In-Flight Lessons for National Security Leaders Charged with Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Kindness Matters

As the COVID-19 threat has intensified, some agencies have taken an unprecedented step of transitioning large portions of their workforce to teleworking environments. Despite the inherent challenges of that course of action, it provided an opportunity for the Intelligence Community (IC) to examine fragile processes and outdated procedures, as well as to identify leading practices and useful innovations.  

The observations below were generated using a mixed-methods approach emphasizing agility and scalable “in-flight” recommendations gathered by our team in Denver during the first 30 days of this unusual working environment. These observations are not meant to be exhaustive or final, but are sharable, scalable in-flight lessons that we believe have general applicability across the national security apparatus.   

A. Empathic leaders with a bias for action served organizations better than disconnected and reactive leaders

Empathy has emerged as a distinguishing characteristic of successful leadership responses.  Leaders who were transparent and communicative with their people — sometimes to the point of overcommunication — were more effective at staving off workforce anxiety. Executives and supervisors who shared stories about their own transition challenges and demonstrably listened to the stories of their personnel provided a significant lifeline, particularly to remote workers. Those same leaders sustained the commitment of their teleworking workforce and fostered innovative ways to serve mission during the initial portion of sustained alternate operations.   

Without exception, leaders characterized as empathic were the same leaders who took the initiative to prepare their people. The team received anecdotal evidence that perceptions of the seriousness of the crisis may have shaped leadership responses, detrimentally delaying key decisions.  In contrast, midlevel supervisors who proactively issued warning orders and prepared their workforce for transition received high marks from subordinates. The lesson extracted is that leaders should prepare the organization for the worst, regardless of what they believe the outcome may be.  True, there are risks (and costs) associated with acting fast; but successful leaders will assess these risks early on and not allow themselves to succumb to analysis paralysis. A number of tools can help leaders in this regard, to include risk assessments and emergency response decision mapping that outlines the people in the organization preauthorized to make certain decisions, and including contact information for them, their assigned deputy(ies), and their supervisors.

B. Splitting workforce into remote and on-site populations may create a culture chasm that will need to be mended leading up to and after reconstitution

This pandemic drove an unprecedented move to telework; the IC was no exception. But the absence of a strong remote work history made it particularly challenging for the IC. Since telework was new for the vast majority of remote personnel surveyed, there was no playbook for how it should be executed. There were no practiced channels for tying remote workers and mission-essential personnel together. What started to emerge after the initial transition to alternate operations was a culture chasm between the two populations. Mission-essential personnel expressed resentment that remote workers were being paid to “do nothing” while they risked their lives to deliver intelligence products day in and day out. Teleworkers reported feeling extreme strain from being disconnected from mission, while also being forced to learn a host of new technology and innovate unclassified tradecraft. Paradoxically, teams in each camp experienced greater collaboration and connection to each other.

The resulting recommendation: leaders must be sensitive to culture chasms developing in their organizations and actively take corrective steps. Potential ways to address the culture chasm include: avoiding any “us” vs. “them” language, pushing joint communications that reflect the challenges and victories of both populations (noting in particular that remote innovation and service to mission grow the organization), and carefully considering ways to assimilate the team upon reconstitution.

 C. Thoughtful transitions reduce downtime and emotional strain on workforce

Initial survey results reflect that the client’s workforce benefited from thoughtful transitions.  “On-off” decisions were found to be jarring and, when cascaded, resulted in unprepared teams. By contrast, supervisors who were transparent about uncertainties and openly discussed potential outcomes prepared their people better — emotionally and functionally. By identifying leading factors (as opposed to lagging) and initiating a “soft” transition, leaders can ease disruption in the workplace and provide better mission continuity.   

It is also worth noting that transitioning to alternate operations and reconstitution are not mirrored processes. Leaders must transition their people back into the building just as thoughtfully as they did out. Decoupling the criteria for reconstitution from criteria used to initiate alternate operations will help clarify those decisions.  

D. Flexible definitions of “mission essential personnel” will better accommodate long-term crises

 As the workforce settled into sustained alternate operations, it became increasingly clear that certain functions within the organization were undersupported. Inputs received by the team showed this was particularly true when it came to policy and human resources support, neither of which are typically considered “mission essential” for shorter duration crises. Critical policy questions went unanswered, opening the organization to unnecessary risks stemming from both action and inaction. Human resource actions ground to a halt, causing additional anxiety to a workforce already under stress. The team determined the organization would benefit from a flexible definition of “mission essential” that incorporates professional support teams for longer-term crises.  Additionally, it is recommended that the bench of people in those professional support roles be deep enough to provide alternative personnel if front-line providers are unavailable.

E. The number and availability of communications tools demand that leadership actively corral workforce communications and shepherd workforce to the most secure channels practicable

 Good news: there are countless communication tools. Bad news: there are countless communication tools. National security organizations witnessed a huge surge in messaging, voice, and video applications employed in a short period of time, creating fragmentation in the workforce as each team adopted different platforms. Additionally, the variance in security between platforms created information security concerns. The resulting interim recommendation for leadership — at an executive and supervisory level — is to use a “funnel approach,” meaning canvass the communications channels that are the most commonly used and drive the workforce to more secure, preferred channels. Leaders can do this by demonstrating their online presence and making significant announcements on preferred channels. These actions should be paired with a communication campaign about which tools are banned/preferred by the enterprise.

F. This is an inflection point in which organizations have an opportunity to re-examine tolerance for off-site and/or unclassified work

Organizations are examining whether and how they allow remote work to be performed.  Ramifications are wide-ranging. For the IC, a key part of that question is whether and to what extent unclassified work will be allowed. It is certain there is a vast wilderness of unclassified information and capabilities that the IC has not fully leveraged. Allowing some measure of unclassified work may grant access to this abundance and may also spur unexpected innovations.  But the primary observation here is that each organization should thoughtfully determine their tolerance level for remote work prior to being forced to make it by the next wave of this crisis or another. Dedicating the cycles necessary to resolve complex issues surrounding classification guides, secure sharing, etc., will empower a remote workforce if and when some unclassified work is permitted. 


The principal thrust of these in-flight observations: How a workforce experiences this crisis is heavily dependent upon its leaders. Empathy and action are winning the day. If you are a leader who is struggling in this moment, it is not too late to change your course. And for those of you already feeding your workforce what they need, it is time to ask yourself what direction you want to take the organization in a post-COVID-19 world, and to start actively steering toward it.

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