On Jan. 25th, I was privileged to give a talk to the Second International Conference on The Ethics of National Security Intelligence. As so often happens, the live talk did not quite match the written paper. Here it is:
This talk should start with a disclaimer. My dad used to quote a Pennsylvania Dutch proverb: “We grow too soon old and too late smart”. I come to you as a former intelligence insider, having spent 32 years at the National Ground Intelligence Center in Charlottesville. I worked as an analyst and Supervisor specializing in Soviet Weapons research and Development Programs. At this point I don’t consider myself “too soon old.” Looking back on my career there were definitely times when I was “too late smart.” Maybe my experience and errors of omission and commission can be a source of strength for others. Having retired in March of 1996, I’ve had almost ten years to put some perspective on that experience.
Chicago publisher Gregory F. A. Pierce’s book, Spirituality at Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life on the Job offers a unique and useful way to discuss spirituality in the intelligence workplace. I will reflect on Pierce’s approach in terms of my own 32 years in intelligence.
Pierce’s book is the result of an on-line discussion amongst business executives. It is down-to earth, practical and worth the time to read and re-read.
All any of us can do is “the next right thing.” The challenge is developing our own faculties of so that we will be able to identify the next right thing and get it done. In this regard, I can claim spiritual progress not perfection.
Spiritual masters down through the ages have given us a number of disciplines designed to help us develop these faculties. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Disciplines: The Path to Spiritual Growth is a classic. Disciplines are defined as
“Practices performed on a regular basis in order to produce expected results.”
Traditional spiritual disciplines include meditation, fasting, regular times for communal prayer, and study of sacred writings.
While these are helpful, they don’t tell us what to do during the working hours that occupy the majority of our days. They also leave the impression that spirituality is something that can be practiced only in a monastery, on retreat or on a mountaintop. I, like Pierce, reject the notion that the world of spirituality is sacred and the world of work is necessarily profane. The question is how to bring the two together.
Let’s start with working definitions for “spirituality’, “work”, and “spirituality of work.”
- Spirituality is a disciplined attempt to align ourselves and our environment with God and to incarnate (enflesh, make real, materialize) God’s spirit in the world. (Pierce, p 15.)
- Work is all the effort (paid or unpaid) we exert to make the world a better place, a little closer to the way God would have things.(17)
- Spirituality of work, then is a disciplined attempt to align ourselves and our environment with God and to incarnate God’s spirit in the world through all the effort (paid or unpaid) we exert to make the world a better place, a little closer to the way God would have things.” (18)
These definitions provide a crucial perspective. Spirituality of work assumes that our work is a service to others and is creative, a share in God’s creation. For Pierce – and certainly for me – it does not mean hanging crucifixes on the walls, starting Bible study groups or an active attempt to convert others to my doctrinal viewpoint. (It may be helpful for me to add that my viewpoint is that of a mostly traditional Roman Catholic.) Pierce would not hide his spirituality – and will discuss it, if asked. His notion is that, if our work is both a service and creative, our spirituality should reinforce our it – and redirect it if it becomes a dis-service or even harmful.
A spirituality of work ought to answer these questions:
- What is the meaning of our work? For me intelligence work was first of all a job, a means of caring for my family and finding a place in the sun. My first assignment was one that was basically meaningless – completing a task generated by the system in order to support US Army research efforts. Based on my education in chemistry I could see that the task was unnecessary and was able to negotiate for more meaningful tasks in the coming years. Gradually I began to view the job as one of describing Soviet R&D establishment for what it was and using this description for forecasting future weapons. Meaning focused on deterring war by supporting readiness for future conflicts. By the mid-1980’s, our descriptive efforts led us to believe that Soviet leaders knew that they had to change the system. The meaning of our work became a matter of convincing the Army – and the US government - that this was the case. Later we had a sense that our work opened up a possibility on the end of the cold war.
- How should we deal with others at work? It is easy to answer “fairly.” But what of dealing with dysfunctional bosses, dishonest co-workers, and people who simply challenge our points of view? More of this when we get to Pierce’s ten disciplines.
- How do we balance work with the rest of life? Remember that work – like many other things – can become an addiction. If you don’t like that word try the older spiritual terms such as “disordered attachment” or even “idol.”
- How do we determine what is right and wrong? That is what this conference is about. I will gladly leave this question to other conferees. I hope that the ten spiritual disciplines will prepare us to identify and execute ethical decisions
- How do we maintain – and sometimes change - the workplace? The short answer is to be technically and spiritually skilled. Even if we are, we need to realize that in the end results depend on God and acknowledge, with Lincoln, that “..the Almighty has His own purposes.”
With these questions as background, I will describe Pierce’s ten suggested disciplines, illustrating each with some of my own experiences. These disciplines will probably seem to be things you would want to do in any case. You may not have thought of them as spiritual disciplines. Yet, if we return to Pierce’s notion of work as a service and the disciplines improve our work, they are spiritual. I’ll end with a brief description of spiritual direction/coaching and its role in helping us to practice spirituality in the workplace.
The ten disciplines are;
1. Surrounding Yourself With “Sacred” Objects
2. Living With Imperfection
3. Assuring Quality
4. Giving Thanks And Congratulations
5. Building Support And Community
6, Dealing With Others As You Would Have Them Deal With You
7. Deciding What Is “Enough” And Sticking To It.
8. Balancing Work, Personal, Family, Church And Community Responsibilities.
9. Working To Make The “System” Work.
10. Engaging In Ongoing Personal And Professional Development.
All of us like to have little reminders in our workspace. These are often clever sayings, such as the fake Latin phrase “Illigitimi non carborundum” (Don’t let the bastards grind you down) sign. While we may not have thought of this as a spiritual discipline, quotes such as this help us maintain focus in the face of grinding annoyances. For years I had on my desck a small printed quote from Luke 7:31-32
“To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?
They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
We played you a tune and you would not dance. We sang a dirge and you did not cry.”
To this day, I’m not entirely sure why that quote spoke to me – but it was a reminder that sometimes people just don’t “get it” – and that there would be times when I didn’t “get it.”
Here are some practical suggestions on surrounding yourself with reminders and “sacred objects. First, remember that even ordinary objects can have sacred meanings attached to them. For years, I carried a pocketknife that had belonged to my father. It helped me to remember his care, his dedication to the community and his strong sense of fiscal integrity. Second, when you get back to your office, take a few minutes to straighten your workspace. As you do, remind yourself of the service that can be done by completing each task in your in-basket. Give thanks for the opportunity and ask God’s help in doing it.
Did you ever think that simply cleaning your desk could become a spiritual discipline? It’s one that I need.
The second discipline is Living With Imperfection – our own as well as the imperfection of others. There is a story about a Soviet fighter aircraft designer who went to Stalin with a request for extension of a deadline. He wanted extra time to make the aircraft better. To Stalin it was a delay in delivering an airplane he needed to defend against Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. Stalin’s answer was that the airplane was good enough and it should be put into production immediately. Soviet weapons designers posted a reminder in their offices that said “The better is the enemy of the good enough.”
As a supervisor I often had difficulty encouraging analysts to finish their studies on time. In fairness, they were dealing with difficult topics, had every right to be thorough. However sometimes the delays arose because of fear of criticism more that need for quality. I used to fall back on the argument that a good enough product delivered on time beat a better product delivered too late.
At one time we had a senior civilian who had made his reputation by delivering buildings on time, on cost and in perfect order. With his control of detail, he used to demoralize analysts by spotting minor errors, ignoring the thrust of their arguments and humiliating them in public. His desire to make every product better damaged morale in the entire agency. This is not what we mean by living with imperfection.
We need to inventory our own imperfections. Sometimes there are valid reasons for doing a job that is less than perfect. At other times the imperfection is a result of our own character flaws. We need to know the difference. At this point it helps to turn to the Serenity Prayer. (Go here for the complete version.) With a little bit of wisdom we can discern the imperfections that are significantly harmful. We can work to change these and pray for the serenity to accept the rest. If we can do this, we will be more successful at dealing with the imperfections of others. Pierce suggests changing the Lords prayer to read “forgive me my imperfections as I forgive the imperfections of others.” Tough words but they should be said before we start issuing corrections.
The third discipline, Assuring Quality, is closely related. I wonder how many of us think of striving to do a quality job as a spiritual discipline. Yet, if our work is a service, an effort to align our selves and our environments with God’s will, quality is a primary responsibility.
I had the good fortune to work for 20 years with an interagency network of analysts dedicated to understanding Soviet processes for managing research and development. Over time we employed this understanding to monitor and predict the status of Soviet weapons programs. We focused on predicting when weapons would be in the hands of troops trained to use them. This was the prediction that counted. It told the decision makers when they would face the threat.
(I am a former insider and not in a position to judge, but I can’t help asking if a similar analytical approach might have helped the intelligence community demonstrate that Iraqi WMD programs never reached maturity and were therefore not an immanent military threat.)
While there is no one way to assure quality, I suggest that we regularly meet with colleagues to review our analytical methods, production procedures, training programs and use of computers to improve our products. I have a dentist friend who said early in his career that he would never have a solo practice. Having partners helps him to monitor the quality of his care for patients. The difference is that if my friend makes an error he will know. In our profession it may be a long time before an error is apparent. The need for quality assurance is even higher.
How many of us think of incentive awards and birthday parties as a spiritual practice? This is our fourth discipline: Giving Thanks And Congratulations. Our work is done with and through other people. Recognizing the quality work – or even just good intentions of others – is an important part of building morale and assuring quality. In Kiwanis we have a custom know as “happy dollars.” At one point during our meetings anyone can stand up, put a dollar in the basket, tell a joke; (When I tell a joke they always want two dollars.); brag about a child; or recognize the contributions of another member. Happy dollars are the equivalent of gold stars. We all need and appreciate them.
Here is a way to practice this discipline. Next Sunday night, sit down reflect on the past week and think of someone who did good job and got little thanks for it. Tell them you appreciate their work. Think about your family as well. Remember your own work. Give yourself some thanks and congratulations for a job well done. Most of us focus on our own imperfections to a point that can be nearly paralyzing. My spiritual director occasionally reminds me that I’m too hard on myself and overlook my real contributions.
The fifth discipline, Building Community and Support, has to do with creating strong organizations, filled with people capable of working as a team. It also has to do with reaching outside the agency to support the community in which we live and work. This is more important for business, but we still need to be players in the larger community.
One of our commanders was very active in Boy Scouts. One day “Col Terry” stopped me in the lobby and asked “How is your son Paul doing on his Eagle scout project?” My son had stalled. His write up did not meet the quality standards set by the Eagle committee. “Col. Terry” said: “have him come up to my office and I’ll give him a pep talk.” He did and now I can proudly display my Eagle Scout Dad lapel pin. He did it because it was the right thing to do. Over 20 years later he still has my gratitude.
On another occasion Col. Terry bluntly challenged one of my analysts during a current intelligence briefing. I thought the challenge unfair. When he later saw me he asked about the subject. I told him his remarks had made my job more difficult. He apologized at the next regular briefing. These kinds of actions build a stronger organization.
Sometimes building community requires some negative actions. The same commander insisted on our doing performance appraisals accurately, fairly, and on time. As a result there were some non-performers who were fired. It is to possible to fire people in the civil service – if the process is conducted properly. These actions can build a stronger organization. Management tolerance of malfeasance and non-performance undermines more rapidly than anything except outright corruption.
It takes planning and effort to build community. Probably the best way to start is to review our practices for informal occasions – picnics, “Holiday” parties, and birthday celebrations. These occasions should be fun and should provide opportunities for people to get to know one another in ways that are not related to work.
The first five disciplines are things that we can all agree on- and certainly wish that other people did them. As we go through the next five we may sense a more personal challenge.
For number six we come to the Golden Rule – and I don’t mean the one that says: “Who has the gold makes the rules.” This discipline is “Dealing With Others As You Would Have Them Deal With You.” Here is an example of the golden rule in the workplace. Ask yourself: “Would you like to have a performance appraisal that recognized your contributions and also gave you a realistic plan for improving your performance?” In my agency, we were fortunate in receiving training on how to do performance appraisals properly and fairly. While I’m grateful for the training, I never thought of it as instruction in a spiritual discipline.
I would like to say that my performance appraisals were successful in improving some underperformers. They weren’t. I did, however, have one success. There was one analyst who had been transferred into my branch. It was the wrong job for him. We talked about it. He transferred to a job that was a better fit. We parted friends –not close ones, but friends.
There is another side to the Golden Rule: dealing with difficult, unpleasant, or dishonest people. I had one division chief who had a PhD in Chemistry to my B.A. – and I wasn’t a very good chemist. He had an arrogance and cruelty about him that sparked fear in the gut of this young analyst. I eventually changed specialties – to the analysis of Soviet R&D programs. In the process I said and repeated things about this Division chief that would have been better left unsaid. If I could go through the same experience again, I might have the wisdom to acknowledge my fears - to myself and to my spiritual director – or to my wife. Doing so would have removed the power from the situation and I might have been reminded that there is little that I can do about someone else’s misbehavior, even if arrogant and cruel. What I could have done was to “sweep my own side of the street,” i.e. to be sure that my own behavior did not contribute to the problem. Again, the serenity prayer would have helped my discern what to do.
As I look back, I remember by dad’s proverb: “we grow too soon old and too late smart.” As we say it in Virginia: “Hind sight is a better than foresight by a damnsight.
The next discipline is also challenging - Deciding What Is “Enough” And Sticking To It. We work in intelligence. We have important jobs, ones that could make the difference between success and failure or even war and peace. We also have ambitions for money, power, and prestige. When we add to this our own insecurities, it is all too easy to pour inordinate amounts of effort into success on our jobs. All the time we fool ourselves into thinking that our extra dime is dedicated service to the nation.
The solution to this is to acknowledge that our attachments to money, fame and power – and a lot of other things - can and do become disordered. It is part of the human condition. We easily get fooled because all of these things, properly used, are good. Improperly used they become harmful for us. The old Catholic term for this condition was “inordinate attachments. The modern term is compulsion or addiction. The ancient scriptural term is idolatry. The discipline of “enough” tells us that we need to identify and discard these attachments, addictions or idols.
If you are looking for an example of how these attachments work at the top levels of the US military go here read Pat Lang's posting and then scroll down to the comment by "searp" and read Lang's response.
In dealing with attachments, It helps to recall, on a regular basis the First Principle and Foundation of the Spirtual Exercises of St. Ignatius
The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul.
All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created.
It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one's end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one's end.
To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition.
Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.
For me it works better to say "inner freedom' instead of "indifferent."
Closely related to this is discipline number eight Balancing Work, Personal, Family, Church And Community Responsibilities. It isn’t necessary to elaborate how work and chruch can place inordinate claims on our time. As I write this I can think of three undone home-related tasks, one of them being rearranging my office and refreshing my “Sacred” Objects.
It helps to periodically review the promises we’ve made and our dreams to see if our responsibilities are in balance.
Our personal needs are also important. As we reexamine the balance, or lack thereof, in our lives, we need to include time to have fun. There is much wisdom in the old proverb that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” My wife and I both struggle with this one.
Now we come to number nine, the toughest one: Working To Make The “System” Work. In his book Pierce talks about economic justice, fair wages and examples such as being sure that hospital administrators remember that their purpose is to care for patients. Intelligence officers need to remember that in the end our purpose is speaking truth to power. This is the motivation behind the CIA motto carved in marble “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” (I have argued before that the quote from John 8:31-32 was taken out of context. It specified that we would know the truth if we held to Jesus’ teaching. The freedom under discussion was not political freedom. It was freedom from death and sin. In this context we would talk about freedom from disordered attachments to things such as success, money and power.)
One of my old bosses described the challenge of “making the system work” he would quote the phrase, really a modern proverb: “Having lost sight of our objective, we re-doubled our efforts.” In a similar vein, we used to comment on the challenge of remembering our objective by saying: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, its hard to remember that your orders are to drain the swamp.”
On the analytical side of intelligence we need to remember that our objective is speaking truth to power. We have no role in advocating for particular policy decisions. We do have a role in giving policy officials an accurate appraisal of various policy choices. We also need to remember that collectors and sources, especially men like Penkovsky, Gordievski, and Kuklinski risked their lives to provide intelligence information. We need to treat their products with respect and exercise diligence in our analysis.
Sometimes making the system work means changing business model, challenging customer requirements and striving for quality. On other occasions in means reminding top management that it has “lost sight of the objective” and challenging senior objectives to remain true to their purpose. We will often hear someone say: “this is important to me, but I am – or am not – willing to fall on my sword over it.” In biblical terms someone willing to speak the truth was called a prophet. Prophecy was not forecasting. It was an open challenge to a nation that had lost its way. Prophets were, for good reason, without honor in their own country.
In this day of civil service protection when a prophet “falls on my sword” it is only a metaphor for risking disgrace, loss of a promotion, forced into retirement or, at worst, getting fired. There are times when we owe the men and women in uniform at least that much. They risk their lives every day.
As a former insider, I can only guess what led to the Directory of Central Intelligence assuring the President that the case for WMD programs in Iraq was a “slam dunk.” I spent 20 years assessing weapons development programs and predicting the dates when those programs would be mature enough to be in the hands of troops trained to use them. From this perspective, it seems to me that there was a failure to challenge the leadership by asking if Iraqi WMD programs were had matured into an immanent threat. Maybe I’m wrong. It could also be that someone mounted cogent challenges but was over-ruled by policy officials. In either case we are in a war that might have been avoided – or fought differently if the intelligence had been better.
Making the system work and speaking truth to power can be done – if we are willing to practice the tenth discipline: Engaging In Ongoing Personal And Professional Development. Our success in performing the service for which we were recruited and for which we are paid depends on our level of skill. We need to take the time to learn new software or do performance appraisals. We should regard this training as a spiritual discipline. This means that we have to take time for it – and take it away from something else.
Lastly there is the challenge of personal development. I’m going to close quickly with just a few remarks. Personal development – I term it spiritual growth – is possible for everybody. It is a skill that can be learned just as any other. However, I would never have learned Tae Kwon Do without teachers. Spiritual growth is nearly impossible without some level of coaching. To paraphrase a legal proverb, anyone who is self directed has a fool for a directee. Putting it a little differently, I might say that undertaking spiritual growth without a mentor risks becoming de-mented.
How then, do we proceed? I like Tim Muldoon’s The Ignatian Workout: Daily Spiritual Exercises for a Healthy Faith. Muldoon was a college rowing coach. He goes through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola making analogies with learning competitive rowing. For example, prayer is an exercise in communication. Communication skills can be learned and practiced. Different types of prayer depend of differing styles of communication. A coach/director can save time and effort by helping a directee choose among the many different kinds of meditation and observe the results.
All of this assumes that both the director and directee are at least partially open to the guidance and assistance of the divine Spirit. I would add that this is a Spirit who personally and passionately cares for each one of us.
This brings me to one last reference. There is a striking similarity between the work of Bill Wilson, one of America’s greatest spiritual writers. When Wilson – the primary author of the twelve steps, approached Jesuit Father Edward Dowling, Wilson had never heard of St. Ignatius. Dowling was struck by the parallels with St. Ignatius’ exercises. He worked with Wilson for decades. The twelve steps have one advantage. They are shorter, more contemporary in language and more accessible. While they lack Ignatius’s instruction for vivid and passionate visual meditations on gospel scenes they are sound and easier to understand.
If you want to explore this try Kathy Shaidle’s A Seeker’s Dozen: the 12 Steps for Everyone Else available through Kathy’s website.
With that, it is time to close. Thank you for your time and thank Jean Maria for the opportunity to speak. Do you have any questions?