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I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Four-Star General Michael Hayden, a former director of the NSA and CIA, on multiple occasions during my time in college. In each opportunity I took to listen to the general, I was forced into the difficult yet necessary reconciliation between my understanding of leadership in a global context and that of personal and organizational leadership.
In one of his talks, the general made a brief and seemingly routine statement that many would think nothing of, given the topic of the day. But what he said stuck with me, and would form yet another key pillar of my leadership philosophy:
“Covert influence campaigns don’t create fractures. Covert influence campaigns exploit fractures.”
This statement bleeds of espionage, clandestine operations, and Jason Bourne. But to me, this statement, like an onion, has several layers. It struck me that in addition to geopolitical concerns, this applies to many of our everyday challenges as well—office politics, cutthroat sales, family dynamics, and in almost every hierarchical structure.
In such local leadership contexts, an example could be when an overly-ambitious disgruntled employee works secretly to undermine the efforts of the team or the leader. This often happens not in an attempt to create fractures within the organization. Rather, it’s a sign that there are existing fractures that are already being exploited.
Think back to Third-Order Thinking—the acknowledgement that what we perceive to be true may not always be the full story. In attempting to remedy the situation, the leader may be correct in what they perceive to be a harmful agent acting in their own interests instead of the team’s. The leader’s natural instinct will be to fix the situation immediately, which could include firing the employee. Most leaders will stop at that and consider the problem resolved. However, this approach only serves to put a bandage on a wound that desperately needs stitches.
These types of wounds will be the subject of several upcoming essays in this series. But the main lesson here is simple, and one that we can use in almost every situation where deception is present. Direct signs of subversion in an organization are nothing more than signs that there are deeper fractures that will be exploited time and time again until they are fixed. As General Hayden made clear, this is true on a global and geopolitical level, and it is true on an organizational and personal level. On one hand, covert influence campaigns are harmful in the short term, but on the other hand, they can be helpful in pointing out your organization’s biggest weaknesses in the long run.
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