Former CIA Officer Brings Principles of Leadership to VMI
LEXINGTON, Va. Feb. 8, 2024 — Marc Polymeropoulos, former senior intelligence officer for the CIA, spoke at Virginia Military Institute recently as part of the Center for Leadership and Ethic’s (CLE) Courageous Leadership speaker series. According to Col. David Gray, director of the CLE, this year’s leadership theme is “Adapting to Complex Situations,” and Polymeropoulos had a career doing exactly that.
“He has had to live with the consequences of decisions he's made under high stress, and in very intense circumstances,” Gray said.
Polymeropoulos spoke in Gillis Theater to a crowd of cadets, faculty and staff, and community members, about the nine leadership principles addressed in his book, “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA.”
“These principles I learned during my career, after making a ton of mistakes. I learned many of them from the streets of Third World places like Baghdad. The principles build on each other and have real world applicability. They are for leading in times of ambiguity, like when your business is failing, or if you're a doctor or a nurse working in an emergency room, and certainly for a VMI cadet who is under a lot of pressure,” Polymeropoulos explained.
The first, and Polymeropoulos’ favorite leadership principle, he calls, “The Glue Guy,” which refers to critical and indispensable team members. “These are behind-the-scenes people who hold your team together. For a cadet, it may be a roommate, teammate, or company member. Identify them, celebrate them, and forward plan with them. When times of trouble happen, you will rely on them,” he stated.
The second principle is “Adversity is the PED to Success.” While Polymeropoulos was quick to state that he doesn’t condone performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), he explained that adversity is a superfuel for success. “You can’t succeed in less than ideal conditions if you haven’t failed first. It’s how you grow.” He offered the example of legendary basketball star, Michael Jordan. “What happened with Michael Jordan as a sophomore in high school? He was cut from the team, but he used that sting of rejection as a motivator, and became one of the greatest players of all time,” he declared.
Third is “Trust the Process.” “Everyone hates the word ‘process,’ but think about what this means in times of trouble. Imagine you're leading a team, communications are down, and you don't have situational awareness. You want to have two to four foundational things that your team is really good at. The idea is ‘how you do anything, is how you do everything.’ Innovate along the way, be creative, but don’t cheat the system.” To illustrate, he shared a story of a time he was running an operational unit with 200 people, and a billion dollar budget. “There was an offshoot of al-Qaida called, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, located in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, who wanted to blow up U.S. airlines and U.S. embassies, and our job was to stop them. I was going to the White House often, to brief the National Security Council. They knew our unit, and we were kicking butt. We got praised all the time, because we were removing terrorists from the battlefield who were planning to kill Americans. Then one day we made some mistakes, and we incurred many casualties, and hurt people we shouldn't have. All of a sudden, the same White House is really angry with us, and I had to report to CIA headquarters. I told them, ‘Look, let me just tell you something, it's my fault, I take full responsibility.’ Now, of course, at that point, I knew which officers who worked for me made those mistakes, but it didn't matter. I told CIA leadership that we identified three things that caused the mistakes, and were in the process of fixing those three things, so those mistakes will not happen again. I had expected to be fired, but they were satisfied with me taking responsibility, and fixing the problem. I kept my job, and I went back to my team and told them what happened. They were happy with me too, because their boss kind of took the bullet for them.”
Polymeropoulos’ fourth principle is “Humility is Best Served Warm,” and considers this the most important trait of an intelligence officer. “Great leaders own their mistakes and learn from them; poor leaders make scapegoats of others, and deflect. In your jobs and careers, you can have that sense of competence, but having that sense of humility is super important.”
Fifth is, “Win an Oscar.” “There is no day off from being a leader. A lot of people don't understand the concept that leaders are on display all the time. All eyes are on us no matter what, and we must be authentic,” Polymeropoulos said.
“If you want your men and women to follow you into the fire, they need to believe in you and each other, which leads to the sixth principle, ‘Family Values,’” explained Polymeropoulos, who shared a dark time in his life when he was suffering from post-traumatic stress. “I was having terrible nightmares, and my wife was terrified I was going to hurt myself. I was in denial, and refused to seek help. So, she called my good friend Charlie, who rounded up our original team from Bagdad, and rented cottages in Cape Cod, for all 20 of us and our families. We were there for two weeks, enjoying each other. Charlie personifies family values and believing in our team, and I really started feeling better because of what he did.”
“Be a People Developer” is the seventh principle. “Toward the end of my career, I started having mentoring sessions with all the young officers coming into the CIA. I realized, that's how I'm going to be remembered. That's really important. How will you be remembered? How do you want to be remembered? That's why I love coming and talking to groups. I love seeing young, patriotic Americans who are interested in national security. I’m passing the torch to you. My time is long gone. It's time for you all,” Polymeropoulos shared.
The eighth principle is, “Employ the Dagger.” Polymeropoulos explained that to inspire healthy competition and excellence, many sports teams have an object they use to encourage their players. When players do well, their reward is to hold or wear that object for a time. “Virginia Tech baseball uses the home run celebration sledgehammer. When I was in the Middle East, I wanted to motivate my teammates in a similar way, so I bought a dagger at the local market for $10. I would give that to any member of the team who did something really special. After a while, everyone started competing for the dagger. It wasn't worth anything, but it fostered a sense of competition.”
The ninth and final principle is “Finding Clarity in the Shadows,” and is most effective after the previous eight principles have been mastered. Polymeropoulos stated that one must keep themselves healthy, and there are specific ways to do that. “I drink water. Staying hydrated is critical, as well as proper nutrition and exercise. When we were in conflict zones, we were always stressed out. Even if we were working 18 hours a day, we went to the gym. Exercise is huge. High performance athletes also do things like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing. Journaling is also an accepted way of helping with stress and mental health. I encourage everyone to employ the 14:24 principle. That's 14 minutes out of 24 hours to take for yourself, to get some kind of exercise, or some kind of meditation. It's 1% of your 24 hours, you can do that,” he advised in closing.
Polymeropoulos retired from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks in 2019, after serving 26 years in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) in the operational field and leadership assignments. He is an expert in counterterrorism, covert action, and human intelligence collection, and is one of IC's most highly decorated field officers. He spent extensive time South Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Just prior to his retirement, he served at CIA headquarters and oversaw the CIA's clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia. He is a nonresident fellow in the foreign defense practice at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Security and strategy. He frequently comments on international events in the media, including in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Fox News, GQ, Yahoo News, CNN, and MSNBC.
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