Managers vs. leaders in the Secret Service

The country keeps getting embarrassed by Secret Service agents who have been caught cavorting with prostitutes, getting drunk, and passing out in hotel lobbies.  Former agent Dan Emmett says the main problem is bad leadership.  He tells about the Secret Service’s practice of promoting people who are “well-liked” to management positions, rather than those who demonstrate leadership ability.  His distinction between “managers” and “leaders” has applications  beyond the Secret Service.

From Dan Emmett, Alcohol isn’t the Secret Service’s problem. Lousy leadership is. – The Washington Post:

In my experience, agents tend to be intelligent, well-trained and fiercely patriotic Americans — nearly fanatical in their devotion to the mission at hand.

Yet, history shows that even the best units perform poorly with poor leaders, and the Secret Service is a prime example. The most disturbing common thread among the recent episodes of misconduct is that supervisors or team leaders have been involved. While it is unacceptable for any agent to commit infractions such as those in Amsterdam and Colombia, it is utterly inexcusable for those in charge to be involved. If managers show continued lapses in judgment, how and why would anyone expect the rank and file to behave better?

The Secret Service may not admit it, but its promotion system is primarily designed to move the best-liked people, not necessarily the best-qualified, into managerial positions. Much like in a college fraternity, a small group of senior agents votes on who will be promoted. These decisions are based as much on office politics, popularity and political correctness as the abilities of those being considered for upward mobility. While this practice is widespread in many professions, it is unacceptable in an agency whose primary function is to keep the president of the United States alive and safe. Competence should be the overriding concern in all government agencies, but especially so in an organization whose agents stand next to the president and other top officials with loaded firearms.

The agency doesn’t prioritize competence among its managers, yet it somehow stands baffled about why it cannot control the behavior of its agents, forcing the director to return to Capitol Hill again and again to apologize for their conduct. The apologies may temporarily appease critics, but they do nothing to address the catastrophic failure of leadership within the organization.

When I became a Secret Service agent in 1983, we were generally well led. Most of our top and mid-level supervisors were armed forces veterans; they managed and led by the ethos of military leadership, which dictates accomplishing the mission while taking care of those entrusted to them. They expected much from their subordinates but knew that they must set the example we would follow.

The Secret Service of today is awash in managers, not leaders. Many supervisors have little tangible or leadership experience, yet they are designated as managers on the basis of their titles and long lists of schools attended. Alas, leadership cannot be taught in a classroom alone. In the military, people must first pass Officer Candidate School before assuming leadership roles. In the federal government, more often than not, people are promoted first and then trained to be leaders — the concept is entirely backward.


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