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Friday, December 9, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: Back-to-Basics Leadership May Help Boost DHS Morale

In 2002, the Department of Homeland Security combined 22 different federal agencies and departments, each with their own unique history, culture, lexicon, and norms, into what it hoped to be a unified organization. It’s no surprise that DHS has been stymied in defining a clear identify from such a motley soup of organizations. As such, the overall morale has been low and has seen a steady decline over the years.

Even with some recent perturbations up in morale, Congress in 2017 passed the DHS Morale, Recognition, Learning and Engagement (MORALE) Act. The act gives some rudimentary guidance, such as DHS must ensure that employee discipline follows pertinent laws, the agency should develop and implement policies based on employee feedback and engagement, and the agency can establish an annual awards program to recognize DHS employee contributions.[1]

Time will tell if this act plays a role in improving DHS’s morale. However, it’s the author’s career experience that effective, engaged, and supportive leadership is often correlated to organizations with higher morale. So far, no golden solution has emerged. For what it’s worth, perhaps some rudimentary guidance on leadership principals and techniques might help.

  • Be Integrity Bound: Leaders should uphold the highest levels of personal integrity. Some leaders fall into the trap that they are smarter than others and that others won’t see their lies or deceit – not so. It can take a lifetime to build a reputation and a second to lose it by lying, not being forthcoming, or being disingenuous.
  • Trust, Empower, Delegate: Leaders should empower others and delegate through guidance and direction. However, avoid micro-management of delegated tasks. Trust others to do their best until they prove you wrong. Trust but verify by checking in periodically.
  • Be in Charge and Be Decisive: Leaders should be in charge by not shying away from tough decisions. Leaders who make the wrong decision are usually better than those who can’t make a decision. Don’t fall victim to paralysis by analysis. Seek input from others, mull over it, and then make the best decision possible based on the facts at hand to define a way forward.
  • Keep Senior Leadership Informed: Leaders should be open with their leadership about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Gauge the level of detail seniors need – or can tolerate. Sometimes, the 50,000-foot-level update is enough. Seniors just want to know you’re in front of the issue and are working it; give them that assurance but don’t sit on bad news.
  • Walk Around, Listen, and be Approachable: Leaders should not gravitate to the desk – walk the halls and interact with your staff and peers. Get to know others a little at a personal level. Know something about their lives and ask about it, but don’t wade in too far. Build a team that will support you and your goals; it pays great dividends when the chips are down.
  • Actively Coach: Leaders should breed and grow future leaders – that is tantamount. Leaders who tout their accomplishments over those who work for them are failures in the grander schemes of things. Leaders should mentor others and support their development even if that means they leave the organization or surpass the leader.
  • Set Clear Actions and Due Dates: Leaders should leave little to chance. The old adage “Never ASSUME because it makes an ASS out of U and Me” rings true in many situations. Pick realistic due dates with buffer to tackle the unexpected.
  • Be Honest and Direct: Leaders should be honest and give direct feedback to others. Don’t give away false hope. Be blunt if you have to but be professional and have a third party in the room. Never deliver hard news on a person’s performance without a plan to improve and support that person.
  • Be Forward Leaning: Leaders should be innovative and risk-takers if the mission allows and the environment tolerates occasional mistakes. When the latter happens, own up to them, learn from them, and work to not repeat them in the future. Leaders are not perfect and expressing the occasional shortcoming can endear them to the rank-and-file.
  • Communicate: Leaders should make communication a two-way street. Don’t shut down communication by being the singular voice in the room. Encourage others to talk and call upon them by creating a collegial atmosphere. Leaders should be asking probing questions and listening more than they are speaking.
  • Build and Use Networks: Leaders should seek outside counsel to get a very different perspective – wargame it with some trusted peers or subordinates. Find that person in the organization who is a critical thinker to springboard ideas and thoughts.
  • Keep People on Your Side: Leaders should not make enemies. An enemy can cause more damage faster than anything good an ally can do for a leader over a long career. Leaders should be warm and professional with everyone from the director to the janitor. Don’t burn bridges or leave graffiti on them.
  • Be Thick-Skinned: Leaders should develop a thick skin from direct and veiled insults, posturing, digs, etc. Let it hit and glide off. Often there is little to be gained by leaning forward and responding out of haste because often it just exposes the leader’s chin.
  • Be Consistent in Behavior: Leaders should realize they are always onstage and being watched. Leaders should not be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but instead predictable each day. Leaders should carry themselves appropriately at all times in words, appearances, actions, and tone.
  • Make Fact-Based Decisions: Leaders should remove themselves from the drama, passion, and emotion of decision making. Sitting next to others, placing the issue on the table, and focusing on solving the problem using fact-based logic is the key.
  • Deliver Solutions with Option Space: Leaders should not elevate problems without exploring the option space and providing recommendations. Leaders are paid to think critically and bound problems, scope out options, and recommend solutions. Don’t be the problem preacher – be the problem solver.
  • Share Praise: Leaders should praise in public and admonish in private and they should never publicly belittle anyone who misspeaks. Write recommendation letters when asked and take the initiative to submit people for awards – it speaks volumes that leaders took the time.

The author is responsible for the content of this article. The views expressed do not reflect official policy or position of the NIU, the DoD, the U.S. IC, or the U.S. Government. This article does not reflect an endorsement of the opinions, ideas, or information put forth. The article is not finished intelligence or finished policy. This article has been determined to be fully unclassified and cleared for publish release.

[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2283


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Mitchell Simmons
Dr. Mitchell E. Simmons, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force (Retired) is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Program Director in the Anthony G. Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Simmons oversees three departments consisting of five concentrations—Emerging Technologies and Geostrategic Resources; Information & Influence Intelligence; Weapons of Mass Destruction; Cyber Intelligence; and Data Science Intelligence. He teaches courses in Intelligence Collection, National Security Policy and Intelligence, and Infrastructure Assessment Vulnerability, the latter course being part of a Homeland Security Intelligence Certificate program popular with students from the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Simmons has over 25 years of experience in acquisition, engineering, and program management within key agencies to include National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and multiple tours with the Defense Intelligence Agency. His technical expertise includes physical and functional vulnerability of critical infrastructure from conventional explosives, nuclear, ground forces, and asymmetric threats, such as infectious disease. Dr. Simmons’ niche expertise is the exploitation of hard and deeply buried targets and he has personally collected intelligence in dozens of strategic facilities. Dr. Simmons is widely published in the classified and unclassified realm and his products have seen diverse readership, to include the national command authority and combatant commands. He is the author of the definitive DoD manual, published by DTRA, “Hard Target Field and Assessment Reference Manual” used to educate those on this strategic target set. Dr. Simmons holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Ohio University, a M.S. from Central Michigan University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Management from The Union Institute and University.

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