#089: Clarity In Crisis: Leadership Lessons From The CIA – Marc Polymeropoulos

Wednesday February 01, 2023

The CIA, and any organization for that matter, needs dynamic and impactful leaders that drive results, take care of people and accomplish the mission, when failure is  never an option.  

Fran Racioppi is joined by one of the CIA’s most impactful leaders. Marc Polymeropoulos served 26 years in the CIA leading operations across Europe, Eurasia, Afghanistan, Iraq and many of the world’s most dangerous places. Marc recently released his book Clarity In Crisis: Leadership Lessons From The CIA in which he lays out what it takes to inspire and get the best from others; even when asked to do the seemingly impossible.  

Fran challenges Marc to show us how to implement his nine strategies for leading when we don’t always have all the answers but we have to take action. 

Today Marc also fights the biggest challenge of his life after he was attacked by Pulsed Electromagnetic Energy in a Russian hotel in 2017. Known as Havana Syndrome, these attacks have been reported all over the world against American diplomatic personnel, with years of investigation but no consensus as to the reason for the onset of victims’ medical conditions.

Learn more aboutMarc Polymeropoulos at marcpolymeropoulos.com and on Twitter @mpolymer

Read the full episode transcription here and learn more on The Jedburgh Podcast Website. Subscribe to us and follow @jedburghpodcast on all social media. Watch the full video version on YouTube.

Listen to the podcast here


About Marc Polymeropoulos

TJP 89 | Leadership LessonsMarc Polymeropoulos retired from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks in 2019 after serving for 26 years in the Intelligence Community in operational field and leadership assignments. He is an expert in counterterrorism, covert action, and human intelligence collection. Marc is one of IC’s most highly decorated field officers and has honed a unique leadership style based on decision making under pressure, inclusivity, camaraderie, and competition. His book “Clarity in Crisis:  Leadership Lessons from the CIA” was published in June 2021 by Harper Collins.  Marc’s goal is to pass on this knowledge to the sports and business world who can benefit from his unique experiences serving his country in the hot spots of the world.



Clarity In Crisis: Leadership Lessons From The CIA – Marc Polymeropoulos

The Central Intelligence Agency solves our nation’s most complex international challenges in peacetime, war and everything in between. To do so, the CIA or any organization for that matter needs dynamic and impactful leaders. They’re leaders who develop a style and principles that drive results, take care of people, and accomplish the mission when failure is never an option.

I’m joined in this episode by one of the CIA’s most impactful leaders most people never heard about. It’s a small fact that’s by design. Marc Polymeropoulos served 26 years in the CIA, leading operations across Europe, Eurasia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many of the world’s most dangerous places. Marc released his book, Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA, in which he lays out what it takes to inspire and get the best from others even when asked to do the seemingly impossible.

Marc and I cover how to build organizations that win by conducting activities that are righteous, difficult, selfless and communicable. Great leaders also develop and implement a strategy. I challenge Marc to show us how to implement his nine strategies for leading when we don’t always have all the answers but we still need to take action. We cover the Glue Guy, the Process Monkey, Adversity, Humility, Why Leaders Need to Win an Oscar, Family Values, People Development, Employing the Dagger, and Finding Clarity in the Shadows.

Marc spent a career battling our nation’s biggest adversaries. He now fights the biggest challenge of his life after he was attacked by pulsed electromagnetic energy in a Russian hotel in 2017. Known as Havana Syndrome, these attacks have been reported all over the world against American diplomatic personnel. After years of investigation, no consensus has been found within the US government. Not enough has been done to support the victims like Marc, who struggle to focus and suffer debilitating headaches, vision issues, and loss of motor function.

Marc shares his story and that of others who’ve been attacked by pulse electromagnetic energy, and what we have to do as a country to support them and stop this. Take a listen to my conversation with Marc on your favorite podcast platforms. Watch the full video version from Marc’s sunroom on YouTube. Pick up a copy of Marc’s book, Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA, to learn more about his strategies and implement them in your organization. Follow him on Twitter @MPolymer and the web at MarcPolymeropoulos.com. Subscribe and follow @JedburghPodcast on all social media. Check out our website, JedburghPodcast.com.

Marc, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.

It’s good to be here. Thanks.

Thanks for hosting us at your house.

It’s good old Vienna, Virginia.

It’s a beautiful day in Vienna, Virginia. You spent 26 years in the CIA. You started as an analyst and quickly transitioned over to becoming a case officer and the operations director. Your last position was overseeing all CIA clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia. You are the recipient of the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the Intelligence Medal of Merit, the Intelligence Commendation Medal, and the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal plus probably a few that we don’t know about and haven’t listed here.

Many people forget and don’t understand or even know, nor maybe they should know, how closely the CIA and Special Operations work together. One of the many highlights of my career overseas has always been working with the agency and being as integrated as we were with them. Those were always the most successful missions. We were born in the same place.

You sold me on this book on page three of the introduction when you spoke about the OSS and the Jedburghs. It is hard-coded into every episode’s outro where I say that American Jedburghs went on to become the Operations Directorate of the CIA, which many of them were spun off in the early ‘50s to become Green Berets. I sincerely appreciate you putting that into the book because nobody does.

That was the essence of what we did. That was the idea of defending forward. With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, a lot of us felt the pain of this because we had friends there, the indigenous units who we left behind. People always talk about being deployed. We always are, whether you’re a CIA case officer or Special Operations community. We don’t come home, and that’s what you sign up for. It was never a question of staying in Afghanistan or not. I thought we should have stayed then. I wish we had. It’s that idea of working with these indigenous units. That’s what the Jedburgh teams were all about.TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

You’re also a Boston Red Sox fan. I appreciate that too.

When I wrote the book, there are all these references to baseball there and the Red Sox. One of the cool things that I’ll give the audience a hint on is I was on TV a couple of weeks ago. I was talking about Russia and Ukraine. I made the analogy of Ukraine is going to shock the world just like Kevin Millar did, and he was actually watching. He contacted someone. He’s going to come up here and we’re going to give him a tour of CIA headquarters. I’m a fanboy here. It’s embarrassing. He’s like, “I’m going to go hang out with some cool CIA guys and gals.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? I’m going to hang out with Kevin Millar.”

I’ll tell you where he is going to go next. He’s going to come on the show. I’m going to hold you to that. We had Jerry Remy. Their youngest son, Jordan, was my best friend growing up. He is still my best friend. I grew up in their house. Episode three was with the late Jerry Remy. I was at his funeral in 2021. He was instrumental in starting the show. Jack Devine, from your heritage at the agency, has been on a few times. They were in that group of 4 or 5 people, along with Jersey Mike’s Founder, Peter Cancro, that I called a couple of years ago and said, “If I started a show, what do I do? Do you think this is a great idea? If I do, will you be one of my first guests?” Jerry was in episode three and was instrumental in the crafting of the message for this show.

I’m here in Virginia, but we take a pilgrimage every summer up to Fenway. My son and I went in 2021. Through some friends, the Red Sox management had said, “Marc, we want to honor you for your service and give you some tickets. We’ll have you go behind the Green Monster and sign it.” My son and I did it. It was Yankees-Red Sox. They stuck us in the outfield and we were shagging fly balls as the Yankees were taking BP. There’s a story behind this. I’m a serious Red Sox fan so I’m not thrilled with the direction of the team. I went back on Twitter and crazily deleted all my tweets about Chaim Bloom, the general manager, who I’m perpetually angry at. I’m like, “They’re honoring me to go up there. I got to get rid of all this stuff.”

It lives forever on the internet.

Now, I’m back. I don’t know how the off-season is going to go.

It’s a rough year. We can talk about it. Let’s talk about building great organizations. Like the Red Sox, they ebb and flow, but it starts with the mission. The mission is the unifying edict that bonds everybody together, whether you’re in the military, a baseball team, the CIA or Special Operations. Government agencies are the best at it. Businesses, I would argue, not so much.

One of the things that we spend a lot of time talking about on the show is where do you start? Everyone says, “I want to build a great organization.” That’s great. Nobody wakes up every day and says, “I’m going to build a shitty organization and hire bad people.” You have to have a mission. As a Green Beret, de oppresso liber or free the oppressed. That means so many things. It’s a very simple term that can be applied anywhere in the world during peace, war or whatever level of conflict. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re doing.

The mission of the CIA is simple and straightforward. Collect and analyze foreign intelligence to assist the president and other policymakers in the US government in making national security. It’s a simple statement, but a complex task. Why is that mission or that definition the alignment and the starting point for any organization, and specifically the CIA? Why is it important for any organization?

We are America’s first line of defense. That’s the intelligence community. I always joke around, “What is espionage? It’s the second oldest profession. What’s the first oldest profession?” Everyone takes a pause. I’m like, “It’s prostitution.” When I give these leadership talks to high school teams, I’m like, “Nobody should answer this question. CIA is the nation’s first line of defense. Ultimately, we’re providing information to policymakers for them to make correct decisions. The other part of it on the covert action side is sometimes we influence events, but everything is based on that notion.

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“When we talk about the mission, it’s providing information to policymakers, but you do it in such a way where honesty and integrity is the foundation.”

When you walk into CIA headquarters, you look to the right and there’s the memorial wall, which is a sacred place for us. It’s certainly not the same level of tragedy or death that the US military has, but there are 170-plus stars on the wall. Some friends of mine are on there. You look on the left and there’s a biblical verse. It says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” That’s another foundational piece. That’s about honesty and integrity.

When we talk about the mission, it is providing information to policymakers, but you do it in such a way where honesty and integrity are the foundation from the day you walk into that building. People think that’s counterintuitive. They’re like, “It’s the CI.” We could talk a little bit about working with Special Operations Forces, which was a highlight of my career as well. Someone says, “The agency guys are here. Watch your wallet.” It’s an organization that the foundation of is on telling the truth. That’s certainly to policymakers but also to your teammates, bosses and peer subordinates. Honesty and integrity are huge.

[bctt tweet=”The CIA is an organization whose foundation is telling the truth. That’s certainly to policymakers but also to your teammates, bosses and peer subordinates. Honesty and integrity are huge.” username=”talentwargroup”]

Trust forms the foundation of everything. You said, “I never wanted to have a classic 9 to 5 job. I wanted more adventure, more fulfillment and more meaning. I was a patriot and wanted to work for the US government.” You went to Cornell and earned multiple degrees there. Your parents are immigrants to the US. You have a strong Greek heritage. I could tell by your last name. My last name is Racioppi. We’re 100% Italian.

It’s interesting. All my grandparents immigrated to the US from Italy, but my grandfather came here when he was eight years old. He became a Chemical Engineer in the US Army Engineering Corps and worked on the Manhattan Project. His allegiance to the United States of America surpassed everything. It set the foundation for what was instilled in me and the meaning of service. Why did you have this calling? Coming from your background with Greek heritage, and I know your dad was not always the biggest fan of the CIA, why was it so important to serve?

My immigrant experience is I was born in Greece. My wife, who is a retired agency officer as well, has a Lebanese background. This is common in the intelligence community. There are a couple of things. First of all, it’s because I had this exposure to the outside world. Every summer, we were on the Greek islands. When I was ten years old, my dad did a sabbatical. He was a professor at Rutgers University. He did a sabbatical in North Africa in Algeria. When I was ten, my mom put me on an airplane by myself at JFK airport. I was flying by myself through Paris to Algeria.

We spent a month in a Volkswagen minibus driving through the Sahara Desert. Right then I said, “I have to do something like this.” I thought I was Lawrence of Arabia. There’s an important notion here. It’s that people who come from outside the United States appreciate what we have. Even fast-forwarding now with all the political dysfunction in the US, and we’re not talking politics. That doesn’t help anybody. Ultimately, if you still go to a US embassy, there are lines going out the door at the VISA section or at the consular section because people still think America is the land of political and economic freedom.

Having that love of country is common in the immigrant experience. It’s fascinating to me. If you walk the halls of the CIA, there are so many of my friends. It’s what America is. It’s a melting pot. A lot of my friends were born outside the country, but they end up being the most patriotic Americans you could ever find.

I 100% agree. We have a mission, but you need leaders. You developed nine strategies from your career to apply to leadership in any environment. The book Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA that you wrote breaks these down. I loved this when I opened it up because you started talking about nine. I’m like, “I talk about nine on every episode.”

TJP 89 | Leadership Lessons

Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA

We talk about the components of Special Operations character and what SOF recruits assess and select for when they’re bringing people into the organization. Those are drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength. I’m going to tie all these to your principles as we go through this. I want to break them down and talk about them. In order to get there first, I want you to define leadership. I thought you had a great definition so I was hoping to take a minute. In your terms, define the term leadership as the starting point for any other component that we bring in.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think leaders are born. They’re made. Whenever you run into someone and say, “I can’t be a leader,” you can be trained. You can do this in a systematic fashion. At the agency, I found that I was not a good leader for most of my career. By the end of my career, I thought I was very good. What does that mean to me? First and foremost, we’re talking about when times are tough. It’s leadership under adverse conditions where you have a lack of situational awareness.

Simply, my definition of leadership is who’s the one who’s going to stand up, raise their hand, and say, “This is a crappy situation. I’m here. I want to do this. I can attack this. I know how to handle it. I’ve trained for it.” Most importantly, it’s not having that fear of failure. It took me a long time to get there. True leadership is when you’re in that period of gray and everyone else wants to flee. These are all clichés, but I do believe this. It’s attacking a problem with no fear.

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“I don’t think leaders are born. I think they’re made.”

We have to put people first. As leaders, that’s so much of the starting point. Many times, we look at it and say, “It’s about me.It’s how we empower people to solve problems. Special Operations truth number one is people are more important than hardware.

Here’s one other thing too. When you become a good leader, you realize it’s not about you. It’s the team first. The best leaders are the ones who surround themselves with people who are smarter than them. That takes a lot of discipline. You check your ego at the door. It’s not about you anymore. It’s surrounding yourself with good people and listening to them. It’s not having the ego when someone tells you something and you’re like, “You’re right. Let’s go that way.” That’s not a threat to you. That’s something you should embrace. Once you make that step and this is within any organization, there’s no way you don’t prosper.

[bctt tweet=”When you become a good leader, you realize it’s not about you. It’s the team first. The best leaders are the ones who surround themselves with people who are smarter than them.” username=”talentwargroup”]

There are values too that exist. One of the things that you talk about is when we look at a leader’s job, it is to identify those values that they want in their organization. We talked about the mission. We’re going to talk about some of the principles that you need. You spoke about developing a values system that encompasses being righteous, difficult, selfless and communicable. Why is the development of these values and putting some time upfront to think about the overarching themes that I want from my team so important?

Those aren’t principles. Those are fundamentals. That’s what you start with. Great leadership has got to be selfless. You’re putting others above you. It’s the team first. Communicable is a huge one because you have to be able to have everyone buy in. We can talk about this all day, but if your team or teammates around you aren’t listening, you failed right there. What does that mean? You have to be able to communicate with them. You can do it in so many different ways.TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

The old adage of having a closed door and being aloof doesn’t work at all. It also all comes down to those fundamentals of honesty and integrity once again. It seems so counterintuitive coming from a CIA guy, but it’s critical. There’s sanction on that. One thing within the agency and the Special Operations community as well is if you take a long time to build that trust about honesty and integrity, you can lose it in a second. Once you lose it, it’s done. You have this reputation, “This is not someone who’s trusted.” Maybe they embellish something. Maybe there is some ethical lapse. You lose it in a second and you got to fight against that.

That’s the hardest part. You do things right 99 times, then get them wrong one time. It becomes, “Why did that happen?”

I can’t always talk about names, but one of my heroes on the job is a female officer that is incredibly senior in the counter-terrorism world. She is probably responsible for saving more American lives than anyone in the history of the United States government. She taught me something, and it was to do the right thing. I know that’s cliché, but it’s very simple. In these high-risk operations where sometimes we fail, sometimes you’re going to have to stand up and say, “We screwed up.” Having that honesty and integrity is critical. It’s something I try to teach my kids and others in the leadership field. The idea of doing the right thing is so important. That’s hard because sometimes, things go wrong and you got to step up.

I agree. Let’s get into the principles. The first one is the Glue Guy. You said, “At each of the stations I managed, I value our support staff or the glue guys as much as anyone else. I did not want a homogenous team of all-stars with too many egos involved, each rushing for individual glory.” We talk about Special Operations truth number five. Most Special Operations require non-SOF support. You can be the greatest shooter. You can be the greatest operator in the world but if you don’t have someone who flies or fuels the helicopter, you will never get to the objective.

You get it. A lot of people in our old world get it. What I find is so often, people or managers will highlight the superstars. We didn’t do that. You can’t do that. What about your logistics chain in the old world of CIA operations? What about the analytic cadre? What about the targeting officers who are setting you up? What is interesting for me is when you have success, you have to celebrate everybody. Your door kicker is not the superstar. It’s someone who got the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, not the superstar.

I remember when I received that award. I had an epiphany then in the award ceremony. I was like, “What about everybody who was behind me?” This had to do with my time in Iraq, running around and helping Special Operations Forces catch high-value targets. If you remember Saddam’s 55. I was very involved in that. I felt like a jerk because I never thanked everybody.TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

The idea in the future is certainly to make sure everyone is rewarded with any kind of success. Also, include people in planning. Later on, when I was in management positions at the agency, we would have a morning meeting. I’d be like, “Who do you usually think would come to that? The operations officers, what are we going to do today? Who has an agent meeting tonight? What kind of counter-surveillance does someone have to do? Are we going to bump a Russian diplomat at a reception?” I would gather those officers.

Later on in my career, what else did I do? “Who’s the chief of support in the station? Who’s chief of logistics?” We can’t do any of this stuff without their input. I learned it later on. A perfect example of this is I gave a talk to our high school football team in 2021. The Division 1 quarterback who was all-state going off to play D-1 football, his name is Ry Yates. His dad is a B-1 pilot in the Air Force. He gets it. I said, “Who’s your glue guy?” He looked over at the table of offensive linemen. He goes, “Right there.” That’s it. I dropped the mic. I was like, “We’re done. You guys get it.”

That’s the greatest arm in the world if you don’t have time to throw a pass.

That’s right. Celebrate that notion of the glue guy. It’s important.

In one of the talks I give on leadership, I put up a picture that I took from the back of a Norwegian Destroyer out in the Gulf of Aden. We flew from Djibouti out there. We were doing some combat search and rescue testing capability and interoperability with NATO forces. I put the picture up and it’s of the Norwegian deck crew refueling a US Air Force SOAR Black Hawk. I and three other SF guys were standing there and I say, “Who’s the most important person in this picture?” You’ll get all the answers. They’re like, “The pilot,” or “You guys.” No one gets it right. I look at it and say, “Do you see those guys putting the fuel in that aircraft? That’s it.”

Think about it. As a leader, you celebrate them, but if you don’t have that in planning, you’re not running a successful operation. These are basic principles. One of the things about the book that I love is these are basic principles. Ultimately, I love these because they’re basic. They’re fundamental and people get it. My stepbrother, who’s an ER doc in New York, went through the worst times during COVID. There were bodies stacking up everywhere. It was incredible. He gave my book to the nurses in the ER, the glue gals or glue guys too. It’s the same thing. They loved it. He said, “I looked great after this.” I love that principle. It’s something that can be embraced by people in any kind of profession.

It ties to our team’s ability. The next one is Adversity, which is the performance-enhancing drug to success. There’s a lot of noise in leadership discussions around adversity and resilience. In SF, we called it bounce back. It’s gradable in selection. They will put you in situations designed for you to fail. It’s the same training at the agency. It was designed to fail solely to see how quickly you’re going to come back.

You did a great job in this book of doing something that I haven’t seen before. I’ve read a lot of books on leadership, but you made a distinction between failure, mistakes and quitting. What I was hoping you might be able to do is define each of those and talk about why they’re different. As leaders, why do we need to make that differentiation not only for ourselves but for those who work for us when they come in and say, “This just happened.”

Adversity is something that’s going to hit any organization or any team. You’re going to define yourself in the future. How do you bounce back from that? There is a huge distinction between failing that’s going to happen and failure as quitting. Failure is saying, “I’m done. I’m taking a knee and I’m not getting up.” You never want to be in that position.

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“There is a huge distinction between failing, that’s gonna happen; but failure is quitting.”

If you embrace the notion that high-performance teams are going to go through adversity, that’s going to be their super fuel. What are you going to learn from it? In the military, you do an AAR after this. In the agency, it is a very similar process, but you’re not throwing in the towel at all. Ultimately, it’s going to make you stronger. All this is based on personal experiences. I’m not making this stuff up.

In every great team that I was on, something bad happened at some point. We learned from it and got stronger. We didn’t pack up and go home. I tell a couple of different stories in the book. One of the reasons why the book has resonated is because everyone loves these war stories. I talk about this principle and everyone is looking at me.

Even people who’ve been to war level.

When I tell the story, they’re like, “I get it.” I was doing this for the University of Louisiana baseball team in Lafayette. There were two things that happened in my career over a ten-year period. One was in Iraq where we had recruited an agent. I was living up in the mountains in Kurdistan with so many old friends before the invasion in December of ‘02.

We had recruited an Iraqi who was giving us the order of battle information. The Pentagon was loving this. I was in charge of handling this agent. I met him too much against my better instincts. Nobody cared back home. The base chief was okay with it too. I screwed up and he got caught. He got executed. He got tortured. I’ll never forget that. That was a huge failure on my part. What I told myself there is, “I’m never going to push an agent like that again.”

Ten years later in Afghanistan, I was the base chief in Paktika Province at one of our frontline bases. I’m co-located with some of your old Special Forces colleagues. It was a unique place because several years prior to the agency, ground base officers were killed. Part of what we were doing there is high-value target hunts. We had an individual who was responsible for that as part of our target set.

I was thinking back to my failure a decade prior. We recruited an agent to put this high-value target on the X. He was removed from the battlefield. It was deeply personal for the agency. It’s a small organization. In essence, we avenged the death of some of our colleagues. We grabbed a satellite phone, the famous Thurayas that we all used. We called one of the officer’s widows in Fort Bragg and told her what we did. We were sitting around that night around the fire pit or I call it the caveman TV. Do you remember those days?

We call it Ranger TV.

I’m thinking, “Why did we succeed here?” It was because I was much more patient. I learned from that terrible adversity before when an agent was killed. This was a deeply personal success. It was not on the front page of any newspaper but it was meaningful for the agency. It’s that idea of not giving up and learning from adversity. That becomes your super fuel. Failure is not an option but you’re going to fail sometimes.

One last point on that is this old SOF adage of dare to fail. I like that because when you go through adversity, you’re not scared of failing again. The example I used in the book is the 2003 Boston Red Sox team. Tim Wakefield gives up a great knuckleball. He gives up a home run to Aaron Boone. They lost seven games. In 2004, Red Sox was down 3-0. Kevin Millar is loose. He says, “Let’s shock the world,” and then Red Sox won those four straights. If you’ll ask any member of that Red Sox team, “How did you guys do that?” They’ll say, “It’s because of last year. We’re playing loose now.” There’s a lot to that.

You’ve got to demonstrate resilience and adaptability. I talk about that with athletes a lot. You talk about dare to fail. Many times, what you’ll see with athletes in certain sports is they’ll push themselves to a limit and say, “That’s all I got.” You didn’t fail. Did your body give up? Did you fall down? Did you collapse? You got more. You’ve got to go there and not be afraid of it to know where that limit is. You can then move past it. The third principle that you have is the Process Monkey. This one is simple. You have a great quote here. You said, “There are no shortcuts in practicing the fundamentals of the intelligence business.” Why is process so important?

Thinking back to the notion of how you lead in times of crisis when there’s a lack of situational awareness or when you’re in the gray, you’re going to fall back on 2 or 3 things that you learned how to do. In my mind, when I teach leadership, I always go back to the principle of people remember three things. They can’t remember nine. It’s three or less than that. I throw it out there to your old community. Let’s say you’re a Navy SEAL. What are two things you got to be able to do?

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“People remember three things. They can’t remember nine.”

You got to be able to swim and shoot. In the intelligence world, the fundamental as an operations officer was running a surveillance detection route. The most sacred job we have is keeping our agents safe. These are Iranians, Russians and Chinese who we recruit. If we can’t do that, we’re not in business. The surveillance detection route is when you go from point A to point B and take a lot of things in between if you put on a disguise. Maybe you’re dumped out of a vehicle. Ultimately, you want to make sure you’re not being followed. If you can’t do that fundamental piece, nothing happens. That’s the one thing that you identify.

My challenge to teams is to think of a couple of things that you have to be able to do that when the shit hits the fan, you’re like, “I’m good.” I gave this talk to a baseball team down in Louisiana. I said, “What are you doing?” Talking about athletics, there are so many parallels. You’re up and you’re down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. You’re coming up to bat. There’s a runner on 2nd and 3rd. If you hit a single, you’ll tie up the game. It’s a conference championship in whatever division you’re in. What are you thinking? Are you scared of going up there? No. What you’re thinking is, “I hit every day. I did tons of cage work. I lifted in the off-season and I ate right. When my boys were out there partying on Friday night, I didn’t do it. I did everything that I can control. I did all those things.”

There are uncontrollable. Whatever happens. Maybe the umps are crappy, but I know that I’ve done everything in my power. I did those processes and I’m ready for this. It’s also freeing. It goes back to dare to fail. You’re like, “Let’s go. I couldn’t have done anything more.” What if you don’t have that? What if you’re up there and you’re like, “I took off three weeks in the winter and I didn’t hit at all. Now, I’m not so confident.”

There’s doubt. We talked about that with Andy Towers, the Head Coach of the Chaos lacrosse team, the PLL. They’ve been in the championship three years in a row and won it in 2021. He talks about that. If you put everything in, then you’re free. We talked about that with Jerry Remy as we were talking at the start.

I asked Jerry, “Talk to me about the mindset of the closing pitcher when they go out there and they know that the game is on them.” He said, “The fact that they know that the game is on them and they look in the bullpen, and they see that there’s no one else. For those guys, in a moment in which most people will create doubt, that’s what motivates them. That’s because they have the understanding that “I’m the only person right now who can solve this. I got to go out and do it.”

I love that. Let’s throw that into the whole discussion on what the intelligence community and Special Operations Forces are there. This is going to sound dramatic but post 9/11, we were the ones standing on the ramp parts. There’s no one else. You look back like, “Who else can do this now?” Think about what I’m talking about with clarity in crisis. I’m going to raise my hand. Let’s go because there is nobody else coming. You got to embrace that. That’s a wonderful thing.

What I would tell new officers coming in at the agency all the time is, “This is a privilege. You’re lucky to be in this position. What an opportunity to help defend America.” I’ve tried to inspire them. Sometimes, it works and sometimes, it doesn’t. I always felt that because what an opportunity you were given to do a unique job.

How do we not get bogged down in the process? You talk a bit about creativity. We have to be flexible. We have to be creative. There’s a big difference between innovation and creativity in the process versus improvising and winging it. When do we make that distinction?

I love that. When I came up with the idea of the process, people are going to blanch immediately. Everyone hates process. I’m on a surveillance detection route. I gave an example of I was in North Africa and I was stuck on an SDR. I was missing timing hacks. I didn’t make an agent meeting. When I come back and I say, “I have to respect the process.” The creativity would be, “Why am I taking a vehicle? There’s crappy traffic in North Africa. What if we change a little bit of a mindset? Let’s go out and buy a motorcycle. You can weave through traffic.” That’s respecting the process. That’s the fundamental of the surveillance detection route. We’re going to do something to allow us to get the job done.

This really happened. Someone sitting around in the station bullpen said, “Let’s grab some motorcycles.” I was like, “That’s a great idea.” I’m not thinking, “How am I going to get approval from headquarters to get people trained?” Someone back home is going to be like, “Someone is going to get hurt riding a bike.” We’re not trained on motors.

That’s the thing. Innovation is important. It’s respecting that process piece, but innovating along the way goes more on the leadership piece. It’s being open-minded when you’re sitting around saying, “Let’s solve this problem.” The officers in the station are like, “We can’t run our SDRs. Traffic is killing us. Let’s find a solution to this.” You’re respecting that process. All of a sudden, everyone is driving motorcycles.

It’s that versus winging it and saying, “That’s not going to do them. That’s going to break down.” Humility is best served warm. That’s the next one. You had some feedback that you openly discussed here that I wanted to throw at you. I thought this was great. You said you received feedback once that’s like, “Marc thinks he knows far more than he does.” The next one was, “Marc must understand that his words carry huge weight at the agency. He is so respected. As such, he should choose much more wisely and fully think before he speaks.” I like this because I’ve received that exact same feedback over my career.

It’s the famous 360 feedback session. You embrace those kinds of feedback because it is going to make you a better officer at the end of the day. A lot of people ask me, “What’s the best character trait of an operations officer?” The first thing that comes to mind is humility. People think we have these Type A personalities. It’s the same as your old world. What a lot of people don’t understand is that humility is critical. There’s a high rate of return on operations, but then a huge rate of risk as well. You can’t go through your career with having some incredible highs, but some incredible lows as well.

[bctt tweet=”What’s the best character trait of an operations officer? The first thing that comes to mind is humility. Being humble is important because then, you don’t believe your own hype.” username=”talentwargroup”]

Being humble is important because then, you don’t believe your own hype. I told the story of when I was running a counter-terrorism unit based at our headquarters. We were having huge success against Al-Qaeda. You remember the 2014 time period when there was a huge threat to civil aviation around the world from Al-Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula. It was an Al-Qaeda offshoot. I was responsible for helping take care of that along with military partners.

We’d done some things that caught the attention of the White House. I was up on the seventh floor and I was getting lauded by everybody. I was that shit. Do you know what happened a week later? We screwed up an op and incurred civilian casualties. In your world and my world, that is not good. There are huge eyes on you. All of a sudden, all the people who thought I was so great now think I’m the biggest turd around.

I went up to the seventh floor of our headquarters and briefed the director and the deputy director of the agency. It was 40 other leadership teams there. I did three things. First of all, I said, “It’s on me. I own it.” That’s the idea of ownership. I was like, “These are the three things that happened, and then these are the three things on how we’ll fix it.” I asked, “Are there any questions?” There was none.

As I walked out, I said to the deputy director of operations at the time, “If you want to remove me from this position, I got it. I screwed up.” He’s like, “Not at all.” I said, “There are no questions.” He goes, “That’s because you owned it. You told them what was wrong. You told them how you’re going to fix it. You were humble.” That idea of humility is something that people don’t understand how much we all have. A lot of bad things happen. Collectively, over time, you can’t walk around thinking you’re a badass because there is some stuff around the corner that’s going to bite you. You also want to make sure your decision-making stays sound. If you think too highly of yourself, you’re going to make mistakes.

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“If you think too highly of yourself, I think you ’re gonna make mistakes.”

You brought up a couple of other points like accountability, responsibility and ownership. Those are also terms widely thrown around. You can’t have accountability, responsibility or ownership if you don’t have humility in the first place to say, “This is my lane. This is my remit. This is what I’m responsible for. It went well or it didn’t go well. It doesn’t matter which one. I’m going to be there to assume responsibility no matter what.” You are not going to ever be able to stand up and say, “This is what happened, and this is why. This is what we’re going to do next,” if you’re looking for somebody else to pin something on all the time.

Great leaders own their mistakes. They don’t deflect. They don’t push it on others. This is not ubiquitous within the agency or in the SOF world. You know that. There are a lot of people who don’t do this. The key thing in the book is I’m not writing a treaty on the greatness of the CIA and these leadership principles. A lot of people don’t practice these. These are things that I learned over time that I want to pass them to others. A lot of this was born out of watching particularly some of my old bosses who do some of the things that I don’t preach in there.

I want to bring up the next one, which is probably the hardest. You call it Win an Oscar. You said, “As a leader, there’s simply no night off. You’re always under the spotlight.” Why do you have to win an Oscar? What does that mean?

This goes back to the notion of when times are tough and there is a crisis situation, everyone is looking at you. You got to embrace that. The key point on this is you have to stay authentic. I tell a story. I can’t remember if it was in the book or not, but it’s what I think about all the time. I was at an embassy. I was a deputy station chief in the Middle East and the embassy was attacked by Al-Qaeda. A car bomb hit the back gate. It didn’t detonate, and then there was a frontal assault. They were lobbying grenades on our roof. I’d been in Iraq and Afghanistan before but I was still terrified. If you’re not scared of that, you’re lying.

There was a SOF contingent with us and augmentation as well. Everyone was like, “This is not good.” The reason why I raised this is that I calmly opened the weapons safe and passed out the weapons. I got up in front of everybody and I didn’t say, “This is going to be okay.” I didn’t say that at all. I was like, “This might not go so well but we’ve trained for this. Everyone is prepared for this. We knew something like this might happen, so we’re going to do our best to get out of this situation.” I was authentic.

Afterward, I got a lot of good feedback on that. The irony is when someone said, “You looked calm.” I was like, “I was crapping in my pants. I thought I was going to die that day. I was terrified.” It’s the idea that all eyes are upon you. I once gave this leadership talk, and I mentioned this. It was a group of healthcare executives and entrepreneurs. Some of them became very successful.

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“I was crapping my pants. I thought I was going to die that day. I was terrified.”

One CEO came to me and said, “That resonated with me. I remember one time when our business was so bad and I didn’t think I could make payroll.” I said, “That week?” He goes, “No. That day. I had to look at my employees and said, ‘I don’t know if I can pay you.’ They all have mortgages and families, but I had to get up there and be authentic. I said, ‘I’m going to do everything possible, but this is a bad situation.’”

I thought that was a perfect encapsulation of what this means. It’s being authentic. It’s telling the truth. It’s also showing some strength. Where does this go wrong? This goes wrong if a leader panics. Let’s go back to that same situation. I won’t use any names. We had a Marine Security Guard detachment at the embassy. A gunnery sergeant had just come back from Iraq and was not doing well. He completely collapsed. He turtled up at that time.

These are the guys who are primarily responsible for security.

I’m not using any names, but that was an example of not doing what he should have. In fact, we had some folks from the SOF community who stepped up. We tried to get one of them a medal, but the State Department wouldn’t do it because then they would have to recognize their own failings.

We call it emotional strength. That’s in the nine that SOF uses. It’s about emotional strength and how you stay calm in these times of chaos.

How can you also be authentic?

The other side of that is you can’t be an emotionless robot who sits there. Whether somebody comes and gives you good news or bad news, you stare at them blankly, nod your head and say, “Yes.” We got to be able to show that we have emotion and are able to articulate that because that’s what brings people together.

I gave that example about the embassy, but I thought of this. You probably have dealt with this as well. The worst part of the job is getting up and telling teammates or colleagues that someone has died. That was one of the hardest moments in my career. After the events in Khost, Afghanistan on December 30th, 2009 when seven of our colleagues died, I had to get up in front of a station and tell them someone who was a station member had passed. The reactions from folks were beyond indescribable, and what I had to do as the leader of that station to try to hold it together. That was difficult. This is my own journey. I was feeling sorry for myself.

Years later, I was talking to John Abizaid who was the former Deputy of CENTCOM. His last job was as an ambassador of Saudi Arabia. He was visiting the Middle East after he had retired from the military before he came back as an ambassador. I was going through my own thing. I was telling him, “That was a hard time for me.” He looked at me and put me in my place correctly. He said, “You know Marc, I do this on an industrial scale.” I was like, “Whoa.” Winning an Oscar is certainly an important one.

It ties closely to the next one, which is Family Values. One of the key jobs that a leader has is to create what you call the soul. That soul is the ethos of the organization. It’s what brings everybody together. After you’ve put all this work in to create this tight team, how do you then not succumb to being a member? You have to still lead it. Talk a bit about family values, what that means, and why camaraderie becomes so important.TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

Particularly, with a place like the agency, there’s not a deep bench. You look to your left and to the right of you at a station or a base somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the embassy or a conflict zone. Those are the people you’re going to battle with. That’s your team right there. What was always important to me is you have your love for your fellow brothers and sisters there. I use this word and people get uncomfortable. I started using it in talks. I wasn’t sure how people would relate to it, but the reaction has been extraordinary.

I believe it. There’s a love you have with people when you go through these baptisms under fire or whatever it is. It’s the idea of how high-performing teams need to have that sense of camaraderie. The question is how do you build that? You do it patiently over time. The old adage of, “Go out to the bar,” doesn’t work. One of the things that I started doing at the end of my career is I gathered my team together and I would be like, “We’re not talking about work. Everyone got five minutes. Tell us about stuff that we don’t know. What do you do? What are your passions?”

[bctt tweet=”High-performing teams need to have a sense of camaraderie. How do you build that? You do it patiently over time. The old adage of, “Go out to the bar,” doesn’t work.” username=”talentwargroup”]

It was powerful. A couple of things happen. People learn about each other. It’s a way of a bonding experience. In the back of my mind, here’s what I started learning. People started saying things about their background that later on, I could use work-wise. I remember that we had one officer. She said, “I played Division 1 soccer.” I said, “I never knew that.” She goes, “Soccer is my passion. The agency is a little hobby, but I love being a soccer player for a national championship caliber team.

Later on, we had a target in front of us. It was an intelligence officer from a hostile country. That intelligence officer, what did they love? They loved soccer. I was like, “I have someone now who is a legit badass that probably could have played professionally.” We use that case officer and marry it up with that target. Whatever happens, happens. It’s the idea of building those teams and getting to know the people you have.

There are so many points in my career where that camaraderie or that tightness helped me. I told a story about when I came back from Iraq, I had terrible post-traumatic stress from all the bad stuff we saw and did. The station chief out in Baghdad came back home. My wife called him. I’ve been gone for six months. When I came back, I was having these terrible nightmares. I was seeing dead bodies everywhere. She’s like, “Something is wrong with Marc.”

His name was Charlie Seidel. He then called us all backup, the original Baghdad team or the infill into Baghdad. He called us up to his house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts under the guise of a reunion, but he did it for me. For two weeks, we were all together. It started my healing process. When I found out what he did later on, it goes back to that. He didn’t have to do this. That’s the family values. That’s the type of team and camaraderie you want to build.

You raised something important. You also are the leader. If you’re leading a unit like that, you do have to separate yourself. I’ll close with what I used to do at the embassy at the Friday night Marine house parties at 12:00. I say, “The management is going home.” Let the boys and girls have their fun, but you have to have a little bit of separation.

The next one is to be a people developer. You said, “Many leaders become so engrossed in strategy and execution that we forget that we are a teacher first and foremost.” I talk about this a lot with organizations, especially in competitive businesses or competitive industries when resources are constrained. Businesses will often tell me, “I need more people. I need more money.”

I look at them and say, “Every business needs more people and more money.” It doesn’t matter how profitable they are or how unprofitable they are. They’re always going to tell you, “I need more people. I need more money.” They’re under pressure. When leaders become under pressure, which by and large, they usually always are, they will not focus on the development of their people.

That’s the first thing that goes.

A strong recruiting and hiring process and everything goes to the back burner. It’s like, “I’ll interview this person. They got twenty minutes in between these seven meetings. They put their resumes in the calendar invite. In the first five minutes of the interview, they’re reading their resumes and they’re distracted by other stuff, so we don’t hire well. That perpetuates the problem. It’s the same with training. It’s like, “We’ll do training when we have time.” Six months later, “Do we do training?” No, we don’t have time.Why is it so important?

It’s because you’re always looking to the future. What does the future mean? It means you’re passing the torch.

We don’t get to be there forever.

We’re developing others. Think about the discipline it requires to have that correct onboarding and training when economic times are bad, or you don’t have resources or money. We’re joking around down in my basement that everyone has that “I love me” wall with all the medals, pictures, and fancy stuff. That’s great. I always say, “Anyone can come over. You’re welcome to have a bourbon. We’ll go take a look at that stuff.” No one is going to remember me for that. What are they going to remember me as? I thought I was a pretty good leader at the end of my career.

I was doing a book signing. An officer who was the station chief came up there and said to my son, “Your dad is the best leader I ever had.” He said, “Why?” My son was proud and interested. He goes, “It’s because he prepared me all the time.” He told this story and I put it in the book. When I was a base chief in Afghanistan, I was allowed to travel around the country. If I do so, I don’t have to write a cable saying I got to turn the base over to someone else. If I go to Kabul for 48 hours, let’s say I had ten case officers each over the course of the year. Each of them would run the base for 48 hours. What does that mean? That means directing return fire.

We’re getting rocketed every day from Pakistan by 107-millimeter rockets. For an entire year, every day, I got shot at by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Pak Military positions. Go figure that out. You’re going to be responsible for returning fire. You’re going to run agents. There are going to be high-value target operations. You’re going to have to recommend calling airstrikes or not. For 48 hours, you’re going to do this.

The story is I put this young officer in charge and I’m jumping on the helo to leave. He looks at me and says, “I’ll hold down the fort when you’re gone.” I’m not recommending this. I grabbed him by his shirt and threw some explicit at him. It scared the crap out of him. I said, “Absolutely not. You’re making every decision. When I come back, we’ll go over what you did as a teaching point. When I come back, we’re hitting the ground running.”

He mentioned that story to my son. He said, “That was helpful because it showed that what Marc cared about was developing us more than any kind of awards.” Who cares about the record books and stuff like that? If you’re a baseball player, did you hit 300 or not? It’s passing the torch to the next generation. Especially at the end of my career, that idea of mentoring meant so much more. You’re going to be remembered by officers who you helped like that. The organizations are going to get better much more than, “Did I win some medals or something like that?” For me, that’s drinking bourbon when I’m old and frail down the basement.

We use the term effective intelligence. The aggregate sum of experiences that you’ve had in your past is what shapes your decision-making in the future. It informs you. We have to pass that on. If we don’t pass that on, it goes with us. We’re not using that as teaching points to develop that next generation. We’re in this course of action of hopefully. If you remember it, I’m sure it’s similar to your training, we ever briefed hopefully. You were kicked out of the room. It’s like, “Hopefully, the enemy will retreat.”

Hope is not a strategy. That’s a famous thing. I hope you don’t ever do that. That’s a big thing in the sports world too. “I hope we win today.” The coach will go crazy if you say that. Passing the torch was something important and special to me. I hope what I’m remembered for is developing others.

When I give this talk or I’m talking about some of the stuff I did in my career and some of the awards I’ve won, that doesn’t matter to me as much as how I’m thought by some of the young officers I mentored along the way. The CIA is a lot different from the military. We have crappy training. As an officer, you might go to command and staff colleges. You’ll do probably two years in your twenties. That’s two years offline.

It’s way more.

Even more than that. In the agency, we do none of that. What I learned was that we got to do it on our own, and that’s important. That’s why leaders can affect positive development, especially in my place, by taking this mantle on their own and doing it. We’re not doing it in terms of sending folks offline.

I was talking about this. We talked to people about hiring processes. They’ll say, “Speed up the hiring process. Streamline the interviews and get it done.” I look at them and say, “I spent two years training and screening where any day, I could have been kicked out to become a Green Beret. You want to hire somebody after a 45-minute Zoom interview. Is that the process that you want to put in place?” You got to think about those things. Recognition and competition are so important in the development of teams. You called it Employing the Dagger. How do you effectively create competition and recognize those who work for you without creating internal strife?

Someone told me this one time. I talk about this principle. They said, “Somehow, you have to make this idea of competition being healthy. You have to make it applicable to a librarian.” I was like, “Whoa.” That was awesome because that challenged me. I’m like, “I’m not sure how I’m going to do this, but I’m going to try.” It’s the notion that competition allows for an entire team to rise together. That’s not something that’s all-new, but how you do this in a healthy fashion is important.

I did it informally, so these are not performance appraisals. It’s not a monetary award. We could do it in the agency. I’m not sure if you all could do that in the military. It’s not promotion. If someone recruited an agent, if they helped affect a high-value target operation, or maybe they even assisted with doing counter surveillance, I would go out on the streets in the Middle East. I’d go to the souk or the bazaar and I’d buy a little $10 dagger. What I would do is every week, I’d give this to someone.

What was amazing to me is all of a sudden, they’re vying for that. This crappy little $10 dagger became this symbol in the station. I wasn’t the greatest leader in the world in the beginning, but I’m thinking, “I’m onto something here. This is interesting.” It made me feel good because it’s not chasing a promotion or money. It’s doing something that everyone was embracing and then everyone rises up together.

I used to do something along the lines of the stand-up morning meeting. There are tons of research on this in the business world. I don’t know any of this in great detail. For me, it was, “What did you do last night?” I’m not telling you what you had to do, but a CIA case officer works at night. Someone can take a night off and be with their family. That’s okay. If they do that a 2nd or a 3rd time, do I say anything to them? No. Their peers do. Everyone is looking at them like, “You got to pull your weight here.” It’s the idea that everybody rises up with healthy competitions. I thought that was important.

On the librarian piece, I’m still trying to figure out how to explain this. Maybe the stack is clean or something like that or organized. Ultimately, this is something that I found. In the sports world, it is everywhere. Every baseball team has this. Boston Red Sox in 2022 had this laundry cart. When someone hits a home run, they plop in the cart and go down the dugout. It’s these things you see that someone’s wearing some funny hat or something like that. Teams employ this. They employ it very successfully because it’s the idea of rewarding behavior that you want to promote.

It helps build those family values that you talked about. To sum it up, you have termed it Clarity in the Shadows. How do we bring it all together?

If they’re reading the book, they got all nine. If they’re remembering anything, they’ll remember three. All these builds on each other. It’s not sequential in order. What happens in the end? The end is you have the ability to thrive as a leader under high-pressure situations. That’s something that you can train yourself to do. These are basic principles. What kind of processes do you have? What kind of family values have you built? Have you embraced adversity?

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“You have an ability to thrive as a leader under high pressure situations; and that’s something you can actually train yourself to do.”

The best way to encapsulate this is a story. When I was back from Afghanistan, I was called to our operations center. My team was still on the ground, but I was 2 or 3 weeks gone. I probably came back from an R&R. Someone said, “Your team’s got a high-value target on the X.” I said, “That’s great. We’ve been looking for this guy for a long time.” They said, “It’s all screwed up.” I’m like, “What screwed up, the team?” They said, “No. We lost comms with them. ISR is down. At headquarters, everyone was a mess. We don’t know what to do.” I said, “What have they briefed you on?”

Thinking back, I said, “This is a team that was super tight. They nailed all the processes. I’ve given them all these mentorship opportunities. We’ve been through incredible adversity already for a variety of reasons in a combat zone.” I’m going through it and I’m like, “They’re fine. You all should approve this.” They’re like, “How can you say this?” I walked them through.

A very senior officer came up to me and said, “What’s your recommendation? We brought you here because you’re the former base chief.” I said, “Do it. Give them the okay.” He looked at me and goes, “If you’re wrong, this is your career.” I’m like, “I don’t even work here.” He goes, “Too bad, they’re on the X right now.” I said, “Do it.” It was a success. They removed the HVT from the battlefield.

Afterward, one of my buddies said to me, “Why were you comfortable making that decision? That’s aside from the fact that we knew you would anyway because you were challenged. You were going to do that anyway.” I walked them through my thinking on it. It’s the idea of putting these all together and having the ability to see things clearly when others can’t. It’s freeing. It’s something you can train for. You can follow these principles.

Look at what happened in 2021. I could go over this if we had more time and talk about COVID. What companies and organizations responded well to the COVID crisis? It’s those who employed a lot of these principles. There was so much uncertainty in the world, in businesses and communities, and in people’s lives, health and families. It’s putting it all together.

We dug into your leadership principles. You’ve termed it clarity in crisis. We talked a lot about your long and distinguished career over 26 years at the agency. Your service still continues. The challenges that you face in your own personal story and your leadership continue. In December of 2017, you were woken up one night with the room spinning, ringing in your ears and vertigo. You threw up. You had headaches ever since.

That happened for five years.

What’s going on?

I don’t address this in the book. In my leadership talks, I don’t as well because I want to keep these two things separate. This is the miserable journey I’ve been on. In the last two years of my career, I was the operations chief in Europe and Eurasia. I was responsible for everything from Dublin all the way to the Eastern Time zone of Russia. It was primarily combating Russian influence in Europe and allowing it to do with Ukraine as well. I missed that fight, which drives me nuts. I would do anything to be there.

Ultimately, I went on a trip to Moscow in December 2017 to meet with the embassy. I had been a career Middle East officer. I needed to get some situational awareness or some area familiarization trip. I was going to manage all these disparate offices. I had to go visit them along the way. We also had what was called a liaison or a relationship. It was a bad one, but we did have a liaison with the Russian security services. Even in the worst times in the Cold War, we still talk to them as we do now, which is the right thing to do to manage crises.

It was December 5th. I woke up in the middle of the night with the room spinning, a splitting migraine, tinnitus, which is ringing in my ears, and vertigo. It started this five-year journey. What I believe happened was similar to what happened to our officers and US diplomats in Havana, Cuba in 2016 and the year prior. There was some kind of attack on us. It was a sonic attack, directed energy or whatever it is. Ultimately, I ended up through a long miserable fight with the organization.

TJP - EP #089 Clarity in Crisis with Marc Polymeropoulos Author, Clarity In Crisis: Leadership lessons from the Cia Former CIA Intelligence Officer

“I woke up in the middle of the night with the room spinning, splitting migraine, tinnitus, which is ringing in my ears, Vertigo…”

I had to retire because of this. Ultimately, I ended up at Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence. It is the world’s preeminent traumatic brain injury program, which a lot of your colleagues have gone through as well. I went through with them. I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from some kind of external event.

I’ve had this journey in healthcare and trying to fix myself, which has been pretty awful. I’m getting better, but I don’t have the bandwidth as I did. After this talk, I’ll be tired. One of the things that help me is exercise, lifting weights, and going on a walk. I’ll probably do that after you all leave. It’s been a pretty remarkable journey for me in terms of battling chronic pain. Most importantly, it is understanding what the US military has gone through with two decades of war because of my time of one month at NICoE on what a traumatic brain injury means. There are a lot of broken folks out there. How we address this as a country is important. I’m still trying. I’m still plugging away. I’m much better. I still have these headaches. Come December 17th, 2022, it is five years.

The interesting thing about this is they’ve termed it Havana Syndrome, pulsed electromagnetic energy attacks, microwave attacks or whatever it may be. There has been no consensus from the US government. I know you’ve been on and spoken about this on a number of media outlets. There have been open and closed investigations. There are some new investigations that are pending and these case studies. Nobody has come together, whether it be at the White House, DoD or Department of State and said, “This is what’s going on.” There’s a lot of finger-pointing and throwing their hands up. Yet, there are 1,000 or so cases of this of people like yourself who are saying, “Something happened to me.”

The inspiration, for me, comes from the DoD personnel and a couple of levels. One is to think about what happened in Vietnam with Agent Orange. You had Gulf War syndrome. You had burn pits. I did a media hit talking about Russia-Ukraine, and Jon Stewart happened to be there earlier talking about his advocacy for burn pit victims. It was inspirational. There are things that have happened in the past, in which a lot of US military that were enlisted and officers have suffered. Ultimately, they find out what it is and they’ve been treated. I put it in that category. I’ll tell you that one organization that does believe those of us on this and is leading the way is DoD. There is no doubt in my mind. I remember after I retired, I had a beer with Chris Miller.

We had Chris Miller. It’s episode 25. It’s in our top 2 or 3 episodes. Chris Miller was awesome.

I met him in an infill in Iraq. He completely believes this. I said, “Why do you believe this?” He says one of his guys from his old world in Special Forces was affected by this too. The DoD labs have been prominent in leading the way. Ultimately, it’s something that we’re going to get to the bottom of. The most important part is treating people. This goes back to leadership. If someone comes to you and says, “I’m not doing so hot,” do you dismiss them because you don’t know what happened? No. You get them help. That’s what didn’t happen for me and others. It was a massive leadership failure.

People had said to me, “That was very courageous.” I came out in public because when I was trying to get to Walter Reed, the agency was denying it. I came out in public on this. My response is, “This wasn’t courageous. I was desperate.” I was diagnosed with a TBI. This is from Walter Reed. They’re world-renowned experts on this. Going through there, one of the things that were most powerful to me was at the end of this program, they bring your family in.

This is chronic pain that I’ve battled for years. It sounds familiar. This is something probably some of your colleagues have experienced as well. They asked my spouse, “Did you think Marc was ever going to hurt himself? Every day, you walk into NICoE, they would say, “Did you want to kill yourself yesterday?” I said, “My head fucking hurts but no.” She had a different answer. She said, “I’m scared of what’s going to happen to him.”

It reminded me of that time when I came back from Iraq in ‘03 with those PTS symptoms. Ultimately, that was powerful. She was worried about me. What NICoE did in the end was give me the tools for how I deal with this. I’ve gotten some other specialized treatment with some old Naval special warfare docs down at Virginia Beach who have helped me. It has been a pretty crazy ride. It’s the idea of if I can advocate for healthcare for those who have been through this, that’s what’s most important. When I was at NICoE, I remember going across the street to the PT rehab. If you ever want to be humbled, you go there and see the folks with prosthetics.

You don’t have it that bad.

That’s the place where I was getting some physical therapy as well. One of the docs there said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m from across the street. I’m from OGA,” which everyone knows means Other Government Agency. That’s the moniker for the agency. She goes, “You’re one of those with the Havana Syndrome stuff.” I said, “Not yet, but how do you know I’m the second agency patient here?” She said, “I have a whole bunch of other patients from DoD.” I said, “Really?” She wouldn’t tell me. This is something that does exist out there. We got to get to the bottom of it.

You use us as a platform. We’re happy to bring awareness to it.

I appreciate it.

It’s important. In that world of the too-hard box, as leaders, our job is to destroy the too-hard box and find solutions to complex challenges. That’s what we do.

We do hard. That’s what I say all the time. The idea that we haven’t figured this out yet after a couple of years has mystified me of why we should quit. That’s not what we do.

I’m pulling it up here in my notes. I’ll go back to what we talked about in the beginning. It’s the fundamentals that you talked about, which are righteous, difficult, selfless and communicable. Let’s get it right for you and everybody else. Let’s figure out what it is and let’s go after them.

Amen on that.

That’s what I’m talking about.

That’s why I wish I was still in. Every time I say that, everyone has a heart attack. I don’t know if they are or not. I certainly have a suspicion, but that’s probably a whole another separate episode. What’s most interesting to me is my peer group which is a combination of my old world and your old world. There are a lot of interests in Ukraine. With the two decades of the war on terrorism, I still believe we shouldn’t have left Afghanistan, but there was a lot of ambiguity. We probably stayed too long in terms of large numbers. Russia and Ukraine is a David versus Goliath story. I wish I was there.

There was a lot of hard work from a lot of people we know.

It started in 2014. This didn’t happen overnight.

They’ve done great work.

It’s inspirational.

As we close out, the Jedburghs of World War II had to do three things as core foundational tasks. You would call it habits or fundamentals. They had to be able to shoot, move and communicate. Great Special Forces operators have to do it. Great agency case officers have to do it. If they put focus on these things and did them to a high level, then they could apply their focus on more challenges and complex things that came their way throughout the day. What are the three things that you do every day to set the conditions for success in your world?

I’m going to steal something from a friend of mine. His name is Rob Lively. I don’t know if you know Rob. He’s a former command sergeant major of the Army’s most elite unit. Rob calls it taking care of the combat leadership chassis. I love that. It’s not just three things. It’s more than that. You wake up in the morning and say, “Am I here? Am I live? That’s good.” You have some coffee, but then you do a couple of things that are critical for you to get through the day as a human but also as a leader.

One is to hydrate and nutrition. You got to make sure you have your sleep. That’s critical. There’s also exercise. Those are the absolute fundamentals. What are those? Those are what you can control. The rest of the uncontrollables don’t matter. It goes back to the process piece. I love that. I give it in every leadership talk. It’s the combat leadership chassis. They are those fundamentals along with the little coffee in the morning to get you up.

[bctt tweet=”Control the things you can control. The rest of the uncontrollables don’t matter.” username=”talentwargroup”]

I like it. I have not heard that term, the combat leadership chassis. Coffee, hydrate, nutrition, sleep and exercise are what you can control.

Rob and I went down to the Philly Police Department and we gave that talk. This is my old clarity in crisis talk to the Philly SWAT team there, which was going through some tough times with what they went through with the riots in 2021. This is not a political statement but this is what they focused on the most. They’re having trouble with the transition. What’s the transition between this high-intensity job and going back home?

The idea of having those things you can control, I love that. I try to practice this. After this talk, I’m going to go down, lift a little bit, and go on a walk. I’m trying to eat right because I’m getting a little big in my old age. I’m still benching 340. My bench press was 370 in Afghanistan. I got to get back to that but that was a long time ago.

We talk about these nine characteristics. We’ve laid out your nine principles here. We correlated a lot of them. Elite performers and great leaders have to demonstrate all of these. If we put them together, there would be 18 or probably 15 because some of them are certainly correlated directly. I think about the nine specifically that SOF use.

At the end of these conversations, I think about our conversation. I say, “If I had to pick one, what would it be that would sum up our conversation and define you?” For me, I think about effective intelligence. I mentioned it a few minutes ago. It’s our ability to take all of these experiences that we’ve had throughout our careers and our lives in these different situations.

You had one of the most dynamic careers that exist, not only in the agency or the military but in general. You’ve been to the most remote places in the world. You’ve led some of the most complex operations and succeeded at such a high level. That has defined where our nation is now through a lot of the work that you’ve done. You’ve now taken those experiences and applied them not only to this generation of warriors. I use that term importantly, but the next one as well. How you’ve done that not only has shaped where we are now, but your ability to do that will shape the next generation of this country. I commend you for that.

Thank you.

We didn’t know each other outside of a few emails before I came here but if this conversation proves anything, it is that lineage or that bond that started with the OSS and the Jedburghs between what became the agency and Special Forces still exists. I appreciate your hospitality and for joining me. I have a new friend for life.

It’s my honor. Thanks for coming. I appreciate it. Thank you very much



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