours later he was in Kabul. 96 hours later he was back in my office saying we were okay.

Andrew Thomas: Do you think that business faces a lot of challenges going forward to build these teams.

General Michael Hayden: Yes because generations we’re all trying to recruit from now don’t have that long term load that perhaps my generation or yours had. So you’ve got people who were quite happy and believe it to be quite normal to move from job to job, even between competitors. We had a speaker come to NSA to talk about Gen X. He gave a wonderful presentation in our auditorium, standing room only and he talked about the people up there in Silicon Valley who move from company to company and end up one morning working for the other side. At which point a marine sitting behind me simply said, we shoot people who work for the other side. So we’re all faced with this challenge of attracting maturing, nurturing, motivating and retaining very good people.

Andrew Thomas: One of the challenges we have is actually being able to manage through the amount of information and part of our business is engaging with CEOs of companies and helping – similar to what you said with President Bush….. A very practical question. How do you actually take all of that information and distil it into…..

General Michael Hayden: …….. something that is readable and useful and actionable? And not leave the important stuff on the floor.

Andrew Thomas: What disciplines did you set in place?

General Michael Hayden: Let me give you a thought okay. I call it the dominant narrative. It’s necessary to be right, but its not sufficient. So you’ve got to lay out to the President in a way that’s fair and balanced, what you think the dominant narrative is, not just the facts of the case.

Andrew Thomas: So when you look at history now, is it still as relevant at predicting the future or do you just say, different time.

General Michael Hayden: No it’s very relevant. Lets talk about the real issue du jour the cyber thing. Which I’m beginning to think is going to catch on! And alright you know like I said I’m a history major not technologist, and I found it very instructive to think about our being at the dawn of the cyber age by comparing it to the great age of European exploration. I actually think this cyber thing is the most significant thing to happen to our species since the European discovery of the western hemisphere. If you just give me a minute or two the parallels are amazing. Both were incredibly disruptive, they change view of self, they change view of mankind. Changed the view of government, and we see that going on right now. They’re both pretty much being run by the private sector. Think of the East India Tea company and the Hudson Bay Company. I mean they’re just ……. oh yes and now you’ve got cyber theft and theft of intellectual property and pirates. And over here the last great age of globalization, the new interconnectedness, the new globality allowed to be created and to be nurtured, global piracy and the global slave trade and the parallels are amazing. Yes history counts.

Andrew Thomas: Michael thank you very much for spending time with us on, it is a pleasure to have you here. Thank you.

General Michael Hayden: Thank you.

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