David S. Cohen was sworn in as the deputy director of the CIA in February 2015 after spending six years at the Treasury Department handling terrorism, financial intelligence and financial crime issues. In a conversation with Tom Fox, Cohen discussed his adjustment to the CIA, his leadership style, the issues that keep him up at night and what he does to decompress. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Was it a difficult transition coming to the CIA as an outsider?
There was an enormous amount about what the agency does that was new to me. That includes the operational work and some of the exquisite, technical and technological work that the agency does, as well as the vast support function that enables the agency’s worldwide operations. It was a steep learning curve. I got up to speed relatively quickly, but until you are here and working in this environment, the scope of what we do is difficult to appreciate.
What have you done to earn the trust of the career staff?
There is a mission focus in this agency that is exemplary and part of that is the notion that everybody needs to be part of the team and needs to be functioning at a high level. I found a real desire by the staff to help me get into a position where I could be an effective deputy director. I did not find people throwing up barriers or refusing to allow me into the club. It was just the contrary. They wanted me to succeed because they want the agency to succeed.
How would you describe your leadership style?
One of the lessons I’ve learned from watching good leaders is that they care about their people. And their focus isn’t up, it is down. I try to ensure that I can engage with the people who are working directly for me and several rungs down. I seek to understand and appreciate their work and view them as important parts of the team. I also try to model the behavior that I expect from others. That means working hard, taking the job seriously and employing a little bit of a Tim Geithner-ism. Geithner, the former Treasury secretary, gave out little rubber bracelets that said, “No jerks, no whiners, no peacocks.” It is a pretty clear guidepost on how you expect everybody to behave.
What other leadership lessons have you learned over the years?
The person who is probably most influential on how I think about leadership was a guy named Jack Miller, who was the founding partner of the first law firm that I worked at. He followed the “care about your people principle.” From his partners to the support staff to the couriers to everybody in the law firm, Jack cared about them, knew them and made sure they were succeeding. He also was highly demanding and insisted on quality work. If you put those two things together, you will have a successful organization.
What is your biggest leadership flaw?
The hardest thing for me to do as a leader, and I don’t do enough of it, is giving honest, critical feedback. It is part of demanding that people do their best and being honest by saying that the briefing, that paper, that interaction—you didn’t knock it out of the park. Everybody has a different degree of conflict avoidance, and it’s difficult to break through that and offer constructive feedback because it’s a difficult conversation. I don’t do a good enough job at that.
What is one of the biggest public misperceptions of the CIA?
The agency obviously operates largely in secret. From that flows the biggest misperception, which is that we operate outside of oversight, outside of legal and policy constraints. The reality is that we have extensive interaction with Congress, particularly with our oversight committees in the House and the Senate. We are on a daily basis sending written congressional notifications about significant intelligence activities—things we’ve done well, things that have gone badly and new initiatives that we are undertaking. There also is a misperception that we dream up covert action programs and execute them outside of any tether to the rest of the administration, which is just not true. Covert action programs are the president’s programs. They start with a presidential finding that defines the objective and the authorities we can employ. There is a lot of back and forth about the operation of covert action with the president and the president’s staff.
What keeps you up at night?
There are more difficult national security problems confronting our country today than there have been for many years, whether it’s North Korean nuclear activity, Chinese activity in the South China Sea, the situation in Syria and Iraq or what is happening in Venezuela. In addition, there is the expanding threat coming from the cyber world where there are malicious actors who have capacity to cause us harm. That’s an area where we are working as hard as we can, but it is also a persistent worry.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I go to yoga every Sunday morning with my wife. It is a great way to decompress, at least for a few hours. And then I like to make homemade pasta from scratch. I’ve been branching out from the basics to more exotic pastas. My favorite recently has been ricotta gnocchi. I even made my own ricotta.