.
B

ooks on leadership or self-help are legion. Go into any bookstore and you will find shelves upon shelves, row after row, of various takes on this or that as a guide or model for leading people. There is a whole sub-genre of books by Navy SEALs and (to a much lesser degree) other special operations personnel on how to apply the lessons of combat to the boardroom or the battlefield. 

Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA | Marc Polymeropoulos | HarperCollins Leadership | June 2021.

Jocko Willink, a retired lieutenant commander with the Navy SEALs, is probably the most preeminent among these authors with his “Extreme Ownership” book and its related spin-offs. The lessons he imparts are certainly well-said and applicable to one’s life, but there is a fundamental disconnect between the battlefield of Basrah and a marketing meeting in Boston. In some ways, this is exacerbated by his style and intensity (as any follower of his social media can attest), leaving one wishing to hear more of his exploits and less of how Sarah in Omaha managed to close that sales deal—saving the life of one’s colleague just has more weight than nailing that presentation. 

Striking that fine balance between real-world inspired and tested lessons, and the application of those lessons to everyday life is a hard thing to do. Too much of the former, and you get a “boys or girls-own” adventure story. Too much of the latter and it comes across as trite and over-simplified, leadership lessons by way of a fortune cookie. Mr. Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA Operations Officer, manages to strike that balance exceptionally well and provide a fascinating insider’s look at the CIA in his first book “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA”, a copy of which was very kindly provided by the author for review. 

What could have easily fallen into the category of disposable leadership book is brought to refreshing life by Polymeropoulos as he guides readers not just through his principles of leadership, but how the CIA actually operates, and what its officers do in the field and at headquarters. “Clarity in Crisis” is as much a love letter to the Agency as it is a book about leadership. This is particularly timely as so much of what the public knows about the CIA is taken from either pop-culture films or books, or the politicization of the Intelligence Community—something that was quite prolific in the previous administration. 

Polymeropoulos opens the book dispelling many of the notions people have about the CIA and what it does before transitioning into a familiar leadership book model—lessons, stories illustrating those lessons, and closing thoughts, in this case a checklist inspired from a similar process model from the CIA, of how to assess one’s own leadership skills. Offering nine lessons on leadership, “Clarity in Crisis” provides as rich a window into the Agency as it does Polymeropoulos’ leadership view. Separately, these would have been strong enough entries, but taken together it is a rich and fascinating book. 

That introductory section of CIA 101 follows throughout the book, building a more complete picture of what the CIA is, what it does, and how it operates. The book does not, however, skimp on the difficulties that officers face. He recounts the story of one of the worst days in Agency history where several officers were killed in one attack, and where after he was informed he had to “Win an Oscar” as he describes one of his lessons, stoically informing his team of the deaths. Here he had to present a strong face while conveying the painful information. He describes how, shortly after his son’s birth, he raced to a meeting with an agent that a counterpart could have easily taken, noting that “Humility is Best Served Warm” another lesson he describes in the book. 

These anecdotes build a much richer and fuller picture of what CIA officers do and the sacrifices these quiet professionals make on behalf of the United States. They are not Jason Bourne, despite what a certain senator may suggest, and are just as likely to be an unassuming “housewife”. Here, in one story, a local intelligence service overlooked said housewife, believing that only her husband could be in the business of espionage. As Polymeropoulos recounts, diversity is absolutely a source of strength for America’s Intelligence Community, and something that must be encouraged, not questioned. 

Intelligence is perhaps the most “people” of the people businesses, yet is perhaps one of the most underappreciated in terms of leadership and people management. It is about getting someone to betray their country and spy for the United States. It is all about relationships, getting to know an agent, what makes him or her tick, what their hopes and dreams are, their fears and motivations, and becoming their best friend (within boundaries, of course), confidant, as well as their handler. While the Operations Officers are the front end of that spear, they cannot do it alone as Polymeropoulos describes. Everyone from the chef at the station in the remotest part of Afghanistan through to the physician’s assistants—about both of whom he tells incredible stories—are critical to the success of the team, the so-called “Glue Guys”. 

Building that team requires that a leader “Be a People Developer”, providing opportunities for junior staff to step up and take charge. Here he recounts the story of when he stepped away from being Chief of Station—the head of a CIA outpost—and put another junior staffer in charge. The stand-in said that he would hold down the fort until Polymeropoulos returned, to which Polymeropoulos replied that, no, the junior staffer was in charge and it was his station. In another story an overly eager young Operations Officer asked a newly recruited agent to reaffirm his recruitment, leading to an awkward pre-champagne moment. That officer clearly received the lesson (along with much ribbing from his colleagues), and further demonstrates Polymeropoulos’ leadership in action. 

Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me is that I finished “Clarity in Crisis” and wished that I had (and could have) Polymeropoulos as a coach, mentor, or leader, which is something I cannot say about any other leadership or self-help book I’ve finished before. His candor, honesty, and straight-forward style is refreshing and inspiring. He cares deeply about the people with whom he works, recognizes the contributions of every team member (and works to foster that team environment (encouraging “Family Values”) while fostering healthy competition), and genuinely invests in and mentors his people every day, not just on performance review days. One can see why Polymeropoulos was successful in the field and at headquarters—he makes people want to do and be their best and win a “dagger”, in this case a literal dagger that he handed out for exceptional performance—described in his lesson “Employ the Dagger”, which is far less menacing than it first sounds. 

There is no fluff in “Clarity in Crisis'' and there is no “I’m so cool” egotism (which if there were, one couldn’t fault him given his incredible career with the CIA). He transitions from stories from Afghanistan to his son’s baseball team and treats each as equally important. His prolific honest praise and acknowledgement of his teams and those with whom he worked is very real and does not feel tacked on as it does in other books in the genre or books about the CIA—John Brennan’s “Undaunted”, by contrast, very much has this feel. 

Polymeropoulos rather smartly stays away from addressing current politics until the very end and even there it is less about politics and more about the application of his nine lessons to the Covid crisis. Here his candor and honesty are particularly entertaining, as what could easily feel like a tacked-on piece written at the request of the editor or publisher to attract readers is effectively acknowledged by Polymeropoulos as such. It is, nonetheless, a sharp analysis by way of the application of his lessons to a real-world crisis which should be seen as another lesson: “Adversity is the Performance-Enhancing Drug of Success”. 

Polymeropoulos is a jovial, enjoyable, and positive writer. He crafts what is a solid leadership book wrapped in a CIA 101 course, which taken together are insightful to both the Agency and the application of leadership to daily life. In this latter portion it is not in your face, but the kind of leadership that happens in a dugout after a loss or over a drink at his favorite watering hole, the Vienna Inn, to reflect on what went right on an operation. “Clarity in Crisis” is the kind of leadership guide that sticks with you and isn’t confined to a shelf as soon as you’ve finished reading the lessons, and that is exceptionally welcome. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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A Former CIA Operative's Leadership Lessons From The Field

Photo by Craig Whitehead via Unsplash.

June 12, 2021

Books on leadership and self-help often struggle to find a balance between real-world inspired and tested lessons, and the application of those lessons to everyday life. Former CIA Operations Officer Marc Polymeropoulos pulls it off in his new book, Clarity in Crisis.

B

ooks on leadership or self-help are legion. Go into any bookstore and you will find shelves upon shelves, row after row, of various takes on this or that as a guide or model for leading people. There is a whole sub-genre of books by Navy SEALs and (to a much lesser degree) other special operations personnel on how to apply the lessons of combat to the boardroom or the battlefield. 

Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA | Marc Polymeropoulos | HarperCollins Leadership | June 2021.

Jocko Willink, a retired lieutenant commander with the Navy SEALs, is probably the most preeminent among these authors with his “Extreme Ownership” book and its related spin-offs. The lessons he imparts are certainly well-said and applicable to one’s life, but there is a fundamental disconnect between the battlefield of Basrah and a marketing meeting in Boston. In some ways, this is exacerbated by his style and intensity (as any follower of his social media can attest), leaving one wishing to hear more of his exploits and less of how Sarah in Omaha managed to close that sales deal—saving the life of one’s colleague just has more weight than nailing that presentation. 

Striking that fine balance between real-world inspired and tested lessons, and the application of those lessons to everyday life is a hard thing to do. Too much of the former, and you get a “boys or girls-own” adventure story. Too much of the latter and it comes across as trite and over-simplified, leadership lessons by way of a fortune cookie. Mr. Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA Operations Officer, manages to strike that balance exceptionally well and provide a fascinating insider’s look at the CIA in his first book “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA”, a copy of which was very kindly provided by the author for review. 

What could have easily fallen into the category of disposable leadership book is brought to refreshing life by Polymeropoulos as he guides readers not just through his principles of leadership, but how the CIA actually operates, and what its officers do in the field and at headquarters. “Clarity in Crisis” is as much a love letter to the Agency as it is a book about leadership. This is particularly timely as so much of what the public knows about the CIA is taken from either pop-culture films or books, or the politicization of the Intelligence Community—something that was quite prolific in the previous administration. 

Polymeropoulos opens the book dispelling many of the notions people have about the CIA and what it does before transitioning into a familiar leadership book model—lessons, stories illustrating those lessons, and closing thoughts, in this case a checklist inspired from a similar process model from the CIA, of how to assess one’s own leadership skills. Offering nine lessons on leadership, “Clarity in Crisis” provides as rich a window into the Agency as it does Polymeropoulos’ leadership view. Separately, these would have been strong enough entries, but taken together it is a rich and fascinating book. 

That introductory section of CIA 101 follows throughout the book, building a more complete picture of what the CIA is, what it does, and how it operates. The book does not, however, skimp on the difficulties that officers face. He recounts the story of one of the worst days in Agency history where several officers were killed in one attack, and where after he was informed he had to “Win an Oscar” as he describes one of his lessons, stoically informing his team of the deaths. Here he had to present a strong face while conveying the painful information. He describes how, shortly after his son’s birth, he raced to a meeting with an agent that a counterpart could have easily taken, noting that “Humility is Best Served Warm” another lesson he describes in the book. 

These anecdotes build a much richer and fuller picture of what CIA officers do and the sacrifices these quiet professionals make on behalf of the United States. They are not Jason Bourne, despite what a certain senator may suggest, and are just as likely to be an unassuming “housewife”. Here, in one story, a local intelligence service overlooked said housewife, believing that only her husband could be in the business of espionage. As Polymeropoulos recounts, diversity is absolutely a source of strength for America’s Intelligence Community, and something that must be encouraged, not questioned. 

Intelligence is perhaps the most “people” of the people businesses, yet is perhaps one of the most underappreciated in terms of leadership and people management. It is about getting someone to betray their country and spy for the United States. It is all about relationships, getting to know an agent, what makes him or her tick, what their hopes and dreams are, their fears and motivations, and becoming their best friend (within boundaries, of course), confidant, as well as their handler. While the Operations Officers are the front end of that spear, they cannot do it alone as Polymeropoulos describes. Everyone from the chef at the station in the remotest part of Afghanistan through to the physician’s assistants—about both of whom he tells incredible stories—are critical to the success of the team, the so-called “Glue Guys”. 

Building that team requires that a leader “Be a People Developer”, providing opportunities for junior staff to step up and take charge. Here he recounts the story of when he stepped away from being Chief of Station—the head of a CIA outpost—and put another junior staffer in charge. The stand-in said that he would hold down the fort until Polymeropoulos returned, to which Polymeropoulos replied that, no, the junior staffer was in charge and it was his station. In another story an overly eager young Operations Officer asked a newly recruited agent to reaffirm his recruitment, leading to an awkward pre-champagne moment. That officer clearly received the lesson (along with much ribbing from his colleagues), and further demonstrates Polymeropoulos’ leadership in action. 

Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me is that I finished “Clarity in Crisis” and wished that I had (and could have) Polymeropoulos as a coach, mentor, or leader, which is something I cannot say about any other leadership or self-help book I’ve finished before. His candor, honesty, and straight-forward style is refreshing and inspiring. He cares deeply about the people with whom he works, recognizes the contributions of every team member (and works to foster that team environment (encouraging “Family Values”) while fostering healthy competition), and genuinely invests in and mentors his people every day, not just on performance review days. One can see why Polymeropoulos was successful in the field and at headquarters—he makes people want to do and be their best and win a “dagger”, in this case a literal dagger that he handed out for exceptional performance—described in his lesson “Employ the Dagger”, which is far less menacing than it first sounds. 

There is no fluff in “Clarity in Crisis'' and there is no “I’m so cool” egotism (which if there were, one couldn’t fault him given his incredible career with the CIA). He transitions from stories from Afghanistan to his son’s baseball team and treats each as equally important. His prolific honest praise and acknowledgement of his teams and those with whom he worked is very real and does not feel tacked on as it does in other books in the genre or books about the CIA—John Brennan’s “Undaunted”, by contrast, very much has this feel. 

Polymeropoulos rather smartly stays away from addressing current politics until the very end and even there it is less about politics and more about the application of his nine lessons to the Covid crisis. Here his candor and honesty are particularly entertaining, as what could easily feel like a tacked-on piece written at the request of the editor or publisher to attract readers is effectively acknowledged by Polymeropoulos as such. It is, nonetheless, a sharp analysis by way of the application of his lessons to a real-world crisis which should be seen as another lesson: “Adversity is the Performance-Enhancing Drug of Success”. 

Polymeropoulos is a jovial, enjoyable, and positive writer. He crafts what is a solid leadership book wrapped in a CIA 101 course, which taken together are insightful to both the Agency and the application of leadership to daily life. In this latter portion it is not in your face, but the kind of leadership that happens in a dugout after a loss or over a drink at his favorite watering hole, the Vienna Inn, to reflect on what went right on an operation. “Clarity in Crisis” is the kind of leadership guide that sticks with you and isn’t confined to a shelf as soon as you’ve finished reading the lessons, and that is exceptionally welcome. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.