Keep Swimming, Be Good and Kind, Make Decisions

PDDNI Sue Gordon opens up about leadership, the reason she once left the workforce, the “Me Too” movement, and her dog


Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Susan M. Gordon spoke Tuesday during a 250-person luncheon hosted by the Tampa Bay chapter of Women in Defense in conjunction with GEOINT 2018, covering topics as diverse as decision-making, the “Me Too” movement, and her love of dogs.

The third child of a naval officer, Gordon said she learned two important things from her parents: Do your best, and try to make a difference every day. “I’ve done that,” she said.

Quoting the fish Dory from the children’s film “Finding Nemo,” Gordon, second-in-command at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, advised attendees to “just keep swimming.” She said it’s important to study for every job you have and know that you’re not stuck with the information you possess when you start.

During her talk, Gordon shared her five favorite leadership lessons.

  1. Be good: “We talk about networking and mentoring, but none of it will make a difference if you’re not really good, no matter what job you have.”
  2. Learn how to make decisions: “I don’t think we’re risk-averse, I think we’re decision-averse. We wait until we have more data, but we are losing our battle while we’re waiting for the world to turn. Decision-making, even if it’s wrong, impels progress. Learn how to do it every day”
  3. When someone you respect asks you to do something, say yes: “Multiple times, I’ve found someone on the other end of the line asking me to do something I had no idea how to do or no interest in doing. You’ll never be disappointed. Your boss may say it’s a risk you don’t want to take, and friends may advise you against it, but trust yourself more than you trust the system.”
  4. Remember, you might be the jerk: “As good as you are, we all get in our own heads, especially national security people. We are an intentional community—we intend to do good work. But when people question what you’re doing, don’t just say what you intend three more times; consider the possibility that they’re not idiots and that you’re the jerk.”
  5. Be kind, because everyone is fighting the great battle: “In the ‘Me Too’ movement, I think the perpetrators are bums, and I feel for the victims. But we’re not talking enough about the organizations that allow bad behavior to go on. Sure, Matt Lauer was a jerk, but what was NBC thinking? From this day forward, don’t make anyone have to choose between pursuing the mission they love and being treated decently, because that’s how it starts. People say, ‘I want this, so I’ll put up with that.’ Let’s stop that. You do not have to choose. The effect of having an environment that allows mistreatment versus an environment that doesn’t tolerate it is the difference between one that is performing and one that isn’t, and we can’t afford not to perform.”

Gordon discussed work-life balance and told the audience that today she feels fulfilled in everything she does, but that wasn’t always the case. When she was an intelligence officer, she worked all day, went home to see her kids, and returned to the office from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Once, when her husband was away, she got a call from her 9-year-old daughter saying that her 13-year-old son had run away. By the time she got home, he’d come back, but she found his letter that said he’d run away because he felt so badly about getting an 89 on his math test.

“I realized I couldn’t be a great mom and a great intelligence officer, so I walked in and gave my two-weeks notice and gave up half my family’s income to do the thing I thought I needed to do,” Gordon said. She acknowledged it was scary to leave work because she was afraid she wouldn’t be a “cool kid” any more. But in time she learned, “You are what you are.”

Gordon lit up when at attendee asked about her dog. Astro is a 1-year-old, 100-pound Greater Swiss Mountain dog who she said helps ground her. To have balance in a profession that can consume you, she advised, keep something to yourself. “The idea that I go home every night to Astro and Jim (her husband) is awesome.”


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