The leadership lessons from the Secret Service's struggles -- an interview with author and journalist Ronald Kessler
The continued struggles of the Secret Service are a series of failures and performance lapses that have gone on for several years. One person, however, was warning of the decline of the agency well before the Salahis crashed a state dinner in 2009; well before the 2012 prostitute scandal in Colombia; before a knife-wielding man gained entrance to the White House last year; and before the recent episode in which drunk agents drove their car up to the White House and interrupted an active bomb investigation.
Ronald Kessler, a New York Times best-selling author and journalist for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, has written two books and an op-ed piece that have spelled out dire consequences if the Secret Service doesn’t heed the warnings of their continued failures. In his book "In The President’s Secret Service," Kessler warned that without significant changes in the agency and its culture, “…an assassination of Barack Obama or a future president is likely.”
I talked with Kessler recently and discussed the lessons for business leaders that can be gleaned from the Secret Service’s continued lapses. To better connect the dots and hear the warning signs, business leaders should adopt the mindset of a journalist and consider for their own companies the recommendations that Kessler offers for fixing the secret service.
Don’t wait until a disaster occurs to break the mold and shake things up.
With the repeated warnings and episodes that Kessler has chronicled in his books and op-ed, I asked him why it appears that the Secret Service is ignoring the warning signs and not taking proper corrective action. In Kessler’s answer is both a reminder of the social psychology phenomenon known as the normalization of deviance and a recommendation for any organization that is experiencing continued failures or lapses: “You have to break the mold, you have to shake up things, you have to take action. It’s much easier to be in denial and think that everything is going to be OK.”
The normalization of deviance is a cognitive belief that suggests that, despite continued untoward events without a true disaster occurring, people will incorrectly assume that these unexpected outcomes are acceptable (i.e. normalize the deviance). Kessler warns that a disastrous outcome may occur if the Secret Service doesn’t change its ways soon, and believes that even the commander-in-chief has been influenced by the normalization of deviance. As Kessler remarked, “President Obama is blind to the danger and in denial about the risk to his own life and to the lives of his family."
Consider going outside the organization for new leadership
In "In The President’s Service," Kessler wrote, “… only a director appointed from the outside can make the wholesale changes that are needed in the agency’s management and culture.” However, Obama over-ruled his own panel’s recommendation last year to select Joseph Clancy, a 27-year agency veteran, as the director of the Secret Service.
When I asked Kessler for his thoughts on Clancy’s appointment, Kessler indicated that an outsider would have been better able to see and hear the warnings signs, instead of an insider who is “just going along, not questioning and not taking action.” Kessler mentioned a quote from former FBI Assistant Director William Gavin that was referenced in the 2012 book "The First Family Detail": “The steward of any organization must understand the need to listen to identified problems and be bold enough to address them. There must be consequences for poor performance.”1
Kessler indicated that one limitation on an insider taking the lead of a struggling organization is the reluctance to fire certain individuals, “The new Secret Service director should have removed some of these people involved in some of these events. That sends a message that we won’t stand for cover-ups and that we must be told bad news.”
Don’t go with the herd -- the journalistic skills needed for transformative leadership
As journalists often are, business leaders need to be a contrarian to some extent to consider new information instead of following the conventional past. Kessler looks to his own career for insights regarding the skills that allow him to connect the dots and identify warning patterns in events. Kessler left college after two years as he didn’t want to be told what to learn or what to read, but rather wanted to learn through firsthand experience by joining a newspaper. While not a recommendation on finishing college, what Kessler realized about himself is that he didn’t want to go along with the herd, “You have to have that kind of mindset to uncover these types of things.”
Kessler also cites confidence in one’s abilities as critical to listening to and investigating the warning signs. Alternatively, Kessler warns, “… it’s easy to slough off the clues and not want to pursue them for fear of being wrong.”
When Kessler decides to pursue what he believes is a good story that should be exposed, he just goes for it. “I don’t care if other people have dismissed these same things. From a journalist's perspective, you take a risk every time you plunge into one of these things. It takes courage to investigate or take action. For many people, it’s easier to not take those risks.”
Create an atmosphere to report problems
Kessler mentioned the need to create a working environment in which employees feel comfortable reporting problems. This is consistent with both the federal sentencing guidelines and Office of Inspector General Compliance Program Guidance that promulgate the creation of open lines of communication (e.g. hotlines) to facilitate the reporting of concerns or questions.
Kessler noted that the Secret Service has struggled to create this type of environment within the agency, “The Secret Service has a culture of covering up and retaliating against anyone who wants to make a change.” Kessler cited the FBI leadership transition from Louis Freeh to successor Robert Mueller as a positive change in this regard, saying that an employee would be in trouble with Freeh if someone disagreed with him, but Mueller wouldn’t tolerate cover-ups.
Kessler believes that organization leaders must have a strong sense of responsibility to the people who depend upon them, whether it’s employees or stockholders. “If they do, they’ll be more alert to [the warning signs]. They can’t just be in a bubble.”
The warning signs for the Secret Service that Kessler has written about are leadership lessons for any organization in need of transformation. These lessons include: (1) don’t wait for a disaster to shake things up; (2) go outside the organization for new leadership; (3) adopt the contrarian mindset of a journalist to investigate and act on warning signs; and (4) create an atmosphere conducive for reporting of problems. For the struggling organization, adopting these recommendations can help to turn around performance and quality. For the Secret Service, implementing these recommendations will hopefully avoid the dire consequence that Kessler warns of.
Dave Yarin is a compliance and risk management consultant to senior management and directors of large and mid-size companies, and author of the soon-to-be-published book “Fair Warning — The Information Within.” Yarin follows and researches news stories regarding ignored warnings that lead to bad business outcomes, along with the social psychology theories that explain why these warnings were ignored. He lives near Boston with his fiancée and two children. For more information, visit his website, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his FlipBoard magazine, Fair Warning.
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1 "The First Family Detail," by Ronald Kessler, paperback edition July 2015; originally published 2012