Finding a Path for Future Leaders: Improving Leadership in Homeland Security

– Executive Summary –

The current leadership situation in government agencies constituting the homeland security enterprise presents many gaps that limit mission success. A focus on policy and process dominates our government agencies at the expense of employees, the public, and the mission, and leadership failures and gaps seem increasingly prevalent, resulting in more failures. The emergence of the next generation of leaders provides an opportunity, and a necessity, to identify the essence of good leadership and use this to inform leadership development. Although no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership may suit homeland security organizations, overarching attributes, skills, behaviors, and actions may apply to leaders across the enterprise. With the goal of discovering a path for the next generation of leaders, this thesis asked the following research questions: what good leadership practices can the future generation of homeland security leaders learn from current leaders; what are the attributes of good leaders in homeland security; and how did current leaders in homeland security become good leaders?

This research used inductive reasoning and qualitative interviews to reach conclusions about good leadership practices with the purpose of informing future homeland security leaders. Qualitative data analysis was chosen for this study because of the anticipated value of leaders’ stories in identifying patterns of leadership to be replicated and expanded. Appreciative inquiry is the analytical framework used to discover good leadership practices and focus on leadership for an improved future in homeland security as the next generation of leaders begins to emerge. This research seeks to contribute to inquiries which reveal what “gives life” to leadership practices and imagine what the future could be by conducting a “deliberate search for the good.”[1] The framing of discussions around leadership in this study is intended to spark positive and constructive reflection on one’s own leadership approaches and experiences from the interview subjects and ultimately from audiences reading this study.

Interview subjects were chosen from current practitioners and Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) students and alumni as representation of practicing leaders in the homeland security enterprise with ample experience and education backgrounds. A total of 14 current homeland security leaders were interviewed. The individuals chosen represent leadership from local, state, and federal levels of the homeland security enterprise. Interviewees were chosen based on their reputation as good leaders among NPS CHDS and broader homeland security community.

This thesis revealed that answers to the research questions are not black and white; i.e., leadership is not simply illustrated. The results cannot be packaged into precise lists or steps for being a good leader. The answers are found in the stories of lived experiences of leaders and the humanistic sides they bring to their roles. The following seven key conclusions were reached as a result of this study:

  1. Failure of academia and the leadership industry: For all their efforts, academia and the leadership industry are not producing leaders commensurate with the amount of material released. This material is also not what the interviewees pointed to as critical to their leadership development, noting experience as a more valuable leadership teacher. This is not to completely discredit the academic and leadership industry worlds, but to point out that they should not be looked to as premier leadership experts, even though their relative prestige and popularity often seem to imply as much. There are of course valuable materials from these types of sources, but as the interviewees also mentioned, this information is practically useless until it is put into practice and experienced. Theory without testing and implementation through practitioners will not result in any positive changes for the homeland security field. And cliche phrases that sell books are useless without real-world, lived experiences as the substance to back them up.
  2. Prioritizing leadership over management: The majority of the leaders interviewed differentiate between leadership and management, but also acknowledge that both are needed for leaders to be successful. Many discussed this as a necessary balance, with leadership often being the most important function. Some also described leadership and management as different lenses that a good leader knows exactly when to apply. And even further, some stated that it must really be all about leadership, as that is the driving force of innovation, inspiration, and progress, as opposed to the status quo and sustainment that management functions provide an organization. While this research is not a critique on management, I will argue that the success of homeland security organizations cannot be reached through management alone. It is the genuine, caring leaders that are dedicated to the art of leadership who are needed to take organizations to the next level, beyond what any process or procedure can do. If homeland security leaders want to lead their organizations to greatness, they must understand this distinction and prioritize leadership over management, not relying on plans, but focusing on the people that will make it happen.
  3. Leadership is not for everyone: This research revealed that while the leadership industry will promote the idea that anyone can be a leader, most likely in order to not limit the audience of their leadership how-to books and to increase sales, the leaders interviewed largely did not agree. These interviewees, whether they directly stated that they believed anyone can be a leader or not, nearly all had one thing in common – the notion that leaders must be willing to invest themselves and care about their people and missions above their own interests. It can be concluded that because not everyone is willing or capable of this type of dedicated, genuine care for people and service to others above themselves, that leadership is not for everyone. Not just anyone can or should be a leader. This can especially be said for homeland security leadership, which not only requires a leader to care for their team, but to care for a community and a nation in which they serve while often being under immense internal and external scrutiny.
  4. Learning to be a leader: One of the most undeniable themes derived from the interviews is the importance of experience in learning to be a leader. Interviewees resoundingly agreed that it is the trial and error, the risks, and the lived experience that makes the battle-tested, credible leader. There is a credibility and level of respect that cannot be developed in a classroom; it must be lived. The next generation of leaders should assess the credibility of a cliche statement in a how-to book or theories in academic classes as compared to what they experience and what leaves a lasting impact on them from other leaders around them and from exposing themselves to leadership opportunities. Credibility and the qualities of a good leader, like many other things in life, reveals itself over time. It is a continuous learning process. It is a lifelong learning journey, filled with joy and struggles, success and failures, and a personal touch that never ends for those who are genuinely invested.
  5. Taking responsibility: Interviewees discussed the importance of allowing your people and even yourself to be human. They noted that leadership is imperfect. It is from mistakes and trial and error that one learns and grows. In that same vein, a common thread throughout the research results was that of leaders needing to take responsibility, for the good, but much more importantly, for the bad. And not only does leadership require one to own their decisions and actions, but to own those of the people in their charge as well. This could be considered a burden of leadership that is tough to carry. But according to the leaders interviewed, it is immensely necessary. This is again where the personal investment and sacrifice comes into play. Those who can understand that leadership is about taking on more responsibility, not less, and can embody that consistently in their actions will be successful leaders.
  6. Taking care of people: The sentiment of a people-centered approach to leadership is conclusively present, as one of the most prevalent themes to come out of the interview results was the importance of taking care of people. Many of the leaders interviewed identified this care for people as a primary motivation behind their own leadership actions. The sacrifices and investments that the interviewees described as necessary for good leadership come from a place of genuine, heartfelt care for people. Leaders must also care for the missions for which they are responsible. But most importantly, they must care for the people in their care, the ones achieving the mission. This care takes many forms. But at the core of each of the leaders’ lessons and stories is a genuine care and appreciation for their people. The USSS Senior Special Agent interviewed stated that they worked for leaders who they would jump off of a cliff for; Battalion Chief Craig Cooper shared that he’s had people he’s led tell him they would die for him. These are not fleeting statements. These are real, substantial examples of the immeasurable impact that caring leaders can have on people. Without this heart infused into their actions, these leaders would not be as successful.
  7. Being courageous: How does one take on the burden of leadership, sacrifice and invest themselves, take ownership of their decisions, be willing to take risks and fail, deeply and sincerely care about people, and put themselves directly into the messiness of leadership in every moment? As many interviewees noted, these things are anything but easy. But good leaders have the courage to do so. Underneath all of these successful leadership practices and attributes is an extremely admirable courage that drives these leaders towards greatness and puts them in a position that naturally demands respect and attracts followers. I conclude that an artful application of leadership, born out of an individual’s courage to genuinely care about people and do what others won’t, is what truly makes a lasting difference.

The following key recommendations are made as a result of analyzing interview data and research conclusions. First and foremost, individuals need to self-assess and identify if they are willing and capable of truly caring for people. Leadership requires a level of emotional intelligence that not everyone is capable of. If the humanistic approach and personal connection is not what one cares to focus on, that is acceptable; but these individuals must understand and acknowledge that leadership is not for them.

Emerging leaders should be ambitious in academic pursuits and never stop learning, but realize that true leadership learning will come from putting yourself in the messiness of leadership. Find mentors who care and are willing to invest time in your journey, provide you with opportunities, and share their lessons learned. Emerging leaders seeking to grow as good leaders should say yes to every opportunity to lead, and be willing to take risks and fail in doing so. You have to create your own leadership path out of the messiness of all of your experiences. You have to put yourself out there and learn leadership every single day. It is through these experiences that leadership abilities are developed in practice, not from leadership theories and how-to books. The up-and-coming leader should be a sponge, observing the good and bad leadership examples around them to form their own conclusions about good leadership. Overall, practitioners should critically analyze the sources from which they seek to learn leadership, looking for credible sources, particularly with a focus on battle-tested leaders.

In a similar vein, current leaders need to invest time in mentorship to help facilitate the growth and development of the next generation of leaders as the future of the homeland security industry. It is recommended that current leaders take the time to highlight opportunities for their people early on in their careers and contribute to the making of more leaders who will carry on their legacies of caring, genuine leadership.

There is also improvement to be made in academia and the leadership industry. These entities should seek to capture the essence of leadership in addition to research and to provide substance to the cliche through increased partnership with practitioners. Realizing that theories and checklists alone do not make a leader, these groups could benefit from balancing out their research and material with the perspectives and lived experiences of practitioners much more regularly.

This thesis is not about finding the neatly packaged list of traits that make someone a good leader. It is about experiencing, learning, growing, and finding a path for the future. That path is not a checklist; it is a heartfelt approach to caring for people and being courageous enough to accept the challenge of leadership. In addition to embarking on your own leadership learning journey, and likely even more important, is honest self-assessment.

It is critical that leaders be able to honestly assess their own capability to lead. It is about asking yourself, am I willing and courageous enough to care for people in my care? If emerging leaders can understand this and find ways to incorporate these findings into their own journeys, I argue they will be well positioned to positively influence homeland security and the people they serve well into the future.

        [1] Frank Barrett and Ronald Fry, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity, First Edition (Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Taos Institute Publications, 2005), 11.

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