Leadership intelligence: An interview with Letitia Long of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

June 21, 2012

Letitia A. Long is the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which collects and analyzes geospatial intelligence  in support of national security. Prior to assuming this post in 2010,  Long served as the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as the Defense Department’s deputy undersecretary for intelligence, as deputy  director of Naval Intelligence, and as executive director for Intelligence Community Affairs at the CIA. She spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.

What are the challenges and rewards of being a female leader in a traditionally male-dominated arena like intelligence?

I tend not to think about being a woman in a man’s world. I really look at it as the challenges and rewards of being a leader in times like today. I cannot deny the fact that I am a woman. Women have made great strides in the intelligence and defense communities, and I think both communities clearly understand the business case for diversity. From an NGA perspective, we really focus on cognitive diversity, not diversity simply based on age, gender or ethnicity. Diversity is about your experience, your background and everything you bring to the table. The challenge is that we are leading during a challenging time, and the reward is being a part of an agency that delivers outstanding geospatial intelligence, analysis and products that make a difference.

How do you connect with your employees and keep them engaged and motivated?

I believe our mission and work motivate our employees. Employees see the results of what they do almost on a daily basis. They see that we are saving lives. Getting positive feedback from the president or the secretary of defense certainly keeps our employees motivated. On a personal basis, I try to touch as many employees as I can every single day by walking around, getting lunch in the cafeteria, conducting awards ceremonies or popping in unexpectedly at meetings. I look for opportunities to showcase their accomplishments.

What kind of atmosphere have you sought to create at NGA?

I want to create an environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks, whether it is thinking of outside-of-the-box ideas or trying something new. I let them know that it’s okay if we try something and it doesn’t work. I impress this idea upon leadership at all levels.

With NGA employees retiring, you are going to have to start recruiting. What are the obstacles to attracting a younger generation to public service?

I see the retirements as an opportunity to refresh our workforce. We have been working on a knowledge transfer from employees who are leaving and have an incredible amount of knowledge and experience. The obstacle to recruitment is that science, engineering and math majors don’t necessarily understand the spectrum of careers that are available within public service. The work we do here at NGA and in the intelligence community is really cool. We are on the cutting-edge of introducing the latest technologies into our workplace every single day, and the results of our work have to do with the security of our nation. We are working to get our word out through our intern program for both high school and college students. It’s all about marketing who we are and what we do by attending college fairs, working with local communities and recruiting across the United States.  

Who are your leadership role models?

The positive role models had a great impact on me, but you also learn what you don’t want to do from bad leaders. From the good leaders, I’ve learned the importance of building relationships and trust, and developing a work-life balance. I’ve taken these lessons and applied them throughout my career.

What advice do you have for finding a work-life balance?

It is something that I work on every day. Schedule date nights with your family, schedule time to work out — and pay for that trainer so you don’t miss those workout sessions. Make the commitment. I keep a little card on my desk and I look at it every day. It says: “Keep the promises that you make to yourself.” Everybody has different ways of doing it.

Was there a critical event that helped to shape your leadership views and style?

Growing up in a large family, I learned to be assertive and to put myself out there. With five brothers, I learned to stand up for myself. My mother liked to say she had eight “only” children. We were all unique in our own ways. My parents encouraged us to follow our hearts, and I think that really has a lot to do with who I am today. They taught us core values of integrity, honesty, trust and teamwork.

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