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July 1, 2014

The Lawyer, the Advisers and the CEO

Inside the CIA; the search for wisdom; and a guide to corporate culture 

Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA

by John Rizzo. Scribner, 2014.

John Rizzo served as a lawyer for the CIA for 34 years. Starting with his hiring in 1975, his self-deprecating book chronicles his entire CIA career—recalling the Iran-Contra affair, Soviet spy Aldrich Ames, outed secret agent Valerie Plame, the enhanced interrogation techniques scandal and destruction of waterboarding videotapes, and finally, his absolution from obstruction-of-justice charges in connection with those tapes.

His unwelcome nickname—the “Torture Advocate”—came about in press coverage after the Obama administration released the so-called torture memos when Rizzo was serving as acting general counsel. Scrupulous throughout his career, Rizzo was sure the agency had been on solid legal footing.

It is the CIA’s job to gather intelligence just as it is a lawyer’s job to defend his client. Rizzo faithfully defends the CIA. Still, he does provide a behind-the-scenes look at the complexity of spying for the United States. Prosecuting or defending a case involving the CIA, testifying before Congress—any of the things called for by the public’s demand for transparency—start with the same problem: All the facts are kept secret. At some point, a CIA lawyer has to pull the plug, even on cases he needs to win, to prevent too much information from becoming public.

Not everyone detailed in this book comes across as the noble, straight arrow you would hope is defending our nation. Rizzo calls James Angleton, former head of the CIA’s counterintelligence office, “paranoid, and in retrospect quite likely deranged.” He says the agency “stiffed the Warren Commission … and got away with it,” referring to the information destroyed by the CIA that could have provided instrumental clues in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And Rizzo obviously has a bad taste in his mouth about his own failed attempt to be confirmed as the CIA’s chief legal counsel. But he loved his job. And he loved the CIA.

As a former lawyer for the CIA, Rizzo is highly attuned to client confidentiality—a quality the agency itself doesn’t always share. The Office of the General Counsel “sends dozens” of “crimes reports” to the Justice Department annually, “since hardly a day goes by without some piece of classified CIA information popping up somewhere in the media.” This is an agency charged with finding and then keeping secrets, but its own operations are apparently as leaky as the gossipy girls’ bathroom at a high school.

The book begins with two pages of acronyms, a list the reader constantly must consult. An organizational chart would have been helpful as well. All the different committees, the different chiefs of this and that, the inability to rein in those who would go rogue and the lack of clarity on who would hold them accountable eventually make it seem that—despite the CIA’s vaunted, necessary mission—no one there knows who’s in charge.

 

From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading With Wisdom

by Prasad Kaipa and Navi Radjou. Jossey-Bass, 2013.

It’s hard to know what to think of this book. The idea of a “wise” leader suggests someone who possesses more than the usual business-oriented motivations such as growth, revenues and beating the competition. But wisdom also suggests softer concepts like spirituality, enlightenment and connection to a higher power. The latter are not usually considered consistent with the cutthroat world of business, or necessary for success.

In the book’s early examples—Bill Gates, Oprah, Warren Buffett—these two Silicon Valley consultants seem to be saying that wisdom connects to philanthropy, doing good for others. The authors stress the importance of finding your “North Star”—your higher purpose—and acting consistently with it as the way to lead with wisdom.

Not all North Star goals are philanthropic, however. Some, like increasing innovation or developing a new product, stem from the same desire for business success as those of smart leaders or functional leaders—the two ends of the authors’ leadership spectrum. Smart leaders are the big-picture, risk-taker types; functional leaders are those who specialize and get stuff done.

So, on the one hand, the book offers a lot of language about seeking a higher purpose and quotes from spiritual texts. On the other, it details the enlightened self-interest of someone like Ratan Tata and his development of the world’s cheapest new car, the Tata Nano. In brief, this is not a book that Western businesspeople will automatically embrace. It is a brave management book that has chapter headings like “What Is Wisdom?” Even so, From Smart to Wise does have all the usual features of a business how-to book: lots of worksheets and action items.

The authors’ most compelling argument for at least considering what they advocate is that it will make you happier. Business leaders, according to Kaipa and Radjou, turn to them for one of two reasons: desperation or dissatisfaction. Their organizations were in danger of going under, their personal lives were suffering, or they were miserable with the direction they had taken. Finding and accepting the full spectrum of leadership, from functional to smart, and realizing the limits of intelligence alone led them to wisdom and out of desperation, the authors contend. It’s not as messianic as it sounds; nor, as they present it, is it entirely convincing.

 

Leverage: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

by John R. Childress. Principia Associates, 2013.

Self-published books are not necessarily bad. Making your own illustrations in PowerPoint is not necessarily bad. Writing a series of books under The CEO’s Guide to… rubric is not necessarily bad. Talking to CEOs like they’re third graders? That’s bad.

This book could be called The Dummies’ Guide to Corporate Culture. The author, a consultant with services to sell and speeches to give, spends 115 pages defining corporate culture and talking about why it is important, all the while admitting that there are already countless books and articles on the subject. He draws heavily—very heavily—from other people’s work, which makes you wonder why you’re not reading the source material instead of his CliffsNotes version. He makes such startling statements as “actions speak louder than words” and offers such blinding insight as “there is no perfect corporate culture.”

Childress does bring together the leading methodologies for culture assessment, which at least saves you the work of digging them all up yourself. He also has some funny fishing stories. Since this is his ninth business book, he must have an audience. From this volume, though, it is hard to see why.