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5 Lessons on Leadership from Gen. Michael Hayden

Retired four-star general shared his lifetime of leadership at ISA's 2015 Convention.
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There is no single set of rules for what makes a good leader, according to Gen. Michael Hayden. But he has a list of things that helped in his various leadership roles, including director of the National Security Agency and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

"These are just my experiences," Hayden said in the keynote address at the Industrial Supply Association's 2015 Convention in Cleveland, OH, last month. "There aren't any iron laws on this subject."

Lesson 1: Humility

No one is indispensable, and it's important to remember that. You may have been selected to be the decision-maker, but "as has been said, the graveyards are full of indispensable people."

At the same time, Hayden said, even if you don't think you're an expert, you are still the one who must make the decision – and live with the consequences of that decision. Other people will be looking at you for answers, and simply put, you'll have to provide them.

Lesson 2: Doing Things Right vs. Doing the Right Things

Doing things right isn't always the same as doing the right things, Hayden warned: "It's not just about doing things efficiently, it's about making sure those things really should be done."

Should you think about how to streamline an older process, or should you really consider shifting your mindset to a new process that replaces the old one altogether? It's easy to keep trying to improve what you're already doing, but the best thing may actually be trying to do something new.

Lesson 3: Only Do What Leaders Can Do

"Only I could be the director of the CIA and go into the cafeteria and talk with the workforce," Hayden said. "Sometimes being the leader is more about 'presencing' than commanding."

As a leader, just being present and giving team members access can go a long way toward strengthening the team. Sometimes there just isn't anything else you can do, he said.

For example, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Hayden ordered evacuation of all nonessential personal from the towers that housed much of the NSA's operations. But because of the nature of what was happening and how information was collected and processed, the counterterrorism had to remain in the tower. No words could have helped in that situation, Hayden said, so instead he simply showed them support by going to each individual, placing a hand on their shoulders and letting them know that he stood with them.

Lesson 4: "You Gotta Dance with Who You Brung."

You can only be yourself. It's not fair to you or to anyone else to try and be someone different.

And by that same token, you have to let the people who work for you be themselves. "As director, you set the left- and the right-hand boundaries and what the mission is," he said, "but in between you gotta let the people do."

Make sure you pick the right people for the right jobs – and then trust them to accomplish the mission you've laid out for them.

Lesson 5: Support Your People

Mistakes happen. And sometimes they really aren't avoidable – regardless of what hindsight might try to tell you. You have to work to understand your people and what drives the decisions they make, Hayden said.

Being a leader means disciplining them when they do things wrong, but it also means "standing between them and the people who want to throw things" at them when things don't work as expected, he said.

But don't blindly accept what they tell you, either. "You can tolerate when thing just didn't work," he said. "But you cannot tolerate dishonesty."

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