Real Leaders

4 CIA Secrets to Develop Loyalty that Can Work for You, Too

In the CIA, the relationship between partners is unique. An operation can send you and your partner into the depths of the most hostile countries where Americans simply aren’t welcome.

You’re charged with completing a dangerous mission, and you have only each other to depend on. While sometimes intelligence officers work in teams on certain operations, more often than not it’s a very small group, and you are also often alone. We’re not the military — there’s no cavalry. And you know that if you’re in covert operations, the government isn’t going to come in and retrieve you should something (or everything) go wrong. This results in a loyalty so deep and meaningful it can be hard for people who haven’t been in the intelligence world to understand it.

But to help you, I’d like to share a story from one CIA operative I’ll call Elliot. I will never forget the time I thought I had let my partner down (literally, over the side of a roof). We needed to get on top of a building in a hostile territory to plant a listening device. Of course, we didn’t want to get spotted, so we chose a night during which we knew the moon would be out. The moonlight would be our only light as we executed the necessary maneuvers. Well, it turns out there was zero moonlight. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces up there. My partner, Mark, tripped over a wire. I didn’t see this, so I had no idea what had happened at the time, but it made a loud noise.

We had worked together long enough to know that darkness combined with a sudden noise was a good reason to abort the mission. We had to get out rather than risk being caught. I didn’t know where Mark was, but I knew I had to get back to the escape vehicle. I had to assume that’s where I’d find him, too. I got down from the roof and realized he was nowhere to be found. I started to panic because I had removed the ladder. Did Mark get caught? It was my duty to find him and help him if he needed it. I quietly climbed back up to the roof. As I surveyed the perimeter, I thought I saw a dark shadow. Mark had fallen and was literally hanging over the side of the building. I was so grateful I had made it in time to pull him up before his arms gave out. Horrible things would have been done to me if I had gotten caught (and remember, I had made it to the escape vehicle), but there was no way I’d leave my partner behind. Doing so was unthinkable.

Now, as a businessperson, I don’t imagine you’ll ever have to rescue one of your employees who is hanging down the side of a building. But, embedded within Elliott’s and my experiences are some tips I learned about loyalty from the intelligence world that can hopefully help you breed better loyalty and success.

Standing up for my team. In my own company, I don’t hesitate to terminate relationships with overly difficult customers or clients. It is out of loyalty to my hardworking team members. If I want to encourage next-level loyalty, I need to prove that their well-being and state of mind mean more than a quick profit from a client who treats them horribly. During my time in the CIA, I would never have hesitated to stand up for my partner in a crisis. I wanted my team members to know that, without a doubt, they would be appropriately supported and cared for in difficult situations.

Integrity matters. When you’re completing your training with a group of other intelligence officers, integrity is essential. Your partner is in charge of saving your life. During training I’d think, “Who in this group would I trust with my life?” Anyone who wasn’t a good shot, was a hothead, or didn’t collaborate well was a liability. Those people often did not make it through training because they put the rest of the group in danger. I view my company in a similar fashion: Every member has a key role to play. Their contribution is essential to the livelihood of the company. Obviously, human beings make mistakes, and I don’t expect perfection, but integrity matters.

I had one employee who was smart, likable, and did great work. The only problem? He couldn’t meet deadlines. This individual wasn’t respecting the rest of our team by doing his work in a timely fashion. He was becoming a liability. I talked to him about this problem and said I’d do whatever I could to help because he did such good work. In the end, he couldn’t deliver on time and, for the sake of the team, I had to let him go. Show your commitment to integrity by honoring the core values you’ve established. Not insisting on integrity from every team member is dangerous to the survival of your company.

Rewarding excellent behavior. Spies understand that their assets are putting themselves at risk in bringing them useful information. Spies show gratitude for their assets whenever they can by providing big-ticket items or smaller rewards such as dinners and cash. Likewise, I am always going to recognize when someone has gone above and beyond.

Here’s a simple example: I will never forget how my team came together last Christmas when our orders were through the roof and getting those shipments out was a huge challenge. Without my insisting in any way, the team gathered on Saturdays and late at night, helping to prepare and package orders for shipping. Without their willingness to pitch in, we could have lost out on a lot of business. I was happy to reward my team in the form of meals, gifts, and bonuses. If you want next-level loyalty, always make a point of acknowledging extraordinary behavior, even if it’s something as simple as helping to pack up last-minute Christmas orders.

Never forget that loyalty starts with you. I had been taught that when you’re devoted to a cause (such as the success of a business or protecting the United States of America), you develop a deep appreciation for every part of the process. In the CIA we value the analysts, the cartographers, the mechanics who work on our cars, the administrative staff, and even the employees in the coffee shop who make the hot chocolate on those cold northern Virginia days. You see how crucial each component is to running a successful organization. That deep appreciation for each part of the process — and the pride you feel about providing your own personal contribution — is where loyalty begins and grows. Appreciate each team member’s contribution to the whole, but remember that loyalty always begins with you as the prime example. 

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