“Humility Makes a Great Intelligence Officer”

Marc Polymeropoulous has published a new leadership book. He describes it as a revelation about his failures in the first two thirds of his career, which he then credits for making him into a good leader in the last third of his career.

These things stuck out for me in his CSPC interview (118 views):

He refers to intelligence like going to bat in baseball, where a .300 hitting average is great even though we know it’s a 70% rate of being wrong. I like this particularly as I tend to define intelligence, even artificial intelligence, as being able to hit a target.

An example he gives of this is chilling, however, since Marc’s best agent in Afghanistan was tortured and killed because of a very simple and predictable operations mistake.

Maybe then it’s not that 70% failure rate in baseball is acceptable more widely but that the standards of quality are low in sports because by design it has outcomes that shouldn’t really matter — low-key substitute for battle, as a harmless training ground where competition can screen for killing field candidates.

Something tells me the .300 might need to go way up to .900 when lives are on the line every day, simply because nobody should want to go to bat repetitively knowing they have an over 70% chance of death.

“Employ the dagger” is then a notion Marc offers the audience as evidence that “competition is good”. He says when officers did something desired he would award them a physical token of appreciation, a souvenir knife he’d buy at the market for $10.

In corporate circles this is a well-known tactic. Give people a snow globe after x years of showing up to work and they’ll stay around longer, right?

It’s thus interesting to see him conflate a well-tread concept of internal appreciation and reward systems to affect morale with the raw “good” of competition. What if the competition is toxic because teams are in fact killing each other instead of targets?

Something obviously sounds not right about generic praise of competition. Perhaps Marc is using some kind of over-compensation act (surrounded by hyper-competitive personalities in the killing fields) to cover up his softer anti-competitive leadership messages of inclusion and unity.

He’s a master at fitting in, so does it help to label pretty much the opposite of competition as 1) pointy sharp tool and 2) competition.

There is neither any uniqueness or shortage for such inexpensive daggers (hey, even I have at least TWO from my time in Nepal) nor any real scarcity to his approvals. Competition for an award and attention isn’t a fair description of any system that could operate just fine without using any competition (with each other) at all.

He even goes on to say his leadership success grew by including more people into communications, a larger tent for collaboration. This suggests he valued the opposite of pressing everyone into competition (e.g. bringing finance officers and even chefs into his planning).

From there he digs even further and hits the empathy button hard, which takes the listener even further away from his opening salvo on competition culture.

In other words, he’s basically saying competition works if people are kind instead of selfish, aligned instead of oppositional.

His big tent mindset (he even calls out nostalgically for everyone in competition to hold a sense of unity) combined with his points on empathy and repetitive reference to humility being a core ingredient for great intelligence… it all seems his love of competition comes with some pretty huge caveats.

Humility is presented as competitive advantage in intelligence — hitting a target without pride or arrogance. And as a final note, while that sounds good in principle, in reality there’s a moment in the interview where Marc says to him it felt really good to deliver news of a successful assassination.

Would baseball even exist if batters could kill their pitcher?

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