On Silence & Broken Leadership with Carmen Medina

Actionable insight about how what we know about leadership is wrong, messy processes, and the importance of silence.

Referenced in this Episode:

Carmen spent 32 years at the CIA, but when you meet her you will hardly notice. She is recognized as a national and international expert on intelligence analysis, strategic thinking, diversity of thought, and innovation and intrapreneurs in the public sector. She is the co-author of the book Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within. Her story as a heretic and change agent at CIA is featured in Wharton School professor Adam Grant’s bestseller Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Carmen is Puerto Rican by birth and Texan by nationality.


Episode Transcript:

Liz Wiltsie:  Welcome to LEAD the podcast. I am thrilled to welcome Carmen Medina as this week’s guest. Carmen spent 32 years at the CIA, but when you meet her you will hardly notice. She is recognized as a national and international expert on intelligence analysis, strategic thinking, diversity of thoughts, and innovation and intrapreneurs in the public sector. 

She is the co-author of Rebels at Work, a handbook for leading change from within. Her story as a heretic and change agent at the CIA is featured in Wharton School Professor Adam Grant’s bestseller, Originals: How Nonconformist Move the World

Carmen is Puerto Rican by birth and Texan by nationality. We’re so excited that she’s here. Thank you, Carmen.

Carmen Medina: Thank you, Liz, for having me.

LW:  Yeah. So, let’s get to it. What is the number one challenge that you see leaders face at work?

CM: You know what, I want to start macro. And the macro challenge is that almost everything that they’re being taught, or they have been taught about leadership, is wrong. In my opinion, it’s almost like a sham industry, the leadership development industry. And it differs from domain to domain. 

But there’s just a lot about leadership skills that overemphasize the importance of leadership, which I can think given the nature of work today, that it’s so much more fluid. You can’t stop work to have these leadership moments anymore. It just doesn’t make any sense. 

And so, I think, you know, that’s the biggest challenge, the concept of leadership, the way it’s taught, most everything about it is ill-suited, if it was ever well suited, but it’s ill-suited to our world today. I know that’s a way vague answer. So, I’m going to bring it down to a specific point. Which is, if you think about organizations and corporations, they tend to value smoothness. They want things to go smoothly. Organizations are created to deliver outcomes at scale and with consistency. 

And so, leaders get judged, even if a corporation never says it, leaders get judged on how smooth their team, their group is. And this runs exactly opposite to what you need when you want to do something new or you want to innovate because newness and innovation is almost never smooth. It’s very crunchy, right? It has ups and downs, it’s uneven. So that’s a specific example of how everything that leaders are being told to do or almost everything I think is wrong.

LW:  Yeah, so what is your number one sort of tip for dealing with that in the workplace?

CM: Well, you know, I actually have three number one tips because I thought about it and you know, like, it’s hard for me to choose among these three. 

So, the first thing I would say is kind of the secret not well-understood leadership hack, is silence. Be silent. Listen more to other people. There’s a great acronym. I didn’t come up with it. 

But I just, it’s like that meme, how old were you when you learned? Well, I was 65 when I learned this acronym, which is WAIT, Why Am I Talking? WAIT, and what a great thing to say to yourself as a leader. Because, you know, back to that first point, what everybody tells you about leadership is that you’re supposed to know, set the vision, you know, provide clear guidance and all the stuff. 

And you know, it’s like you have to impose your will on your employees. Well, you know, it’s a lot more interesting if you listen to what they have to say. So, I think silence is a spectacular leadership hack. Kind of related to silence, the second one I would say is that when people, when I was working actively in an organization, and people would ask me what my leadership philosophy was, I said, “Conversation.” 

The conversation is my leadership philosophy. And if you think about it, silence should be 50% of every conversation, right? And then the final thing I want to say, it’s very specific, is that when you’re a leader, if you want to do things differently, if you want to lead innovation, you have to realize that the status quo will control your calendar. You become a leader and you inherit all these meetings and events that you have to go to, and they all represent what the status quo is interested in. 

So, one of my favorite things to say to leaders is that your calendar reflects your priorities, and you have to make it so.

LW:  Yeah. Those are great three tips. I’m excited that there were three and not just one. So, what is something that has impacted the way that you think?

CM: You know, something recent that I read and there’s so much that I’ve read about leadership. You know, not just books about leadership, which don’t always tend to be that great, but just other stuff that you read, fiction or nonfiction about being a great leader, but one that is very recent that I would have to recommend to people. It came out in Quartz, and it is by an author named Nora Bateson, B-A-T-E-S-O-N. 

She’s actually the daughter of, I think his name is Gregory Bateson, who is a famous, very famous, systems thinker, and it came out in court on December 5th, 2018. And the title is, It’s Time to Fix Our Toxic Notion of What Makes a Good Leader. And It’s, you know, it’s probably two or 3000 words long. But, you know, she talks about that our current thinking, she wants to stop call leadership, she wants to call bullshit on our current concept of leadership. 

And she actually says that the very, and I feel this way, the very, every time I hear the word leadership, I cringe. I just go, “Oh, God,” there’s something about what it connotes now, which is just not right, not suitable. And I didn’t feel this way 40 years ago, but there’s something about our age, which is different. So, if I were to point to something that everybody can get access to for free, I would look up that court’s article by Nora Bateson.

LW:  Perfect. So, what should I have asked you that I didn’t?

CM: Yeah, you know, you mentioned that I co-wrote the book, Rebels at Work, and you know, my experience as a heretic at CIA, and I know your audience is Generation Z and Millennial. And I have to, just quickly, I have to tell you a funny story. About a month ago, I had my first real long conversation with Generation Z. They were like, just getting out of high school, I was at a friend’s house for dinner. 

And it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, I immediately felt, you know, anecdotally that they had a different outlook from the millennials that I’m much more familiar with. And at some point, they started coaching me on how economies work, and I was sitting there, you know, they were like, Generation Z explaining to me how the economy actually works. And I was, you know, I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, “Okay, I’ve lived in this world for 65 years, and I spent 32 of them at CIA thinking about lots of issues like this, but I’m just going to sit here and listen.” 

But anyway, that was just amusing to me. But what I would say that you, so I think a lot about how these younger people are entering the workforce now. Although the millennials are turning 40. Like right now or next year, this is the time when they turn 40. So, they’re really the mature part of the workforce. But, you know, you enter the workforce, and you think people want to hear your new ideas, and then you very quickly get the solution. Much of the time when you realize people don’t want to hear your brilliant new ideas, and so that’s sort of my experience of being a heretic and a rebel at work. So, I wanted to just say very quickly, some really quick hints. 

Number one, if you’re the smart person in the room, if you think you really know how to fix a situation, it’s your responsibility to make sure you have a productive conversation. So oftentimes, you hear someone walk away and they go, “Oh, they didn’t listen to me, they didn’t pay attention. What’s wrong with them?” 

No, that’s the wrong attitude. You need to think, I didn’t do a very good job of delivering that message. What could I have done better?

Two, when you’re offering up your new ideas, think about whether or not that new idea you’re offering up is theological in nature, by which I mean that’s heretical to the very essence of that organization. Like the internet was a heretical idea to the CIA, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t advance that idea. 

But you have to realize that theological change is really hard and you have to understand number one, that is actually theological in nature.

And then the third really quick hint for, you know, people with new ideas in the workforce is to always remember it’s not about you. You know, you tend to think it’s about you and about your brilliance and how people aren’t listening to you. It’s really about everybody else. 

So, the very first thing that you should try to do is make your idea somebody else’s idea. Make your idea community properly. So, I wanted to throw those, I think, pretty simple but hard to do ideas out there.

LW:  Super hard to do, but really, really valuable. And particularly the theological idea, I think about that a lot and being able just to know when that’s what you’re doing, right? When you’re sort of threatening someone’s reality-ish.

CM: That’s a great formulation when you’re threatening someone’s reality. That’s right.

LW:  So, you have a free resource for our audience?

CM: Yeah, my co-author and I, Lois Kelly, we run a website rebelsatwork.com. It’s completely free. There is nothing hidden in there. We blog with new content to probably two or three times a month. But we have an archive of content now that goes back years and years and years, across all sorts of leadership and change agent topics. And you can also follow us on Twitter. And we have a Facebook group and they’re all completely free and, you know, we don’t sell tchotchkes or anything at Christmas time during the holiday so, totally free.

LW:  Fantastic. I know, I’ve looked at rebelsatwork.com, obviously, and there are really great free resources in there. So, and obviously, there will be links to that in the show notes. So, the last question I have for you is, what is something that you’re grappling with?

CM: Oh, yeah. You know, learning all the time is something that’s, I guess, my nature. And I was asked to speak earlier this month at a software conference in Malmo, Sweden. And I was the oldest person at that conference, I think, for sure, by 10 years. And I thought, well, what are these, you know, people, why are they going to want to hear listen to me. 

And, you know, and in fact, my talks went well but that’s not the important point. The important point is what I learned from them, because this was software developers, and I learned a lot about how software developers are grappling with the concept of leadership in the software field because software must be continuously developed. You can’t stop the process to have quality control, that is problematic. And so, they are working on new concepts of team management like Kanban and Scrum

And I, you know, have always been grappling with this idea that how does leadership works when you have to have a continuous process. And it doesn’t really, the ancient concepts that we have don’t really work when you’re trying to do something in a continuous way. And so, I grappled with that.

LW:   Yeah. Well, Carmen, thank you so, so much for being here. This was great. 

CM: Thank you, Liz.

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