We Need Consequential Leadership at all Levels in Momentus Times

By IN MEMORIAM -- Brett Davis

IN MEMORIAM - Brett Davis was a valued and much-loved Cipher Brief Expert before his passing in 2023.  He also worked as a Partner at New North Ventures -- a Venture Capital firm focused on technological innovation. Brett served fro 34 years in the U.S. government, retiring as a Senior Executive in the Central Intelligence Agency.  He also served as a Special Operations Officer in the US Navy. In government, he led complex operations and enterprise-wide programs across the Central Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, US Military and other government agencies.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVES — We are living in times of intense challenges – the biggest war in Europe since World War II, economic stress as we emerge from the pandemic and epic supply chain failures.  A great power conflict with China has become a full-on economic hot war, escalating Russian influence against democracy.  There are dramatic energy shortages and accelerating climate change.  Taken in aggregate, the threats to our hopes and expectations for the future can seem daunting and overwhelming.  Someone should do something.

In momentous times like these, consequential leadership is required.  It’s not good enough to do your best, but rather, to do what is required.  One of the most influential bosses in my career at CIA once asked me if I was ready to take the leadership role of a lifetime for a massively complex and seemingly impossible multi-year operational campaign.  I was given the opportunity to select a team drawn from the best candidates in the nation, lead the training, and execute on this bold new mission.  I eagerly told him, “yes sir, and I will do my best.”  He scoured at me and asked, “what if your best isn’t good enough?  I expect you to step up and do what is required – that’s all that matters.”  He was right. 

In momentous times, winning is required.  Consequential Leaders are the ones who deliver victory when in the clutch, and they deliver an enduring victory built upon enduring values.  If you’re the leader of an organization, whether it’s in the public or private sector, following “the process” and “performing program management” aren’t sufficient for success.  In fact, all too often, these terms are often used as excuses to avoid taking action which could result in failure. 

In far too many organizations, not failing, is misperceived as safety when in reality, bold decisions are necessary to deal with dynamic situations, both tactically and strategically.  Rather than blindly following a process, what really matters is rigorous and critical thinking to queue up a decision.  As well, sound program management is simply to be expected as a baseline skill and isn’t a substitute for leadership.  Consequential Leaders do what is required to win, no more, and no less.  Trim the process when needed and add rigor of selection, thought and perseverance to enable a winning outcome.

The three traits of a Consequential Leader’s as I see them are: clarity, credibility, and courage.  Whether you’re working through a high-risk asset meeting in a dark alley in a hostile nation’s city, completing a complex underwater operation, or making the final decision on reallocating the federal budget from an underperforming program to subsidies and grants for semiconductor fabrication plant construction; the 3 C’s apply. 

Clarity.  Clarity of the problem, awareness of alternatives and public perceptions, and clarity of message are critical in framing the issue, expected outcomes, and the proposed response.  From my perspective as a venture capitalist operating in the national interest, it’s clear that we are in an economic hot war with China.  China’s progress in STEM education, industrialization, and fostering a culture of capitalism at any cost (slavery, environmental carnage, massive government subsidization, to name a few), China is now operating globally with raw power.  

Russia is also aggressively pushing a sovereign security and economic hot war on the world with the invasion of Ukraine, weaponizing food supplies, and fuel blackmail – to include being the primary suspect in sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea. 

With this awareness of seeing the world as it is  – in clear focus that the dynamics have shifted to economic raw power  – we can lead together as a private-public partnership.  We need to shift our collective message to clearly state that economic security is now national security as we confront this new geoeconomic order.

Credibility.  Credibility to act in a leadership role is the cumulative result of having delivered on previous promises for stakeholders, in essence, the authenticity to deliver the message as a leader.  Credibility lies within the purview of those whom you’re attempting to influence and lead.  Another boss of mine, who also had a hardball reputation, had a favorite interview question he always asked prospective senior executives, “tell me the difference between how others perceive you handle stressful situations, and how you really handle stressful situations.”  This was a total setup on his part and only savvy leaders could see the trap he laid for them.  The correct answer, which demonstrates self-awareness (a critical trait of a leader) is “perception is reality and others’ perception of my conduct is all that matters.”

Take the time to build trust across organizational, cultural, and career discipline boundaries.  You can’t surge trust, and you most certainly can’t surge credibility when there’s a crisis.  But you can start doing so right now, today. 

It’s never too late to do the right thing.

The credibility you build in the eyes of those watching you is essential when it’s time for action, for your ability to lead is directly proportional to those who believe in your ability to deliver results.  Action without credibility is nothing more than performative bluster.

Courage.  Courage is being afraid, yet still taking action, and not letting others know you’re afraid.  Courageous leaders, like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, are steadfast in their beliefs and position.  They take principled action and serve as a beacon of inspiration for all who see them. 

There is also another type of courageous leadership, though far more subtle – courage in taking programmatic risk within a bureaucracy.  Courage to make dynamic change within the halls of the Pentagon, CIA – or a large defense contractor – can have strategic impact years down the road, but the perceived risk of being fired the next morning for cutting a favored program can outweigh the benefit of long-term win. 

Within government acquisition components, courage here is the ability to recognize when “following the process” and managing the specifications of a development project are no longer relevant, are outdated, or on occasion, fundamental engineering decisions were incorrect and based upon flawed assumptions.

As we enter the era of an economic hot war in which rapid adoption of innovation, technology, and business practices are of foremost importance, it’s a dire mistake to underestimate the significance of programmatic courage within the rank and file of acquisition professionals, entrepreneurs, and the private financiers (aka the angel investors and venture capitalists).  These are the new leaders who must accelerate nationally critical, strategic capabilities such as AI, cybersecurity, robotics, robust energy policies and sources, and semiconductor fabrication, amongst other critical capabilities.

Too often, program managers within the government and big prime contractors are risk averse and afraid of failure in not meeting baseline programmatic spend rates, not enough bodies in seats to meet contractual numbers (often sacrificing quality to meet the numbers), and so forth.  This is “precision without accuracy.”  In other words, everything checks out, but it’s misguided and irrelevant work.  As consequential leaders in the government, we must recognize when this is happening and support the program managers in the trenches to make mission-based decisions with clarity, credibility, and courage. 

As consequential leaders within the venture capital ecosystem, we must be highly tuned into the government’s mission needs, listen actively, and have an open dialogue about how to best accelerate the adoption of innovative capabilities.  In turn, we must seek out the founders and CEOs who embrace these leadership principles and are committed to delivering game changing capabilities that will make the world a better – and more secure – place.

As Americans, we have a rich history to look back upon for inspiration.  We can look back to the Space Race of the 1960s as one of the richest examples of public-private partnership in innovation and technology adoption.  Offshoots of the Space Race include the rapid growth of Silicon Valley and the semiconductor industry, renewed emphasis on STEM education, the innovation for artificial limbs, CAT scans, camera phones, solar cells, better tires, and so much more.  Engineers and astronauts were heroes of the times, working side-by-side in this incredible era.  We need to dig deep and rekindle this mindset.

It’s time to do that which is required to lead America into this new world of geo-economic power. We need Consequential Leaders who thrive in the midst of uncertainty, who see opportunity in crisis, and take calculated risks in pushing the frontier of invention.  The best way to change the future is to create it.  

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief

Categorized as:North AmericaTagged with:

Related Articles