U.S. Intelligence Veteran Reflects On Leadership and Agility During Crises

Sue Gordon discusses advising presidents and healing a divided country

January 26, 2021

It took nearly 40 years for Susan M. “Sue” Gordon to rise through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. intelligence coterie to become the second-highest ranking intelligence officer in the U.S.

That decades-long career would come to an abrupt end in 2019 with a quick Tweet from President Donald Trump, who announced he was firing Gordon’s boss and naming a replacement, she told Fuqua School of Business Dean Bill Boulding during the Distinguished Speaker Series (full video above).

Gordon, who at the time of the Tweet was Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, was faced with the leadership dilemma of a lifetime – whether to battle an American president over a law stating she should replace the previous director, or resign.

“I really was afraid if we made it a fight, it would be yet another thing that the president hated the intelligence community over,” Gordon said. She chose to resign. “I didn’t want to make it seem to my women and men that I thought I was the only person or most important person,” she said.

Advising powerful leaders
Gordon, who as a Duke University Rubenstein Fellow is also teaching courses related to public policy, political science and leadership, served almost 30 years in the CIA before being appointed to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2017.

She has briefed five of the past six presidents on issues related to national security. To be a trusted advisor to people in power, such as the U.S. president, you can’t just know the facts – you have to understand the foundations on which they are based, she said. You also can’t let fears of being judged interfere with your mission.

“You have to ruthlessly care more about the outcome than you do about protecting any self-interest,” Gordon said (see video clip). “I’m not going to worry about what people think of me and I’m not going to worry about whether I'm getting promoted, or … whether my colleague is going to get mad at me when I recommend something. So if you mercilessly pursue the outcome and the mission, you’re going to be OK.”

Advisors in these positions must always consider the possibility they could be wrong, she said.

“There are plenty of times when you will do the work, you’ll have the outcome, and you will see it so clearly and you will be so intentional of doing the right thing that you will miss data, or just miss somebody who knows something that you don’t,” she said. Mistakes happen, but “if you’re ever righteous, you’re wrong,” she said (see video clip).

Excellence comes in many forms
Gordon got her undergraduate degree from Duke University, where she also served three years as captain of the women’s basketball team. As a former player and lifelong fan, she noted that being able to spot natural leaders is a big reason for the success of coach Mike Krzyzewski and his teams.

More organizations should adopt this mindset, she said.

“Excellence doesn’t have only one look,” Gordon said (see video clip). “They have to have vision, they have to have integrity, they have to have drive, they must inspire. But how they do those things can be very different.”

Unfortunately, many organizations will remain focused on performance and outcomes first, rather than nurturing emerging leaders and allowing them time to develop, Gordon said. But as more women matriculate into leadership roles, she believes organizations will begin to appreciate that natural leaders come in many forms.

Her advice to women: “Early on, focus on being great yourself,” Gordon said. “Tell yourself your performance is not dictated by what someone else does… But for goodness sake, hold your space. Don't let anyone make you small. Don't let anyone ask you to be less than you are. Hold your space.”

The ‘perfect storm’ that divided America
There are many reasons U.S. political tensions have escalated to the point that riots broke out at the U.S. Capitol, Gordon said, and those events are not solely the result of one man’s actions as president.

They are the product of several factors, including the growing divide between those who have opportunity and prosperity in this country and those who feel left behind, and the political leaders who exploit those divides to procure more power. Hyper-partisan rhetoric from political leaders, combined with efforts to such as Russian cyberattacks designed to undermine democracy, created a “perfect storm,” Gordon said.

“I put a lot of responsibility on the president,” Gordon said. “But he was not the one that started it, and it will not end with his departure. This is something that we are going to have to deal with as a nation.”

Restoring institutions and making them agile
While the COVID-19 pandemic was still fairly new in summer 2020, Gordon said she observed during press conferences just how difficult it was for U.S. institutions to handle crises of that magnitude, from the government to the private sector, but also how much we need them to provide the solutions and at scale.

“Our bureaucracies -- while we need them, while they do provide a foundation – are really flagging in terms of their ability to move swiftly, to act agilely,” Gordon said (see video clip). There is “too much expectation that some sort of arcane process is the better way to make decisions and solve problems.”

“I worry a lot about how our bureaucracies are struggling to meet the speed of the world,” she added. “They need to be repaired and monitored. Where are those leaders going to come from?... And that’s one of the reasons you’re so kind to let me have a class, is to hope we can build some of the leaders that are going to be able to take on those kinds of challenges."

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