Former NSA Head Mike Rogers: How a Crisis Can Drive Strategic Change

In 2014, Navy Admiral Michael S. Rogers took over as head of the National Security Agency and its much younger sibling, the U.S. Cyber Command, at the height of the Edward Snowden scandal. Snowden, a former CIA contractor, leaked information to the media that the U.S. was spying not only on its enemies, but also on its citizens and allies. Congress and the public were enraged and called for President Obama to make substantive changes.

Internally at the NSA, Rogers was fighting another battle. The workforce, he said, “was a little shell-shocked.” Employees felt picked on by the public. The prevailing attitude was, “we follow the law. We’re doing great things to save our nation. Why are people all over us?” he said. Rogers’ job as the leader was to take the heat from Congress and the media so the team could focus. He told them to “stop worrying about what everybody thinks.” Stay true to the mission at hand and the tasks needed to fulfill it. “If we keep those things in mind, we’re going to be fine,” he said.

A Leader Is Accountable

A leader is someone who is ready to “take the bullet from the outside world” for the team, said Rogers at the recent Wharton Leadership Conference. A leader, as opposed to a manager, takes on the mantle of ultimate accountability. “You could never be a leader without being accountable,” he said. It means stepping up to the proverbial plate even if the leader wasn’t directly responsible for, or contributed to, the mess.

Rogers, who retired in 2018, put this belief in accountability in practice after a serious situation arose and President Obama needed to be notified. He said he gathered in the White House situation room with the National Security team, cabinet members, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President. Rogers told them the situation had “significant” implications for the country and “quite frankly, we have failed.”

Rogers told the room he was willing to step down to restore the nation’s confidence in the mission. But in “one of the greatest lessons in leadership I ever saw, [President Obama] stops me for a minute and he says, ‘Admiral, let there be no doubt in your mind, I have the ultimate accountability.’ And I just thought to myself, ‘That is a leader. That is someone who understands [that] you’re there when things are going well, and when things aren’t going so well, you stand up and take a round for your team.”

“You could never be a leader without being accountable.”

Craft a Strategic Vision with Broad Boundaries

When Rogers ran the U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, it was like juggling two different work environments. Cyber Command, established in 2009, felt like a startup, he said. It is the country’s cyberspace agency tasked with advancing and defending the national interest. In contrast, the NSA is much more established. Created in 1952, it is the largest intelligence organization in the world outside of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Pyongyang, he said.

In both types of work environments, however, it’s critical to set a strategic vision for the future — and make sure everyone is on board. “Every team I was ever a part of, I don’t care how junior I was or how senior I was, if you haven’t thought about where you’re going, you’re going to waste a lot of time,” Rogers said.

The strategic vision should answer this question: “What is it you’re trying to achieve and how can you fit into the broader team that you’re a part of?” Rogers said. He asked himself how the NSA and Cyber Command fit into the national security strategy of the U.S., the goals of the president, his boss — the secretary of defense — and the director of national intelligence. “How can I make sure that the two teams I’m accountable for are aligned with that vision and moving to achieve it?” he said.

Once the strategic vision is set, articulate it to the team so everyone understands the goal. Then, set broad boundaries for them to achieve it. “I used to tell everybody, ‘Look, my job is to set the left and right rudders in this. I’ll tell you how far either way you can swing,’” Rogers said. “My job is to get … out of the way but make sure you have the resources and [authorizations] you need to execute the job.” When everyone understands the mission, if a problem comes up, each can act in accordance with the organization’s values, ethics and broader vision, he said.

“I used to tell everybody, ‘Look, my job is to set the left and right rudders in this. I’ll tell you how far either way you can swing.’”

This lesson was hammered home to him when he was a young lieutenant in the Navy. His ship left Norfolk, Va., for what they thought was a peacetime deployment. Rogers ran the naval gunfire support team. Then they got a message to head to Grenada. It was 1983, and President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada to safeguard Americans there following political turmoil after a coup killed the nation’s Marxist leader. American troops fought forces from Grenada and Cuba.

“My ship was tasked to do naval gunfire support for some SEALs that were trying to blow up the radio tower to cut off communications,” Rogers said. But the SEALs got into trouble. “We’re taking fire,” they told the ship. “We’ve got a couple of wounded individuals. We need to break contact so we can get our wounded down to the water and get them out to you guys. So we need you to fire some support for us to get the Cubans to put their head down so we can break contact and detach.”

But the ship didn’t fire. Rogers recalled going to the bridge and seeing “utter chaos.” “One petty officer decided that he couldn’t take a human life” and refused to fire, he said. The lesson Rogers learned was to make sure everyone on the team is on board with the mission. To this day, he sees this as his biggest mistake. His team was trained, but he said he never sat down with them to make sure they understood what would be required. “If you can’t sign up for that, I certainly respect it, but you need to step aside.”

Don’t Waste a Crisis

“It’s easy to be a leader when things are going right. It’s easy to be a leader when everyone’s happy. It’s easy to be a leader when there’s tons of resources,” Rogers said. “Where you make your money as a leader, I always thought, is when none of that is true.” But troubled times, if used properly, can lead to breakthroughs, especially in bureaucracies. “Crisis also is opportunity,” he said. “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

“Crisis also is opportunity. Never let a crisis go to waste.”

Rogers said he spent 37 years in government bureaucracies that had entrenched hierarchies and norms. When things are going well, there was no impetus to change. That’s not true in difficult times. “Crises force bureaucracies to get out of their comfort zones. Crises force leaders to sometimes make decisions that they wouldn’t otherwise make.” At Cyber Command, his view about handling crises is this: “Every time something goes wrong, we’re going to use this as a way to drive change.”

Use the Culture to Your Advantage

Many organizations are mired in long-established cultures that can be hard to change. But “rather than viewing them as a negative, think about how you can use them to drive change,” Rogers said. For example, the Department of Defense has a ‘can-do’ culture that hated to admit there was something it couldn’t achieve. So Rogers would frame a task a subordinate was reluctant to do, this way: “You know, we don’t have to do this. I can tell Congress, I can tell the president, I can tell the secretary [of defense] that you don’t think you can do it.”

Invariably, the answer would be, “‘Well, I’m not sure we want to go there, Mike,’” Rogers recalled. That’s when he would swoop in with the kill: “Well, let’s talk about what we can do to get there.” This tactic also works in organizations that have silos, or tribes. When someone is reluctant to do a task, Rogers wouldn’t say, ‘don’t tell me you can’t do it.’ Rather, he flips it around. “If you … feel you can’t do it, I understand. I’ll just brief the secretary. No sweat.” Many times, their attitude will change and they’ll do it, he said.

Another way to change attitudes is to use the financial tools at hand. “We control the workforce compensation, right? We control their performance appraisals,” Rogers said. “If we incentivize through [these financial levers to] align with the vision that we’re trying to achieve, that’s how you drive change in bureaucracies.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Unpopular Decisions

Rogers also cited leadership lessons from the private sector with examples from Polaroid, Kodak and Abbott Laboratories. Polaroid and Kodak did very well before they were disrupted by digital photography. Polaroid founder Edwin Land invented the instant camera and the company was considered a kind of Apple of its day, he said. But it couldn’t successfully pivot.

“If the only thing you can rely on is your rank to lead and motivate men and women, then you have forgotten what [your] organization is about.”

Polaroid filed for bankruptcy in 2001. It was acquired and now is a brand licensor and consumer electronics marketer. Kodak used to be one of the largest companies in the world. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012 and now focuses on the corporate digital imaging market.

Abbott Laboratories is a different case. It was one of the largest drugmakers in the world at one point, Rogers said. But when the company was about to lose patent protection of its top drug, which contributed about two-thirds of revenue, it decided on a radical mode of action even though there was internal dissension.

In 2013, Abbott cut the company in two: one for drugs and another for devices. “As of last month, the two parts of that company are now … individually of greater value than Abbott was when it split,” he said. “Look at the risk” they were willing to take “and how it turned out, even though, at the time, [the decision] was not popular in the company.”

Don’t Make a Decision Before Its Time

Rogers said the default attitude in most organizations is to do things quickly and efficiently. “You’ve got to act quickly, you’ve got to act decisively. You’ve got to move,” he said. “As I got more senior, one of the conclusions I came to was, ‘you know, a lot of times you’ve got more time to make a decision than you think.’” Take time to reflect. “Make no decision before its time, because that gives us some measure of strategic flexibility,” he said.

It’s also important that leaders don’t bank on hierarchy or titles to motivate the rank and file, Rogers added. Learn to inspire them and earn their respect. “If the only thing you can rely on is your rank to lead and motivate men and women, then you have forgotten what [your] organization is about,” he said.

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