Embracing the Hard Part of the Job

In an extended interview, 9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick offers additional insights from her experiences.


A former vice chair of Fannie Mae and deputy attorney general under Janet Reno, Jamie Gorelick was a 9/11 Commissioner and the blue-ribbon panel’s only female member. Over the course of two interviews, including one in the swank Washington D.C. offices at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, where she is currently a partner, Gorelick spoke with Fast Company about consensus building, leadership, and additional lessons from the Commission’s report. Below are excerpts from the two interviews.


Fast Company: One of the topic headings in the report’s recommendation chapter was “engage the struggle of ideas.” Although it focused more on the issue of America’s moral leadership in the world and the way we are viewed in other countries, it’s a great phrase, too, for engaging dissident voices and listening to opposing views.

Jamie Gorelick: That’s absolutely key. The thrust of that chapter, which is the “what to do” chapter (the “how to do it” chapter has gotten so much more attention) is that while it is important to use our military tool and to use it well, it is critically important that we understand the larger Muslim world. Right now, it is essentially increasing the supply of would-be and aspiring terrorists as opposed to helping fight the battle against terrorism. One of the reasons is that we are perceived as having lost our moral leadership in the world.

FC: So you agree that the “engage the struggle of ideas” concept applies well to the idea of protecting those dissident voices?

Gorelick: Yes, [in terms of] listening to your customers, observing your competitors and listening to regulators. Look at what has happened in Corporate America. The insular focus on short-term earnings per share can have disastrous impacts on the company because it misses significant issues that shareholders, regulators or communities in which the company needs to operate care about a lot.

FC: In the report’s discussion on “the wall” – the term that was often used to describe the legal barrier between the CIA and the FBI – there’s an applicable idea to business about how regulations and rules are often taken too literally or misunderstood. The report warns about “accumulated institutional beliefs.” How did this happen with “the wall”?

Gorelick: The original legal concepts were unassailable. You don’t want to use an exceptional investigative authority designed to keep the country more secure against routine criminals who should be protected by the normal warrant requirements. That’s obvious. That’s obvious to Congress, it’s obvious to the courts, and it’s obvious to the executive branch. What you see is such risk aversion within the bureaucracy that each entity that had to implement that policy moved further and further away from the line. By 2001, the line that the bureaucracy was drawing was unrecognizable in comparison to what was promulgated through the ’80s and the early ’90s.


When I started off by saying that it is the obligation of managers to free up the people on the line who understand their jobs the best, that’s one of the things I was talking about — that constant reexamination of what is inhibiting them from doing their job. By the time you get to the summer of 2001, both the internal reports within the Justice Department and more importantly, the independent reporting by the General Accounting Office, were telling the Justice Department, “This is broken. However well intentioned it might have been, it is currently broken because of the way it is being implemented. You have to do something about it.” And yet nothing was done.

FC: Yet even as we talk about freeing up the front line to be uninhibited and do their job, there’s a lot in the report about too much decentralization. Especially considering the Commission’s proposal for a new intelligence head. What do you think the lessons are here for business?

Gorelick: When you have, as every organization has, stovepipes, you have to have a strong consumer who drives cooperation across them. You can see it in a well-run company or a well-run organization of any sort — someone who forces people to break down those barriers and encourages people to talk to each other, to work together. It’s critically important.

Take the example of the CIA office in Kuala Lumpur not being able to encourage the CIA office in Bangkok to pick up Hazmi and Mihdhar [two of the 9/11 hijackers]. The central CIA organization left that completely to those offices and at some point the coordinating function broke down. When you take it to the next level, the CIA didn’t tell the FBI that these individuals had visas to travel to the United States. They didn’t tell the State Department to put them on the terrorist watch list, and it goes on.

FC:The report really shows how slow the FBI and CIA cultures were to change.

Gorelick: Here’s just an example. As recently as when we were finishing up the writing of our report, we were being told that the FBI got it now and that it was putting an emphasis on the hiring and training of intelligence officers and analysts. But when we asked the question of what is the test that new agents take for admission into the FBI, it was the same test. It was the same law enforcement test in the spring of 2004 as it had been for, well, decades.


FC: And what about in the CIA?

Gorelick: At the CIA, there grew up these two cultures, one of intelligence, the other operations. There was not enough was done to broach the two.

FC: The concept described in the report, “institutionalizing imagination,” was very interesting to us. It’s a provocative idea. How did imagination fail in the case of 9/11?

Gorelick: The people above those who had the imagination because they were on the ground were sort of imposing their own views on what mattered. Therefore, the information didn’t break through. That happened in the case of the Phoenix memo, in the case of Moussaoui or in the frustrations that were felt in the Bin Laden unit. For example, when FBI headquarters received the Phoenix memo, they simply sent it off to the other office, because they felt it wasn’t relevant to the case. Yet when an urgent request came in to help find Hazmi and Midhar, nothing was done at headquarters to try and excite the field, to get it going more than in the very most routine way.

The fact is that in business, you innovate because you are responding to a felt need on the ground. How do you understand what your next product needs to look like or how your service could be tendered better? By interacting better with the consumers of them. And if the organization can’t develop mechanisms for taking those learnings in the field and using them to become more agile, they’re going to die. That’s what we saw. We literally saw deaths of organizations from ossification. If you have an entrepreneurial and agile enemy or if you’re in an entrepreneurial or agile industry, the solutions are the same.

FC: That gets at the book’s idea of “cultural asymmetry,” the idea that companies get so large or powerful that they ignore upstarts.


Gorelick: Look at the steel industry. It repeatedly seeded chunks of its business to upstarts who were in their view entering the business in the lower margin area. They thought, “We don’t need to do that. We don’t need to compete there because it’s a low margin threat.” But gradually those smaller producers ate the lunch of the larger producers. There are hundreds of examples I could give you in business and it’s the exact same thing that happened here.

FC: Much has been said about how the 9/11 Commission members worked together, about how much of a consensus there was between Republicans and Democrats. What was done to achieve that?

Gorelick: Listening is big, and understanding what the different points of view are, too. Being graceful, exercising judgment — a lot of the principles of leadership [that I believe in] can help you reach consensus. Often you find that you have to peel back the ideology that surrounds the dispute to get to what the actual dispute is, and that’s where you can find the middle ground. I think that’s why I ended up working so well with Slade [Gorton, a Republican on the Commission], because he does the same thing.

FC: There were some great leadership lessons in your questioning to key witnesses during the 9/11 hearings. When you were speaking to Condoleezza Rice, you talked about how there’s a greater degree of intensity when direction comes from the top.

Gorelick: If you look at the great leaders that I’ve worked with – Colin Powell, Tom Kean, Janet Reno, just to name a few – they brought and bring an enormous intensity to the heart of issues and the things they think really need to be dealt with.

One of the themes I think you can see running throughout the story of 9/11, and this is not focused on the White House even though your question is, is passivity. Dozens of times, very senior leaders said “This wasn’t brought to me,” or “I assumed this was a given.” I believe that there is a tendency that has to be resisted to define away the hard part of the job. In ordinary terms you can think of it as whether you define your job by the contents of your inbox or whether you know that inbox is there but you come in in the morning and you sit there with a blank piece of paper and you say, “What is the most important set of things for me to get done? What are the urgent matters before us?” Now if you do that and you persistently don’t address your inbox, you will create as many problems as you address, so you have to do both. You have to be reactive and proactive. You have to cycle short and cycle long at the same time.


To the extent that I had success as deputy attorney general, it was because I was in everybody’s pants all the time. That is not pleasant for people except when they know you’re doing it with everyone and you’re not picking on them. I wanted to know about problems before they happened and I had in mind the urgent issues that needed to be addressed.

I think those were important lessons for business. You have to know your stuff. You have to be deep, you have to have breadth — that is, you have to see across the horizon so you understand the context in which you’re operating. You have to have sources of information that can alert you to [when] you’re getting a one sided story and you have to have sources of information that help you see around corners.

FC: You’ve used that phrase often, “defining away the hard part of the job.”

Gorelick: That’s the phrase I used in the FAA hearing. The intelligence and security units in the FAA decided that they would only utilize intelligence with regard to threats to US aviation. Well, if you don’t do anything unless you have a very specific threat against an airplane, and intelligence about that, then you’re defining away the hard part of the job. What you should be doing is looking at all the intelligence and thinking, “How might that play out in a domain for which I’m responsible,” and not just wait for someone to feed it to you.

FC: Taking responsibility for other people’s actions was another leadership lesson from the questioning. What’s a time that you’ve done that in your career?

Gorelick: I have dozens of examples in business which I can’t describe in detail, but where there’s somebody working with me or for me who did something essentially in my name that I wouldn’t have done if I’d had the full facts. Still, I took responsibility for them. It’s not right to let others hang out when you are the leader, but as a practical matter, if you don’t take responsibility, than people are not going to act with initiative. In general, institutions are going to run very badly if everyone thinks they need to check up the line to do everything. I would rather take responsibility and then go back and tell people to try and exercise better judgment in the future. Whole institutions shut down when there’s endless checking.


FC: Some people talk about an early experience where they began to have some comprehension of what it takes to lead effectively. What was yours?

Gorelick: [After getting out of law school], I purposely sought out a very small firm with deeply talented people, all of whom wanted to work in a less institutional setting than you might otherwise have gotten in a larger firm at that time. And as a consequence, I got much more responsibility than I would have had. There were so few associates that there was a partner and me on pretty much every case that I worked on.

One of my early cases was one in which we represented the head of a nursing home company that was charged with all kinds of financial malfeasance. … This company and this person were just reviled in New York, where the case was set. I learned very early on the need to be calm under pressure, the need to understand one’s role in a battle like that. That’s a particularly important role when you’re a lawyer, because obviously, when you’re a defense lawyer, you don’t sign on to be the person you’re representing but you are playing the role of defending them to the best of your ability.

That’s a good lesson in other roles in life, because in each job you have you are playing a role. You are yourself and you have your values, but you also have certain institutional responsibilities. When I was general counsel of the Defense Department I had to help implement the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays in the military. That would not have been my policy, but I was the general counsel of the Department of Defense. We had 1.5 million people in uniform and the leadership of the department had reached an agreement with the leadership of Capital Hill that these policies were going to be in place. It was my job to try and figure out how best to implement them and I played that role, I thought, as an honest broker. I tried to carry out the sometimes conflicting intentions of people in that process, and I learned very early on that you have to understand both yourself and the larger institutional interests that you are serving.

FC: Did the implementation of “don’t ask, don’t tell” teach you anything about leading with courage?

Gorelick: I think honestly the example [I’d give] of learning about courage would be Janet Reno. There were articles of impeachment filed on her on almost any given question and she had a sort of equanimity in the face of that onslaught that was really admirable. She had a quote from Lincoln on her wall which just suggested that you put your head down and you do your job. She took responsibility where others often would try to avoid responsibility for decisions or actions. She was a very values-based leader; she spoke often and kept harkening back to the wonderful statements that are etched, literally etched, into the walls of the Department of Justice about what justice is about and what role it has to play in our society. It had an enormously calming effect on her, which had a calming effect on everyone else.